Putin Pays Backhanded Tribute to Democracy

In his new bid to cling to power, Russia’s authoritarian president pretends to obey constitutional norms.

A close-up of Vladimir Putin
Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty

Yesterday’s government shake-up in Moscow and the institutional changes Vladimir Putin proposed with it are plainly a response to what Russian observers call “Problem-24.” As in 2024—when Putin’s current, fourth presidential term expires.

In 2024, Putin will turn 72. He will have been in power for 24 years. Because of the toxic investment climate, rife with bureaucratic racketeering and corruption, Russia’s economy is almost certain to continue to be mired in a depression, with no prospect of steady and significant growth anytime soon. Poverty is rising. People are telling pollsters that they hate the authorities at every level, from town mayors to the prime minister, most or all of whom are viewed as thieving, incompetent, and callous. The quality of health care and education is steadily going down, and social mobility is blocked by nepotism and bribery at every turn.

Yet there is little doubt that Putin will want to go on ruling. First, because he is said to despise those who resign, like Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev—whom he reportedly dislikes the most of Russia’s leaders. But most important because, after 24 years, he can’t imagine the country without himself at the center. It is also, finally, a personal-security matter: The regime he built will be in serious danger of destabilization and perhaps disintegration, and he may end up in jail or worse.

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.

Will the changes that Putin announced yesterday work in Russia now? Will this give Putin enough legitimacy to continue to rule after 2024?

Not very likely. Having forged the most cynical of all Russian political regimes, Putin’s attempt to build public enthusiasm for what looks like a slightly tarted-up preservation of personal power should cause at best a few yawns, while annoyance and sarcasm are far more plausible responses.

Unlike the surface changes he announced yesterday, Putin has been unwilling to institute real structural reforms to reduce corruption’s stranglehold and boost growth: scaling down the state control of the economy, defending property rights in less servile courts, introducing greater government transparency and responsibility with less propaganda and more truth on TV and real opposition in the Parliament.

Rightly afraid that such changes would eventually erode his regime (Gorbachev again!), in the run-up to the third presidency in 2012, Putin shifted the foundation of his regime’s legitimacy from economic growth to greater repression at home and aggression abroad. The war on Ukraine, the seizure of Crimea, and the war in Syria followed. He has become a wartime president: the defender of a Russia besieged by enemies, yet somehow, and at the same time, the restorer of the Soviet Union’s superpower glory. Having saddled the tiger of militarized patriotism, Putin at least remains more popular than the rest of his government. Yet he will find it very hard to dismount.

The Nazarbayev option was worth a shot. But if Putin’s stab at Problem-24 hurts his approval ratings, his neighbors should watch out. Another jolt of patriotic hysteria, even another Crimea, is still very much on the table.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Vladimir Putin was not yet the head of Russia's advisory state council.