Putin’s Next Presidential Term Will Be Different

By October 1, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 601, October 1, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Russia will hold its next presidential elections in March 2018, and current president Vladimir Putin has yet to announce his intention to run. Russians are accustomed to Putin’s late announcements of his candidacy (as occurred in 2004 and 2012), and he is widely expected to run. He will almost certainly win, but will have to find ways to handle fundamentally different domestic circumstances both during the election and after it.

For the past several years, Vladimir Putin’s government has been facing major challenges both at home and abroad. In terms of foreign policy, Russia experienced several serious failures. In 2014, when the Euromaidan took place and Russia grabbed Crimea and supported separatists in Donbass, Kiev became unequivocally pro-western in its foreign policy course. In the same year, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia all signed EU association agreements and stepped up military cooperation with NATO members and other western states.

Moscow has also experienced problems with breakaway territories across the former Soviet space. Russia once used the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria to curtail the ability of those countries to enter the EU and/or NATO, but Moscow is having more and more difficulty maneuvering in so many diverse conflicts. Various actors are trying to play their own games independently of Moscow, and anti-Russian sentiment is growing among local populations (for instance, in Abkhazia).

Geography also complicates Moscow’s ability to act decisively. For instance, the Transnistria region, where it has approximately 1,500 troops as peacekeepers, was essentially cut off from Russia once Ukraine closed transit routes through its territory.

To make matters worse, Russian foreign policy setbacks are not limited to the western borderlands or the South Caucasus. Over the past few years of Putin’s rule, it has become clear that Russian influence in the strategically important Central Asian region is receding. It is true that Russia remains a predominant military power with military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but on the economic front, China has cemented its dominance. China has even made inroads into the security realm by holding exercises with the Tajik and Kyrgyz militaries.

There are even unpleasant developments on the cultural level. As the number of Russian speakers decreases around the world, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are thinking of getting rid of the Cyrillic alphabet and replacing it with the Latin one.

On a broader geopolitical level, Russia is feeling pressure from the US and the EU. It is unlikely that the sanctions imposed on Russia will be lifted any time soon, and despite Trump’s occasionally positive statements on Russia, Washington’s overall foreign policy thrust is decidedly anti-Russian. The EU too is now much invigorated, as Putin’s gamble to revive far-right parties across the continent largely failed with Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France.

However, what worries the Russian leadership the most is the situation inside the country. In the past, Putin built his election campaigns on the Russian population’s wider concerns, such as security against terrorism and Chechen insurgency, or the economic progress that took place before 2014. Today, however, there is a lack of rallying ideas that would be attractive to the Russian people. This could jeopardize Putin’s rule in the long run.

There is an even more fundamental issue. It is getting more and more difficult for Russians to understand why Putin’s presidency should go on for another six years. Next year, Putin’s rule – which has already lasted 17 years – will become the longest since Stalin’s. There is already an entire generation of young Russians who have known only Putin as the country’s leader.

This is very worrisome for the Russian government, as it is the younger population that is the most opposition-minded. This was well reflected in the composition of the countrywide protests that have hit Russia since 2016.

Although Putin is likely to run for the presidency once again, he has yet to find a platform on which to run. He could justify his candidacy by citing the need to oppose a unified western front against Russia, but as protests have shown, many Russians believe this front arose as a direct consequence of Putin’s unsuccessful foreign policy. Other platforms, such as the struggle against terrorism and separatism, will not work as well this time as they have in the past. Putin has to find a way to convince Russians, particularly younger Russians, why they need his continued rule.

With that said, Putin is widely expected to win, as he has no strong opposition. The only powerful opposition figure, Aleksey Navalny, famous for his anti-corruption videos, is barred from participating in the upcoming elections.

Over the past two years, there has been a consolidation of power in Putin’s hands. Laws were introduced limiting internet freedom and the work of foreign and local NGOs. Putin also created a powerful National Guard of up to 300,000 troops, essentially under his control, to snuff out future resistance. Further limits have also been placed on regional governments to solidify the Kremlin’s control over remote regions. For instance, Moscow chose not to continue its power-sharing agreement with Kazan. This ended the concept of Russia as a federation state, as Tatarstan was the last region (out of 46 in the early 2000s) to have its own somewhat autonomous powers.

Putin’s fourth presidential term will be quite different from his previous terms. The Kremlin will continue to experience serious problems in terms of foreign policy, the economy, and internal stability. This will make a further concentration of power under Putin’s rule more likely, which could have foreign policy ramifications.

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Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles focused on military and political developments across the former Soviet space.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family