Putin weighs fu­ture op­tions as he marks 20 years in power

The Saline Courier - - NEWS -

MOSCOW — As Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin marks two decades in power , he boasts about his achieve­ments but re­mains coy about his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture — a ret­i­cence that fu­els wild spec­u­la­tion about his in­ten­tions.

Putin points to the re­vival of Rus­sia’s global clout, in­dus­trial mod­ern­iza­tion, boom­ing agri­cul­tural ex­ports and a resur­gent mil­i­tary as key re­sults of his ten­ure that be­gan on Dec. 31, 1999. On that day, Rus­sia’s first Pres­i­dent

Boris Yeltsin abruptly stepped down and named the for­mer KGB of­fi­cer his suc­ces­sor, paving the way for his elec­tion three months later.

Crit­ics ac­cuse Putin of rolling back post-soviet free­doms to es­tab­lish tight con­trol over the po­lit­i­cal scene, marginal­ize the op­po­si­tion and sti­fle crit­i­cal me­dia. They hold him re­spon­si­ble for ten­sions with the West af­ter Rus­sia’s 2014 an­nex­a­tion of Ukraine’s Crimea, which bol­stered his ap­proval rat­ings but trig­gered U.S. and Euro­pean sanc­tions.

“Putin stopped the nor­mal de­vel­op­ment of Rus­sia as a nor­mal mar­ket econ­omy and a nor­mal po­lit­i­cal democ­racy” and turned the coun­try into a

“global spoiler,” said An­drei Kolesnikov, a re­searcher with the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter.

Krem­lin watch­ers are try­ing to pre­dict what will hap­pen af­ter Putin’s cur­rent six-year term ends in 2024. They agree on one thing: Putin, Rus­sia’s longest­serv­ing leader since Soviet dic­ta­tor Josef Stalin, will likely stay at the helm.

A fit­ness fan, the 67-year old Putin ap­pears in good shape to stay on. He reg­u­larly prac­tices judo, skis and plays ice hockey in a demon­stra­tion of his vigor.

He re­mains widely pop­u­lar, although the pro­pa­ganda ef­fect of Crimea’s an­nex­a­tion has worn off amid stag­nant liv­ing stan­dards, a rise in the re­tire­ment age and other do­mes­tic chal­lenges.

Putin can eas­ily use the rub­ber-stamp par­lia­ment to scrap term lim­its, but most ob­servers ex­pect him to take a less straight­for­ward ap­proach. A law fac­ulty grad­u­ate, the Rus­sian leader prefers more del­i­cate meth­ods that have a demo­cratic ve­neer.

Ear­lier this month, Putin hinted at pos­si­ble con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments to re-dis­trib­ute pow­ers among the pres­i­dent, the Cab­i­net and par­lia­ment.

He didn’t spec­ify what changes could be made, but the an­nounce­ment may sig­nal his in­ten­tion to trim pres­i­den­tial pow­ers and con­tinue rul­ing the coun­try as prime min­is­ter.

There are other op­por­tu­ni­ties. Kaza­khstan’s long­time leader Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev of­fered an ex­am­ple this year when he abruptly re­signed and had his pro­tege elected pres­i­dent in a snap vote.

The 79-year-old Nazarbayev re­tained his grip on power by se­cur­ing a prom­i­nent po­si­tion as head of the na­tion’s se­cu­rity coun­cil.

There is an­other, more dra­matic op­tion. Many in neigh­bor­ing Be­larus fear that the Krem­lin could push for a full merger of the two ex-soviet al­lies to al­low

Putin to be­come the head of a new uni­fied state.

When asked re­cently if he was con­sid­er­ing it, Putin dodged the ques­tion.

Each of those po­ten­tial op­tions car­ries ma­jor risks.

Putin moved into the prime min­is­ter’s seat from 2008-2012 af­ter eight years as pres­i­dent to ob­serve a con­sti­tu­tional limit of two con­sec­u­tive terms, al­low­ing Dmitry Medvedev to take the top seat.

