Staunton, December 20 – In the minds of some, Vladimir Putin used his press conference December 18 to demonstrate his conviction that he will remain president of Russia forever, ever more Russian commentators are asking “What will be the situation after Putin?”
Among those doing so is Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a historian and journalist, who gave exactly that title to an article he published this week. Such questioning about a post-Putin future is more important than any of the answers however well-informed they may be.
That is because it shows that Russians are thinking about something that was unthinkable only a few months ago and that Putin himself is doing everything he can to prevent them from thinking about because the sense of his irreplaceability is one of the key foundations of his regime and personal power.
According to Kotsyubinsky, the time has come to consider calmly two questions: how likely is Putin’s rapid departure from office? And what will happen with Russia and Russians when he goes?
Putin has been much weakened over the past year, the commentator argues, and not by economic problems. Russians will put up with those. He has been weakened because he “has lost a war which he himself declared and on which was based his imperial restorationist project.” That is something much more serious.
Russian history shows, Kotsyubinsky says, that whenever Russia proclaims itself as opposed to the whole world and then loses, it enters into “a zone of turbulence” as Putin’s own press secretary Dmitry Peskov recently put it. In each case, loss in a war was followed by reforms and then “the growth of revolutionary attitudes.”
Putin has not only lost “a super power war” based on gas and oil, but he has “lost it without any chance at revenge,” the commentator says. As a result, there is an increasing sense among many in Russia that the entire Putin edifice could come crumbling down and yet another new Russia emerge.
“How this will happen – ‘from above,’ ‘from below,’ ‘from the outside’ or by a combined campaign of ‘the national traitorous Entente’ is not so important.” What matters is that it will happen, Kotsyubinsky argues.
That sense that it will has led some to alarmist and apocalyptic predictions, but the commentator says that he thinks that what will occur will be “something much less” eschatological but nonetheless critically important. And he suggests that it could occur by the spring or summer of 2015.
He predicts that regardless of who heads “a provisional government” after Putin goes, “the very first point of the new agenda for the new authorities must be elections. Not just presidential, but also Duma and – what is most important – regional.” That will mean not just the change from one presidential vertical to another but to the end of this vertical altogether.
Even if the Kremlin “political technologists” succeed in winning the election for their candidate, “he will not have even a tenth of the extremely conditional power which Poroshenko has at present in Ukraine.” Kotsyubinsky’s reasoning on this point is especially interesting and instructive even if his overall prediction turns out to be incorrect wishful thinking.
“The ‘latest Russian autocrat’ will himself be glad to share responsibility for ‘a situation which cannot be run politically’ with the parliament, and at least for a time, he will be forced to move toward the “parliamentary republic standards of Europe,” standards in which the president matters less or even not at all.
Among the most serious challenges a post-Putin regime will face is the reawakening of regional ambitions, ambitions that were stifled after the mid-1990s but that now have returned because “the majority of Russian regions have a not bad idea about how they can live and flourish without the Kremlin’s direction.”
The North Caucasus could be the first of these to rise up, but “it is possible that the scenario of the peaceful resolution of the Russian-Caucasus crisis will turn out to be ‘a model’ for Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Sakha, Buryatia, Tyva and other national republics and also for Siberia and other regions of the Russian Federation” which feel themselves abused.
And that in turn means that in a post-Putin Russia, “the process of transforming Russia from a presidential unitary republic into a parliamentary federation may completely demolish the imperial ambitions which it suffers from today.” Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to Russians to decide, he concludes.