[Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three-part series on Russia’s leadership after President Vladimir Putin eventually leaves office. Part 1 revisits Putin’s rise to power; Part 2 will examine Russia’s demographics, energy sector and Putin’s political changes; and Part 3 will explore whether the political systems Putin has built will survive him.]
Russia has undergone a series of fundamental changes over the past year, with more changes on the horizon. Russia’s economic model based on energy is being tested, the country’s social and demographic make-up is shifting, and its political elites are aging. All this has led the Kremlin to begin asking how the country should be led once its unifying leader, Vladimir Putin, is gone. Already, a restructuring of the political elite is taking place, and hints of succession plans have emerged. Historically, Russia has been plagued by the dilemma of trying to create a succession plan following a strong and autocratic leader. The question now is whether Putin can set a system in place for his own passing out of the Russian leadership (whenever the time may be) without destabilizing the system as a whole.
A Difficult Land to Rule
Without a heavy-handed leader, Russia struggles to maintain stability. Instability is inherent to Russia given its massive, inhospitable territory, indefensible borders, hostile neighboring powers and diverse population. Only when it has had an autocratic leader who set up a system where competing factions are balanced against each other has Russia enjoyed prosperity and stability.
A system of balances under one resolute figure existed during the rule of some of the country’s most prominent leaders, such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Josef Stalin —and now Vladimir Putin.
Each Russian leader must create and tinker with this system to ensure the governing apparatus does not atrophy, fracture or rise in mutiny. For this reason, Russian leaders have continually had to rearrange the power circles beneath them. Significant adjustments have been necessary as Russia grows and stabilizes or declines and comes under threat.
However, creating a power balance in the government with layers whose collective loyalty is ultimately to a single figure at the apex has created succession problems. When a clear succession plan is not in place, Russia tends to fall into chaos during leadership transitions — sometimes even ripping itself apart. The so-called Time of Troubles, a brutal civil war in the 16th century, broke out after Ivan the Terrible killed his only competent son. During the Soviet period, a vicious succession struggle erupted upon Lenin’s death in 1924, with Josef Stalin ultimately winning and his main challenger, Leon Trotsky, exiled and later assassinated. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrentiy Beria engaged in a similar power struggle.
In many of these cases, contenders for power represent a group or a clan of sorts vying for control. The individual represents a body that derives its power from its ties to security, military, industrial, financial or other circles. Stability is achieved only when there is one overarching leader in Russia capable of overseeing each of these groups’ agendas and balancing them for the good of the country. Putin’s transition into leadership and his subsequent 13 years in power serve as a prime example of such a balancing act.
The Rise of Putin
Putin came to power in 1999, when Russia had experienced almost a decade of chaos following the demise of the Soviet Union. Russia was in a state of near-collapse. It had lost its Eastern and Central European satellites and the other constituent republics of the former Soviet Union, which had created a buffer from foreign powers around Russia.
Fierce conflicts wracked the Russian republics in the northern Caucasus, some of which sought to break loose from Moscow’s grip. Under then-President Boris Yeltsin, various foreign groups and a new class of business elites known as the oligarchs stripped Russia’s major strategic sectors, including oil, natural gas, mining, telecoms and agriculture, leaving most of them in disarray.
The most important of those sectors, energy, was devastated. Between 1988 and 1996, oil production fell from 11.4 million barrels per day to 6 million barrels per day. Oil historically has provided one of Moscow’s key sources of revenue, funding half the state budget for more than 60 years. With this revenue halved, the Yeltsin government was forced to slash military and social spending, further deepening the country’s disarray. At the end of the 1990s, Russia plunged into a deep financial crisis that resulted in a default on domestic and foreign debts, food shortages, a sharp devaluation of the ruble and inflation above 84 percent.
Fierce political infighting erupted, and many of Yeltsin’s top men and supporters, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, distanced themselves from the weakening president. Moreover, Yeltsin lacked a succession plan.