Moscow: As Russian President Vladimir Putin marks two decades in power, he boasts about his achievements but remains coy about his political future — a reticence that fuels wild speculation about his intentions.
Putin points to the revival of Russia’s global clout, industrial modernisation, booming agricultural exports and a resurgent military as key results of his tenure that began on December 31, 1999. On that day, Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin abruptly stepped down and named the former KGB officer his successor, paving the way for his election three months later.
Critics accuse Putin of rolling back post-Soviet freedoms to establish tight control over the political scene, marginalise the opposition and stifle critical media. They hold him responsible for tensions with the West after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, which bolstered his approval ratings but triggered US and European sanctions.
Kremlin watchers are trying to predict what will happen after Putin’s current six-year term ends in 2024. They agree on one thing: Putin, Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, will likely stay at the helm.
A fitness fan, the 67-year old Putin appears in good shape to stay on. He regularly practices judo, skis and plays ice hockey in a demonstration of his vigour.
He remains widely popular, although the propaganda effect of Crimea’s annexation has worn off amid stagnant living standards, a rise in the retirement age and other domestic challenges.
Putin can easily use the rubber-stamp parliament to scrap term limits, but most observers expect him to take a less straightforward approach. A law faculty graduate, the Russian leader prefers more delicate methods that have a democratic veneer.
Earlier this month, Putin hinted at possible constitutional amendments to re-distribute powers among the president, the Cabinet and parliament.
He didn’t specify what changes could be made, but the announcement may signal his intention to trim presidential powers and continue ruling the country as prime minister.
There are other opportunities. Kazakhstan’s longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev offered an example this year when he abruptly resigned and had his protege elected president in a snap vote. The 79-year-old Nazarbayev retained his grip on power by securing a prominent position as head of the nation’s security council.
There is another, more dramatic option. Many in neighbouring Belarus fear that the Kremlin could push for a full merger of the two ex-Soviet allies to allow Putin to become the head of a new unified state.
When asked recently if he was considering it, Putin dodged the question.
Each of those potential options carries major risks.
Putin moved into the prime minister’s seat from 2008-2012 after eight years as president to observe a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms, allowing Dmitry Medvedev to take the top seat.
Putin continued calling the shots under Medvedev, who obediently stepped down after one term. Putin benefited from his placeholder’s move to extend the presidential term to six years, but still wasn’t quite happy with the “tandem rule.”
Putin was particularly critical of Medvedev’s decision to let the United Nations give the go-ahead to a 2011 Western air campaign in Libya that helped oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and plunged the country into chaos.
And at home, the announcement of Putin’s return to the presidency sparked massive protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 and caused a rift among elites. Putin’s aides suspected some of Medvedev’s lieutenants of prodding their boss to stay for a second term and encouraging the protests.
Putin’s statement this month about a possible change to the constitution to limit the president to just two terms altogether was widely interpreted as a signal that he was contemplating creating a new governing position for himself while trimming the authority of his successor.
If Putin chooses to become prime minister with new broad powers, it may raise other threats.
By empowering a parliamentary majority to name the prime minister, Putin would become more vulnerable because he will depend on the ruling party’s performance. While Putin’s approval ratings have remained high, the popularity of the main Kremlin-directed party, the United Russia, has plummeted and the president has kept it at a distance.
A merger with Belarus to create a new leadership position has even greater risks. The prospect may excite some Russians who dream about revival of imperial glory, but it is certain to trigger strong resistance in Belarus and further antagonise the West.