Editors’ note: Russian President Vladimir Putin will run for reelection in March 2024, many news outlets are reporting, ending many months of speculation. With this in mind, we’re featuring an archival piece by Sharon Rivera and Henry Hale that examines a survey of Russian elites to offer insight into Putin’s hold on power. Their analysis was originally published in the Washington Post on July 1, 2020.
Russians recently voted on constitutional amendments that would allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until the year 2036, thanks to changes to Russia’s presidential term limits. Putin recently justified these reforms as necessary to prevent a disruptive succession struggle.
Is his plan working? Not entirely, according to data from the Survey of Russian Elites (SRE). As lame ducks go, Putin is now a little less lame than before, but only in some ways.
Putin’s lame duck problem
Stability in Putin’s Russia hinges on the people around the president believing he will be in charge long into the future.
Putin sits atop a power “pyramid” containing many rival power networks that operate behind the scenes. Each is bound to a political patron through personal connections that interpenetrate state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and political parties.
When senior members of these power networks are confident Putin is here to stay, they keep their political and economic rivalries quiet and let Putin be the arbiter among them. But once they suspect he is on his way out, all bets are off. Hidden rivalries can break into the open as the most ambitious people around the president seek to shape the post-Putin future.
Putin is acutely aware he faces exactly this problem. Russia’s 1993 Constitution allows for only two consecutive terms as president, which would require Putin to exit office by 2024. With that restriction in place, many within Russia’s power elite began to doubt Putin’s resolve to hold onto full power.
His answer? On Jan. 15, 2020, Putin announced a raft of constitutional amendments. Initially denying these were designed to keep him in power, he sprang a surprise March 10, 2020: An additional amendment would reset his term-limit clock so he could run for two additional six-year presidential terms beginning in 2024. The week-long voting, postponed by the pandemic from April, kicked off June 25 with early polling and concludes before July 1.
How we did our research
Thanks to lucky timing, the 2020 SRE serves up a unique opportunity to assess how elites view Putin’s proposals.
Just as it did four years ago, the SRE interviewed Moscow-based elites connected in some way with foreign policy issues. This survey series includes 1,909 high-ranking individuals in Russia’s federal bureaucracy, parliament, military and security agencies, state-owned enterprises, private businesses, scientific and educational institutions with strong international connections, and media outlets that were selected using quota sampling. The 2020 survey, the eighth in the series, includes 245 respondents.
Our Moscow-based partner conducted mostly face-to-face interviews (14 percent were online) from Feb. 19 to March 19, 2020. This means about two-thirds of the survey responses were logged before Putin’s surprise March 10 announcement on the term limits workaround, and one-third on or after that day. By comparing patterns in responses before and after March 10, we can assess how Russia’s elites feel about Putin’s announcement.
The figure below excludes the small percentage of respondents who refused to answer this question. In 2020, we asked respondents:
Which of the following scenarios do you think are very likely, likely, unlikely, or very unlikely in the next ten years?
— A party or movement other than United Russia will come to power.
— A politician other than Vladimir Putin will become the most powerful person in Russia.
Putin’s gambit may pay off
In four key ways, we find that Putin’s constitutional gambit has paid off in terms of mitigating his lame duck problem.
First, the share of respondents who think Putin initiated the constitutional reform process to improve governance fell from 31 percent before the March 10 announcement to 19 percent, while the share stating it was about preserving Putin’s power rose from 32 percent to 38 percent.
Second, more respondents think Putin intends to hold onto power. The SRE asked elites how they thought Putin would distribute power whenever he decides to leave the presidency. Before March 10, 29 percent thought he would hand off power to a successor. Afterward, just 10 percent held this view. The share expecting Putin to keep at least some (or all) power for himself despite leaving his presidential post rose from 37 percent to 54 percent.
Third, more respondents are confident of Putin’s and his United Russia Party’s hold on power. As the figure below shows, before March 10, a surprisingly high 61 percent of elites thought it likely or very likely that someone other than Putin would come to power in the next decade, while 32 percent believed a party other than United Russia would become dominant. Afterward, these figures were just 40 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly to Putin, the share of respondents who viewed a succession struggle as an “utmost danger” to Russia diminished from 22 percent to just 6 percent.
But Putin’s March 10 move introduces other uncertainties
One good indicator of uncertainty is the share responding “don’t know” to a given survey question. By this measure, the SRE finds uncertainty rising with respect to practically all issues related to future political arrangements.
In particular, Putin has left many elites guessing as to exactly when he will leave power. In the group interviewed after March 10, 19 percent were unable to say when they thought Putin would step down — only 2 percent of the pre-March 10 group felt that way.
Similar upticks in uncertainty are evident from other questions we asked about political change in Russia — the prospects for new independent parties in the parliament, the preferred balance of presidential and parliamentary power, the pressures that drove Putin to propose the amendments, and the relative benefits of the constitutional reforms.
Overall, the 2020 SRE indicates Putin’s constitutional gambit doesn’t fully solve the succession issue. More jockeying among elites to position themselves for success in an eventual post-Putin era seems likely.
We see at least three reasons for this. One is that uncertainty still remains among elites about whether Putin will take advantage of his term-limit maneuver.
Perhaps more fundamentally, though, Putin can’t escape another important factor: his age. He will be over 70 when the next scheduled presidential election rolls around in 2024. This fact surely contributes to doubts that he will remain in power until 2036.
Finally, Russia is reeling from a coronavirus health crisis that largely developed after the SRE was conducted. The pandemic is exposing the limitations of Putin’s centralized rule and is hurting the economy. Uncertainty about Putin’s longevity in office may be even greater now.
Sharon Werning Rivera is Sidney Wertimer Professor of Government and Director of Russian Studies at Hamilton College. She thanks her Levitt Summer Research Group (Max Gersch, Alexander Nemeth, Hà Trần and Huzefah Umer) for assistance with the data.
Henry E. Hale is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.