Putin's Succession Conundrum

How Authoritarians Navigate the Challenge

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with candidates who participated in the last presidential election at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 2018. Yuri Kadobnov / REUTERS

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.

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