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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

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