Putin con­tin­ued call­ing the shots un­der Medvedev, who obe­di­ently stepped down af­ter one term. Putin ben­e­fited from his place­holder’s move to ex­tend the pres­i­den­tial term to six years, but still wasn’t quite happy with the “tan­dem rule.”

Putin was par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal of Medvedev’s de­ci­sion to let the United Na­tions give the go-ahead to a 2011 West­ern air cam­paign in Libya that helped oust long­time dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi and plunged the coun­try into chaos.

And at home, the an­nounce­ment of Putin’s re­turn to the pres­i­dency sparked mas­sive protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 and caused a rift among elites. Putin’s aides sus­pected some of Medvedev’s lieu­tenants of prod­ding their boss to stay for a sec­ond term and en­cour­ag­ing the protests.

Putin’s state­ment this month about a pos­si­ble change to the con­sti­tu­tion to limit the pres­i­dent to just two terms al­to­gether was widely in­ter­preted as a sig­nal that he was con­tem­plat­ing cre­at­ing a new gov­ern­ing po­si­tion for him­self while trim­ming the author­ity of his suc­ces­sor.

If Putin chooses to be­come prime min­is­ter with new broad pow­ers, it may raise other threats.

By em­pow­er­ing a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity to name the prime min­is­ter, Putin would be­come more vul­ner­a­ble be­cause he will de­pend on the rul­ing party’s per­for­mance. While Putin’s ap­proval rat­ings have re­mained high, the pop­u­lar­ity of the main Krem­lindi­rected party, the United Rus­sia, has plum­meted and the pres­i­dent has kept it at a dis­tance.

A merger with Be­larus to cre­ate a new lead­er­ship po­si­tion has even greater risks. The prospect may ex­cite some Rus­sians who dream about re­vival of im­pe­rial glory, but it is cer­tain to trig­ger strong re­sis­tance in Be­larus and fur­ther an­tag­o­nize the West.

Be­larus’ au­thor­i­tar­ian Pres­i­dent Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in of­fice for more than a quar­ter-cen­tury, has vowed to up­hold Be­larus’ postso­viet in­de­pen­dence. While the Krem­lin has pres­sured him by rais­ing en­ergy prices and cut­ting sub­si­dies, Lukashenko has re­mained adamant and even warned re­cently that Rus­sia’s at­tempt to take over his coun­try could trig­ger a war with NATO.

“The in­ter­est of Lukashenko is to be the dic­ta­tor of his own na­tion state, not the per­son who will be de­pen­dent on the will of Putin,” Kolesnikov said.

What­ever path Putin chooses, he’s widely ex­pected to keep his in­ten­tions se­cret un­til the last mo­ment.

“This un­cer­tainty has its ad­van­tages — you can play groups of in­ter­ests against each other, you can hold them in this sit­u­a­tion of un­cer­tainty,” said Moscow­based po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Yeka­te­rina Shul­man. “But it can’t go on for too long be­cause it pro­vokes in­fight­ing within the elites.”

She noted that the Krem­lin may call the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions that are cur­rently set for 2021 at an ear­lier date be­fore ap­proval rat­ings plum­met.

“It’s im­por­tant to have a loyal ma­jor­ity in the par­lia­ment,” Shul­man said. “How to achieve this is a tricky ques­tion.”

Shul­man ar­gued that the Kaza­khstan-style sce­nario ap­pears the most likely. She said stay­ing at the helm but shar­ing author­ity with his suc­ces­sor would al­low Putin to tem­per an in­evitable suc­ces­sion bat­tle among his lieu­tenants.

“The dif­fi­culty in the suc­ces­sor model is that the whole amount of power vested in the cur­rent pres­i­dent is un­trans­fer­able in­deed to any other per­son,” Shul­man said. “But if this power is re­dis­tributed, at least part of it, then it’s eas­ier for the de­ci­sion-mak­ers to agree on the fig­ure of the po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor.”

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