The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
On Sunday, Vladimir Putin was elected to his second consecutive term as Russia’s president. Under current constitutional law, he has six years to either identify a successor and orchestrate a leadership transition or else change the rules to allow him to remain in power after 2024. Anxiety among the Russian public, and especially the elite, will doubtless build as the deadline approaches.
Putin’s conundrum is a common one in authoritarian regimes, especially those where power is highly concentrated in the hands of one individual. These political systems lack institutionalized mechanisms for leadership transition and often collapse when a leader exits. Research on authoritarianism shows that Putin and leaders in his position have three primary options for succession. Before 2024, in other words, one of the following scenarios is likely to unfold.
The most straightforward path would be for Putin to identify a successor and orchestrate an election to legitimize his chosen protégé and manage a power handover. This option might look similar to Putin’s strategy in 2008, when he abided by term limits and passed the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev for four years while retaining real power as prime minister. Or, in a less likely scenario, it might mean Putin actually giving up de facto control. Relative to other authoritarians, Putin has remarkable latitude to select his preferred heir. Research by the authoritarianism expert Jason Brownlee shows that when dictators predate or create their political party, they have more control over who will replace them than when they bargain with a party that predates their tenure. (United Russia was formed in 1999 to support Putin’s candidacy.) The experience of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak illustrates this point. In Mubarak’s case, signs that he had planned to install his son Gamal as his replacement sparked resistance in part because the National Democratic Party—established under his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1976—saw it as a violation of the leadership selection process.
Although this option seems straightforward, it is not without risks. Research shows that when authoritarian incumbents do not stand in elections but instead throw their weight behind a chosen successor, there is an elevated risk that their candidate will lose the race. With incumbents absent from the ballot, the opposition’s sense of possible victory increases, as does elite uncertainty about the regime’s future longevity. Both undermine the regime’s odds of coming out on top. Although Medvedev won handily in 2008, history is littered with examples where the transition did not play out so smoothly. The handpicked successor of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who had governed that country for 23 years, lost the election in 2002. The same is true of the candidate endorsed by Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings, who lost the election in 2000. Chosen successors are particularly likely to lose races when the economy is struggling. This makes such an outcome a strong possibility for Russia given Putin’s unwillingness to make needed economic reforms and the intensification of Western sanctions.
The second path that Putin could follow would be to change the constitution to strengthen the legislature or other governing body and then to change his job title. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took this route to retain control. He used a national referendum to create a strong presidential system, stepped down as prime minister, and was elected president in 2014. Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan appears to be betting on the same approach. He too leveraged a constitutional referendum to change the balance of power (in his case empowering the legislature) and is now poised to take over the premiership when his presidential term ends in April. This path is wide-open to Putin, who has the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to alter the constitution.
Putin’s third option is to amend the Russian constitution to extend term limits or remove them altogether, as President Xi Jinping just did in China. Extending or abolishing term limits is a common power play in dictatorships, as the experiences of Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni illustrate. The risk here, however, is that it could catalyze protests among citizens incensed by the injustice of Putin’s imposition. Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to extend term limits in Burkina Faso in 2014 led to mass protests that forced him to leave office after 27 years in power. And although Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza endured protests resulting from his push to extend term limits in 2015, the country continues to experience unrest. That said, Putin may learn from Xi’s recent success and look to extend or remove term limits earlier rather than later in his term, avoiding the succession pressure that could build over the course of the next six years.
Putin may learn from Xi’s recent success and look to extend or remove term limits earlier rather than later in his term.
If trends elsewhere are any indicator, we are likely to see Putin remove term limits and remain in power. Across the globe, leaders are showing an increasing proclivity for extending or removing term limits to remain in office. Using data from the Comparative Constitutions Project, we find that term limit extensions in dictatorships have quadrupled since the end of the Cold War. Putin could very well follow suit. He went to great lengths in his presidential campaign to convince voters that only he can lead Russia. One of his aides went so far as to claim that there would be no Russia without Putin. Sentiments like this suggest that for Putin, a play to maintain power is in the works.
Once leaders abolish term limits, however, the political implications for the regime become uncertain. If Putin does indeed choose this option, the most stable scenario would be for him to remain in power until his natural death. Perhaps surprisingly, the passing of a leader while still in office offers a relatively smooth form of leadership transition. A review of the 79 authoritarian leaders who died of natural causes in office between 1946 and 2012 reveals the regime remained intact that year 92 percent of the time. Even highly personalized regimes such as Russia’s survived the death of a leader 78 percent of the time. The experiences of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan illustrate this: both regimes withstood the deaths of their longtime respective leaders, Saparmurat Niyazov and Islam Karimov.
If, however, the Russian public or Putin’s inner circle grow tired of his reign, the fate of the regime looks far more dismal. Data from 1946 to 2012 show that when highly personalized dictators exited office by means other than natural death, the regime collapsed along with the leader 74 percent of the time. Moreover, a new dictatorship is far more likely to emerge in its place than a more liberalized regime. Although a decision to prolong Putin’s time in office might seem appealing to Putin’s inner circle—allowing them to retain access to the perks of power in the near term—they would become more vulnerable in the long run as a consequence.
Putin and the Russian public have long known that a succession decision was on the horizon. As of Sunday, the ticking clock grew louder.