A new Putin worse than the old Putin?

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Vladimir Putin is mortal. Russia, sooner or later, will have to navigate the transition from his 20-plus years of rule to someone else. It now appears that “sometime” could come as early as January 2021, if ill-health rumors denied by the Kremlin should prove to be true.

But do not be hopeful for a democratic Russia, whenever it happens. Putin’s inner circle would preserve the Putin system even without Putin; Russian voters would have little or no voice in the matter. It would be a process closely “managed” by a coterie of Kremlin insiders. They will not (and cannot) allow a democratic Russia that offers a variety of candidates with different electoral platforms.

The Kremlin has a historical precedent for managed transition — namely, the 1999-2000 transition from President Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. A key building block of the Yeltsin transition was the grant of immunity from eventual prosecution for the outgoing president and for his family. A second key ingredient was enforcement of the agreement by a credible guarantor. That guarantor happened to be the security services, headed at the time by one Vladimir Putin.

Yeltsin’s immunity guarantees were subsequently embedded in the Dec. 2, 2001, “Federal Law about guarantees to a President of the Russian Federation leaving his duties and to his family.” This 2001 federal law is in the process of being amended as a new and improved immunity guarantee for Putin and his family.

Indeed, an amendment to the above 2001 law has begun its journey through parliament. The amendment extends lifetime immunity to an outgoing president and to his family; it reads that both “cannot be held criminally or administratively liable and cannot be detained, arrested or subjected to a search or an interrogation.” The president’s family, in typical Kremlin bureaucratese, is “determined in accordance with the family and housing legislation of the Russian Federation.” Such phrasing delicately includes Putin’s reputed gymnast-girlfriend (and mother of twins) in the definition of family along with his two daughters from a previous marriage — all three in their 30s. Indeed, Putin protects his family from scrutiny with a vengeance, as Russian media have learned.

The draft amendment also provides a lengthy list of perks — dachas, airplanes, staff, offices etc. — that would allow the Putin family to continue to live in splendor.

In a novel twist, the amendment provides a backup immunity guarantee — namely, that retired presidents are appointed as lifetime senators in Russia’s upper house, the Federation Council. Senators automatically enjoy immunity, and “senators for life” would enjoy, well, lifetime immunity. A retired Putin also could appoint seven other lifetime senators, presumably for “outstanding service to the country.” Given the suspected illegal behavior of Putin’s inner circle, the line for the seven senatorial positions may be long. 

Putin is no stranger to the use of parliamentary immunity. In the most bizarre case, an accused assassin in the Litvinenko polonium-poisoning sits in the Russian parliament, secure from the reach of British law.

The beefed-up immunity amendment might signal nothing more than parliamentary housekeeping to cover contingencies that may occur decades hence. Yet, speaking against this interpretation: The July referendum that gave Putin two more terms was so blatantly rigged that it unleashed a popular backlash. Gratuitously raising the issue of succession at this moment seems ill-timed, unless there is something going on behind the scenes.

Throughout his 20 years as president, Vladimir Putin has been the subject of health rumors. Macho images of Putin’s judo mastery, bareback horseback-riding, and deep-sea diving were designed to boost his approval ratings, but they also reinforced Putin as the image of health.

Now rumors are bubbling in both Russian and Western media. Russian mass media and Western tabloids are circulating stories about unexplained movements in Putin’s legs, constant twitching of his fingers, a suspected change in his gait, and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. The rumor mill has speculated that Putin will announce a transition plan as early as January 2021. Although these rumors have elicited strong denials from the Kremlin, they continue to pile up.

The lengthy interview of political scientist Valery Solovei by Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow radio station, claims an inside view of Putin’s health and the succession. It is circulating rapidly on Yandex, Russia’s version of Google. Remarkably, even state-run RT media forecasts that the immunity amendment will be seen “as a sign that the groundwork is being laid for an eventual transition of power in Russia.”

If Putin indeed leaves office in January, he would leave behind a Russia in the grasp of multiple crises — a shrinking economy, a coronavirus epidemic, a collapsing medical system, a depleted national wealth fund, foreign entanglements, demonstrations in the Russian provinces and in Belarus. There are plenty of reasons to go after him.

Putin understands his successor would be sorely tempted to blame Russia’s troubles on him. Yeltsin handed over a recovering economy to Putin in 2000, but Yeltsin continued to bear the blame for the “wild capitalism” of the 1990s. Putin had better have a powerful, reliable guarantor to do what he did for Yeltsin.

The Yeltsin transition offers an attractive model for Putin. After all, Yeltsin’s family, which by most accounts was corrupt, was not touched. Nor was their wealth confiscated.

Can Putin use the same model to name a successor who will guarantee his immunity? Unlike the 2000 transition, Russia today lacks rival politicians with the clout of Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov and former prime minister Evgeny Primakov. A “democratic” opposition scarcely exists, other than Aleksei Navalny’s small contingent. Putin’s successor could count on easy electoral victories delivered by the Putin system he would inherit.

In a word, the transfer of “the Putin system” to a successor should be a piece of cake. Immunity is another matter.

Putin, as an “ex-KGB” surrounded by ex-KGB, seems bound to trust his immunity to security officials. Thus, Russia may end up with a “new Putin” from the already powerful security apparatus.

The outlines of any transition will be defined by the Yeltsin precedent. We can anticipate an internecine battle royale among various interest groups of Putin’s inner circle; who comes out on top is anyone’s guess.

F.A. Hayek, in his 1944 “Road to Serfdom,” wrote that in political systems like Putin’s Russia, the worst rise to the top — namely, those most ruthless in using power. Thus, we might have to get used to a new Russian president who is worse than Putin.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags Amendments to the Constitution of Russia Boris Yeltsin Corruption in Russia Government of Russia Immunity from prosecution Presidents of Russia Putin system Russia Russia under Vladimir Putin Transition Vladimir Putin

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