Editor's Note: This is the third part of a three-part series on Russia's leadership after President Vladimir Putin eventually leaves office. Part 1 revisited Putin's rise to power; Part 2 examined Russia's demographics, energy sector and Putin's political changes; and Part 3 will explore whether the political systems Putin has built will survive him.
With the new system known as Politburo 2.0, Russian President Vladimir Putin has created the framework for easier leadership transitions. But his new system is untested. Whether a new generation capable of replacing Putin or any of his Politburo members rises up remains to be seen.
The Cult of Personality
Despite the emergence of Politburo 2.0, the Russian system still centers on the personality of Putin — probably the government's largest structural risk. The same problem existed under Stalin's Politburo system. When the former Soviet leader died in 1953, a formal system was in place that theoretically would balance the three top personalities against each other: Nikita Khrushchev (the industrialist), Lavrentiy Beria (security services) and Vyacheslav Molotov (nationalist and foreign relations).
But once Stalin, the supreme arbiter, was dead, a violent three-way power struggle broke out. Beria — who oversaw the security services, the strongest power base in Russia — could logically have been seen as the one who would win. Of the three, he was also most tied into Stalin's legacy and policies. But Molotov and Khrushchev initially joined forces to take Beria down, after which Khrushchev emerged the winner. Though Khrushchev was loyal to Stalin and his policies while the Soviet leader was alive, once in power he promptly initiated a sharp change in course (the so-called "de-Stalinization") that rippled through every sector of the state.
As with Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev began grooming Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to succeed him in a generational change to take place after Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko acted as interim heads. That botched generational change in leadership famously ended up contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Should Putin actually name a successor or set of successors, it is not clear that person would continue his strategies. There is no guarantee a scenario similar to the post-Stalin and post-Brezhnev transitions would not occur once Putin is out of the way.
During a brief incident in 2012, Putin canceled various meetings and trips to deal with what his spokesman called a minor health issue. This was the first time Putin's physical vulnerabilities publicly came into question. As internal and external pressures build on Russia, many Kremlin elites are beginning to shore up their positions in anticipation of when they will no longer enjoy the security of having Putin in power. For example, Rosneft chief Igor Sechin — long tied to Putin's power — is trying to expand his power-base from overseeing just the oil sector to overseeing natural gas. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich is attempting to expand his role as a technocrat under Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to include oversight of Rosneft's future developments. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin meanwhile has been distancing himself from the ruling United Russia party so Russian voters will see him as more of an independent player ahead of Moscow mayoral elections — and possibly for a bid to succeed Putin.
There is also the question of who will succeed Putin's Politburo members. Excluding Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Vyacheslav Volodin (who are 47 and 49 respectively), the Politburo members are all in their 50s and 60s — and the life expectancy of the average Russian man is 69 years.
The current elite is grooming their children to succeed them. More than a dozen of the children of Russia's most powerful elites already are assuming powerful positions across Russia, preparing for the day when the present ruling generation passes. Like any nepotism, this could be dangerous to Russia if these individuals are ascending the ranks due to family ties and not due to their merits. If the former is the case, then the competence of Russia's future leaders is in doubt.
Russia's future after Putin is uncertain. Russia has had a strong past decade under its current leadership — which restored its domestic stability and regional influence and even saw it re-emerge onto the international stage. But as significant challenges mount inside and outside Russia, Moscow needs a single unifier to succeed Putin who can keep the country consolidated at all levels to respond to the new challenges. Whether such a figure will follow Putin is unclear.
Putin is aggressively planning for the future while he still can. He is setting up a new system of government theoretically not as dependent on personalities — though such a system will take years to emerge, if it ever does. In the immediate term, the system is still very much dependent on Putin's personality and his ability to arbitrate among the various government factions.
No matter how well laid Putin's plans, history is replete with examples of Moscow preparing for a leadership transition only for destabilization to erupt — destabilization that has even included the collapse of the state. Putin's plans for political transition thus are far from guaranteed to go smoothly, and could even end disastrously. Russia has re-emerged from such destabilizations in the past, but that is no guarantee that the country will continue to hold onto the power it currently enjoys.