Lately several important events triggered a lot of discussions in the Russian media.
In January, Russian president Vladimir Putin made a proposal for making many different changes in Russian constitution. Many commentators regarded some of the changes as directed to making the president’s power absolute, putting all the branches of Russian government under presidential control.
Commentators are guessing about the meaning of Putin’s proposal. Some think he is planning to keep power as the president or under some other title after the end of his six-year term in 2024 until the end of his life; others suspect that the changes in Constitution are intended to execute some secret plan of transition of power. Some even think that Putin is preparing for his unexpected retirement.
Putin’s proposal of constitution changes was followed by the unexpected resignation of the entire previous government led by Dmitry Medvedev. On January 21, 2020, Putin signed a presidential decree on forming the new Cabinet with the new Prime Minister, previously almost unknown Mikhail Mishustin. In his interview to the state press agency TASS, Putin explained that the decision of the change of the Cabinet was made solely by him alone, and nobody of old or new members of the government had known about this decision prior to his announcement. Some commentators think that the change of the Cabinet is another Putin’s attempt to consolidate his control.
The discussions in the Russian media and especially on Internet about meaning of these events are very hot.
For better understanding of risks/fears Russian people have about Putin’s possible resigning from the presidency and politics, “Center for Current Policy” (CCP) is a private company working in the field of political analysis, consulting, expert reviews, monitoring and research. It conducts research based on four focus groups in Moscow, Perm, Volgograd and Irkutsk on January 29, 2020.
As a result of the research CCP published a report, which was covered and quoted by many representatives of Russian media.
The report doesn’t present any figures, but informs: “public surveys demonstrate that more than a half of all focus groups’ members believe that if Putin leaves, the situation in Russia will deteriorate, while only ten percent of respondents consider the situation will improve.”
The report presents a lot of quotes from the comments of the participants of the focus groups, supporting Russians’ fears triggered by the possibility of Putin’s exit from the presidency.
According to the report the first risk involves escalation of fight for power between different political groups and redistribution of wealth.
The focus groups’ respondents pointed out several factors contributing to the high estimation of this risk:
• understanding of Putin’s key role in maintaining stability in Russia:
The whole country relies on this person,
Russia will fall into chaos,
Putin proved to be the stability guarantor: who knows what’ll happen if he leaves;
• expectation that tensions between elites will escalate in case the incumbent president leaves office:
The conflict between “Kremlin and different agencies;
• assumption that big business companies will pursue their selfish interests throughout the transition period:
It’s clear … they’ll fight like dogs over a bone,
All officials will change, all the positions,
They will sell out Russia;
• presence of opposing movements and potential instability of the majority party after Putin’s leave:
Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, Yavlisnky: it’ll be a mess,
United Russia, the ruling party, will collapse and everyone will fight for a bigger piece of the cake,
Squabbling will follow;
• negative historical background in the country:
It’s always been like this; our history has seen it many times.
• absence of a worthy successor:
I can’t see a successor, someone to become the president instead of Putin,
No matter how good or bad he is I can’t imagine someone taking his place.
• Besides, the respondents expressed their concerns that foreign countries may have a negative influence on the new president:
One can put one’s trust in someone who promises to follow some principles, make some ideas come true and so on. But who knows what’s going to happen when this someone becomes the president? How can one be sure this person won’t change his views, sell out to the USA for a billion dollars, a tropical island, something like this?
The second risk is the reduction of state’s social responsibilities, cancelation of national projects.
The focus groups’ members noted Putin plays a decisive role in expanding social support incentives and underlined risks of default on social responsibilities by a new government:
There’s a chance they’ll cancel the maternity capital,
Payments for children aged 3-7 may get cancelled: they’ll say it’s not profitable so it’s needless,
Most social programs will be suspended because they’re already developing slowly; it’s the President who keeps them all in motion and without him everything’ll come to an end,
People’s welfare will crumble.
Another president may fully disagree with existing social programs.
New authorities will change the budget to cut expenses»,
They’ll say they’re not responsible for Putin’s promises,
If something goes wrong the government will say they have no money to spend,
If economic situation gets worse, they’ll raise taxes to get the money.
Everyone afraid of this.
The third risk is the deterioration of Russia’s global status and even a threat of foreign policy failures.
The respondents specifically emphasize the respect and authority Putin has on the global level and fear that a new head of state won’t demonstrate similar personal qualities:
Putin is valued high all over the world, his opinions and decisions can’t be ignored,
If someone else gets the office, foreign governments may think «Well, we can control this one»,
They’ll smother us even harder,
Putin is a man of authority. He symbolizes the country — and who knows what happens if he leaves? I think other counties think the same.
Other risk factors involve potential foreign policy failures, in particular related to the Crimea and Post-Soviet countries:
They may try to make us give Crimea back», the respondents underline «we won’t give it back willingly — they’ll have to start a war»,
They’ll depose governments in Belarus and Kazakhstan and then it’ll be our turn,
NATO will get too close to our borders,
They’ll smother us even harder.
The focus groups stressed that one of Putin’s top priorities is to protect the country on the international level, predominantly from the USA:
The major upside of Putin’s rule is that our country is protected from the threats that keep on coming from the US,
Without Putin Russia would’ve ceased to exist,
If Putin leaves the office, this will make the US actions bolder,
America is spending money to destabilize Russia).
There’s fear that unpredictable actions will be made by the US that for now is deterred by Putin:
I’m afraid of Americans, I really am, their government is insane.
The fourth risk is the disruption of power succession.
A disruption of power succession is understood by the respondents as a refusal of a new president to follow Putin’s political course:
A new president may have a different agenda, he will start doing things his way and adopt the laws he sees fit,
A new president will make everything different,
Putin’s course won’t be followed.
The “Center for Current Policy” report states:
Although prevailing interpretations in the media claim that one way or another Putin will stay in power even after 2024, the head of state presumably implies he is not going to hold office forever and the amendments he has proposed are not aimed at expanding his current presidential term.
According to political discourse and public opinion, Putin has become the symbol of domestic political stability and the System of power itself. The idea that Putin as the leader of modern Russia has no alternatives is often described as one of the essential conditions for normal functioning of ‘Putin’s state’.
On Feb 21, Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov officially commented on the report of the “Center for Current Policy”:
“I want to ask fellow political scientists: Why are you all the time talking about Putin’s leaving? Putin is at the beginning of his presidential term. He is not going anywhere. He is the President of the Russian Federation, I repeat, at the beginning of his electoral term.”