Enter the measures Putin proposed yesterday: dismissing Dmitry Medvedev, the very unpopular prime minister; limiting the presidency to two terms, while shifting more power to the Parliament (where Putin’s United Russia party has an overwhelming majority); and elevating the advisory state council, a heretofore obscure government body that Putin just happens to lead, to the pinnacle of power in Russia.*
Call it the Nazarbayev strategy: a series of shifts at the top of the government pyramid with the current leader, although somewhat in the background, still firmly in charge. When President Nursultan Nazarbayev of neighboring Kazakhstan announced at 79 what was billed as his resignation last year, he kept the chairmanship of the security council, which controlled the police and the military; remained the head of the Nur Otan party, which dominated the Parliament; and expected the new president to seek his approval for key ministerial appointments. For good measure, Nazarbayev had the capital of the country renamed after him; assigned himself the title of yelbasy, or “national leader”; and put his daughter in charge of the country’s Senate. Nazarbayev, in turn, was following the example of China’s Deng Xiaoping, who gradually gave up all government titles but kept, until 1989, the one that mattered the most: the chairman of the Central Military Commission.
For all the power that Putin wields in Russia, very few people can rule a country in the 21st century without at least a veneer of democratic procedure. Putin has always paid lip service to “democracy” and “freedom.” Plus, as a lawyer by training, he tends to respect the letter of Russia’s Boris Yeltsin–era constitution—no matter how flagrantly he violates its spirit. Putin won a four-year term as president in 2000 and was reelected in 2004. Going for a third term in 2008 would have required changing the constitution. Putin did not want to do it, so Medvedev sat in for him for a term, while Putin nominally stepped aside to serve as prime minister.
Putin came back, this time for two six-year terms, in 2012 and 2018. He can’t do another Medvedev maneuver, partly because he is actuarially challenged. After six years waiting out his placeholder, Putin would resume the presidency again at 78. Even in Russia, this would be unpopular. Furthermore, Putin is far more desperate politically than in 2008, when he bequeathed Medvedev a Russia in which personal income had increased by as much as 10 percent a year annually since 2000. He had become a hero and could sit out for four years without his popularity becoming tarnished. By contrast, Russia’s annual growth has averaged 1 percent for the past 10 years, and his approval rating is hovering dangerously close to where it was in late 2013 and early 2014, before he annexed Crimea. He cannot delegate power, and he cannot avoid institutional changes to secure his rule.