What comes after Putin?

Vladimir Putin has been Russia’s leader, as president or prime minister, since 1999. Despite the wishes of many, it seems unlikely that he will lose his seat of power in Russia’s anytime soon. As I have written before, when Putin does give up power, it is likely to be voluntarily and non-violently, as previous oligarchs in other countries have largely done.

But who could come after Putin? In thinking about some alternative futures, I’ve found it helpful to think in terms of three personality types: the caretaker, Putin 2.0 and the reformer. In turn, these types are represented by three individuals— Prime Minister of Russia Mikhail Mishustin, Russian billionaire Yuri Kovalchuk and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In attaching names to these three futures, I am not predicting that these three people are the most likely successors to Putin. And in identifying these alternative futures, I assume that post-Putin Russia continues to operate more or less in accordance with its constitution.

The first future — the caretaker — is represented by Mishustin, who is 56, Russia’s prime minister since 2020. Selected by Putin independently after he wasn’t satisfied with four other options, Mishustin was confirmed by the State Duma with no “no” votes, a first. In some ways, his profile is similar to that of Putin when Former President of Russia Boris Yeltsin appointed him as prime minister in 1999 — capable, low-profile, opaque, non-threatening. He’s a minor oligarch too, as Putin was when he assumed power, with a net worth under his ownership or control estimated at $48 million. And, of course, he and Putin have KGB connections in common. Mishustin was involved with the KGB-sponsored International Computer Club beginning in 1992. In contrast to Putin, though, Mishustin appears to be more outgoing and less internationally minded. More tech minded and perhaps more money savvy.

The caretaker future that Mishustin represents may be the shortest-lived of these three alternative futures. And the transition to a caretaker is likely to be comfortable for Putin, as that is the role he served when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000.

The second alternative future — Putin 2.0 — is represented by Kovalchuk, who is 71. This is the most oligarchic of the three futures. Kovalchuk has a net worth currently estimated at $2 billion by Forbes. And, according to Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, he is probably the second most powerful person in Russia at present. That makes him Russia’s most consequential oligarch behind Putin.

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Unlike Mishustin, Kovalchuk has no prior formal government experience of any kind. For most of the post-communist period, he has been a businessman and, more importantly, Putin’s vehicle for accomplishing two missions. First, he has owned Russia’s most important media assets since 2008. In that role, he has been Putin’s propagandist, putting out the regime’s message to the non-elites who are staunch Putin supporters to this day. Second, Kovalchuk, his family and associates are likely one of the main vehicles through which Putin channels and controls his wealth. For example, since 2003 he has owned Putin’s Valdai residence, Dolgiye Borody (Long Beards), where Kovalchuk and Putin have sheltered during much of the pandemic.

Because he is very close to Putin, Kovalchuk is likely the most comfortable and familiar option for most Russians, who have been living with oligarchs of one sort or another since 1991. But, as Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has argued, Putin’s regime is unlikely to survive Putin’s departure from office. Even if that successor is comfortable and familiar like Kovalchuk. So, the Putin 2.0  future may not be any more stable than the caretaker future.

The third alternative future — the reformer — is represented by Alexei Navalny, who is 45 and the most unstable of all. Navalny is Putin’s most significant opponent and the most public facing of these three alternative futures. He also appears to be the most complex. A Russian nationalist and anti-corruption crusader, Navalny has also held no government office.

The reformer is the most unstable of the three alternative futures, because Navalny has been the most entrepreneurial and innovative politician in post-communist Russia. But here is the thing: Russians like stability. They don’t like change.

In the minds of most Russians, are these alternative futures better than the present they have now with Putin? Putin appears to remain very popular with Russians, and that popularity may have increased since the war with Ukraine began. Based on the 2021 polling of the Levada Center, Russia’ leading independent survey organization, Russians appear to prefer totalitarians (Stalin and Lenin ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in polling of notable historical figures), autocrats (Peter the Great ranked No. 4), oligarchs (Putin ranked No. 5) and bureaucrats (Brezhnev, ranked No. 8). Alternative futures that conform to these figures seem viable. But a reformer? No.

And are there other possible alternative futures beyond the three I have described? Of course. If we relax the assumption that Russia makes a constitutional transition after Putin, two other futures open up. One is the transition to a collective leadership, such as occurred after Stalin died in 1953 or after Khrushchev was deposed in a coup in 1964. I can imagine such a leadership being comprised of Sergei Lavrov (foreign minister), Sergei Shoigu (defense minister) and Elvira Nabiullina (central bank head), for example. The second, less likely option is a descent into revolution or disorder, such as occurred in 1917 transition from Czar Nicholas II to the Bolsheviks.

Of course, these alternative futures are necessarily speculative. In sharing them, I am reminded of the words attributed to Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, a 19th century Russian poet: If you want a foreigner to make a fool of himself, just ask him to make a judgment about Russia.

But perhaps my foolishness can open up a conversation about a post-Putin future for Russia, and whether such a future is preferable to the status quo.

David Lingelbach is an associate professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore. He lived and worked in Russia from 1994 to 1999, where he served as president of Bank of America — Russia and worked with Vladimir Putin. He has studied oligarchs for more than a quarter century — the subject of his forthcoming book.   

Tags alexei navalny David Lingelbach International Mikhail Mishustin Russia Ukraine Ukraine war Vladimir Putin War

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