Is There a Future for Russia Without Vladimir Putin?
Even if the president reappears, his absence reveals the chilling degree to which he has consolidated power in the country.
Vladimir Putin's mysterious sabbatical from public life is now in its eighth day, and, still, nobody knows where he is. The Kremlin, whose spokesman Dmitry Peskov has the unfortunate task of insisting nothing is wrong, denies that the Russian president is incapacitated. On Saturday, Moscow announced that Putin will surface on Monday in St. Petersburg, where he's scheduled to meet Kyrgyz PresidentAlmazbek Atambaev. The meeting would be Putin's first public appearance since March 5, when he met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Putin's reemergence will, probably to the disappointment of journalists everywhere, put a slew of salacious rumors to rest. Even if the president resumes power as before, however, his extended absence raises an uncomfortable question. What would happen in Russia, hypothetically, if Putin dies?
Until this week, analysts had little reason to contemplate the scenario. Putin is just 62 years old and, as Russian propaganda regularly reminds the world, in good shape. But nobody expected Kim Jong Il, just 69, to die young—until he did in 2011. And there's even a precedent in recent Russian history. Three leaders of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, died in rapid succession from 1982 to 1985, a series of events that brought the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev to power.
Given Russia's size, nuclear arsenal, and regional influence, the passing of its leader would have significant consequences—no matter who it is. But a Putin death could be particularly destabilizing. Since assuming Russia's presidency in 2000 following the resignation of predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who had appointed the then-unknown ex-KGB officer Prime Minister just months before, Putin has spent the next 15 years centralizing state power. Many democratic institutions established in the 1990s—such as the popular election of regional officials—exist just in memory, and the only office for which Russians vote directly is Putin's itself. Putin controls Russia's television, where 90 percent of the population receives its news, and strictly censors the Internet. Political opposition in Russia is largely weak and fragmented—outspoken critics end up in prison or dead, a trend continued with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last month.
Contemporary Russia is often compared to China, a fellow authoritarian power with which Moscow enjoys a chummy relationship on the UN Security Council. Xi Jinping, Putin's Chinese counterpart, is thought by some to be China's most powerful ruler in decades. But Xi must still contend with powerful rivals from within the Communist Party. Putin appears to face less intra-party competition. Because of the personal nature of his rule, Vladimir Putin was named the world's most powerful individual by the political scientist Ian Bremmer in 2013.
If Putin dies, power would in theory pass to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who under the Russian constitution would then have three months to organize a presidential election. The boyish Medvedev, technically, held the job from 2008 to 2012, and may be in position to govern again—this time without Putin looking over his shoulder.
A smooth transition to power, rather than a protracted power struggle, would seem to be the best case scenario for Russia. Even then, a post-Putin Russia would probably not deviate far from the authoritarian's policies. Putin remains broadly popular in the country, despite an economy teetering under the weight of Western sanctions and collapsed oil prices. A relatively liberal, pro-Western government, such as Boris Yeltsin's, is unlikely to emerge.
"I am hesitant when people call for a Russia without Putin." Dmitry Oreshkin, a pro-opposition analyst who heads the Moscow-based Mercator political research group, told Vocativ. "What do they think is going to follow him? Some liberal politician? No, things would only get worse."
Maybe it's better to hope that Putin shows up on Monday in St. Petersburg.