The Russian president, who won 76.69 percent of the vote, will be inaugurated for a fourth term in May.
“In the coming six years, will we see a new Putin or an old one?” Kremlin correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov asked the president at the end of his first press conference after the elections.
“Everything flows, everything changes,” Putin retorted tersely before walking off stage.
But in the days after Putin’s win, Russia observers have expressed scepticism that things in the country will indeed “flow and change”.
At the start of his fourth term, Putin’s space for any domestic and foreign policy manoeuvring appears to be quite limited. And as he surpasses Leonid Brezhnev as the longest-serving leader in Russia’s modern history (if Putin’s term as prime minister is counted), critical voices in Russia and abroad have started comparing him to his Soviet predecessor, whose 18-year reign ended in 1982.
“Brezhnev lacked the vision of power to actually grapple with the reform needs of the country,” said Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
“And this is what we are seeing with Putin. [He] seems to have few ideas and much less energy, and yet like Brezhnev – he’s not able or willing to let go,” Galeotti said.
While the parallel with the 1970s’ Soviet Union is not complete (for one, Putin appears to be in excellent health, compared with Brezhnev, who succumbed to alcoholism and illness), Russia does appear to be entering a similar period of stagnation in foreign and domestic affairs.
There are fears that the Kremlin’s policies will not change in the next six years, which will lead to a gradual deterioration of the political and economic situation in Russia.
A mini-Cold War?
During the 18 years of his leadership, Putin had to step down from the presidency between 2008 and 2012 to avoid violating the Russian Constitution. His former aide, Dmitry Medvedev, took over as president, while he assumed the post of prime minister.
Medvedev’s years in office roughly coincided with Barack Obama‘s first term in the White House and ushered in moderate optimism in Russian-US relations. The temporary improvement in relations was in a way similar to the thaw under Brezhnev’s predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, who introduced the idea of “peaceful coexistence” amid a raging Cold War.
Medvedev’s pursuit of rapprochement with the West precipitated Russia’s abstention during the 2011 UN Security Council vote to approve a US-led intervention in Libya – a move that Putin sharply criticised.
When he took back the presidency in 2012, relations with the West were bound to change. Two years later, after mass protests led to the deposition of the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, Putin acted swiftly to discipline a country he perceived to be in Russia’s sphere of influence – perhaps not unlike Brezhnev, who in 1968 ordered Soviet tanks to quash the Prague Spring.
Putin basically feels that he has to be an insurgent, he has to actually be inconvenient for the West because, otherwise, he feels that the won't get what he wants.
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in the Donbass region. The West responded with economic sanctions.
Since then, the Kremlin has sought to get the West to re-engage using various tactics – from courting far-right parties in Europe and engaging in subversive operations to seeking leverage in the Middle East through a military intervention in Syria.
Yet, according to Galeotti, these tactics have not produced the intended result of pushing the West to negotiate, and have contributed to the entrenchment of the status quo.
“[Putin] basically feels that he has to be an insurgent, he has to actually be inconvenient for the West because, otherwise, he feels that the won’t get what he wants,” he said.
“So [unless he] gets what he wants, which I don’t think is going to happen, or something changes the perceived balance of risks and opportunities for Moscow, this will continue.”
Putin himself is also not ready to make compromises on Russia’s positions and, in a sense, admit that he made a mistake in Ukraine. For that reason, Galeotti says, it is unlikely that there will be a resolution of the Ukrainian crisis in the following six years.
A year after the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia took the decision to intervene directly in Syria. The military campaign was successful in preserving the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and taking back control over territories previously held by rebel forces. The operation boosted Russia’s standing in the region, prompting countries like Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE to engage with Moscow.
But according to Galeotti, talk of Russian resurgence in the Middle East is exaggerated and diplomatic engagement with Moscow is often used to send a signal to Washington.
Unlike Brezhnev, Putin does not have at his disposal the same military and economic resources to project power around the world. Yet, he would like to have Russia recognised as a great power. For that reason, the Kremlin will continue using the same subversive tactics with the West because they are relatively cheap.
“What are we going to see in international relations in the next six years? Pretty much what we are seeing now,” Galeotti said.
A Brezhnev-like economic stagnation?
In the second half of Brezhnev’s rule, the state of the Soviet economy gradually deteriorated, as lack of reform inhibited growth and the limited liberalisation introduced by Khrushchev was rolled back. The economic stagnation led to declining standards of living for many Soviet citizens and deteriorating social services.
Today, Russia has also entered a period of stagnation. After registering annual growth as high as eight percent during Putin’s first two terms, in 2014 the Russian economy plunged into a recession. Last year, Russia started growing again, but at a rate of 1.5 percent.
Is there any driving engine for economic growth for the next few years? My personal answer is that we do not see it at the moment
According to Sergey Aleksashenko, an economist and analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the Russian economy, while not in shambles – as has been claimed in the West – will retain that slow pace of growth in the coming six years which will not exceed two percent.
“Is there any driving engine for economic growth for the next few years? My personal answer is that we do not see it at the moment,” he told Al Jazeera.
Aleksashenko, who was a deputy finance minister in the early 1990s, explained that the growth registered last year was due to the export of commodities such as oil, gas and coal.
The biggest barrier to economic development, in his opinion, is the lack of investment in the Russian economy. There are two reasons for that: one, the economic sanctions which have caused a lot of Western capital to depart from Russia; and two, the lack of the rule of law.
“Any type of contract in the economy is about property. If we cannot defend our rights in courts, what is the motivation for us to sign a new contract?” he said.
Over the past 15 years, enterprises of various sizes across Russia have been expropriated or nationalised. Starting with the famous case of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose oil company Yukos was taken over by state-owned Rosneft following a tax evasion and embezzlement conviction, this process has gradually increased the share of the state in the Russian economy and its dependence on it.
In 2016, the Federal Antimonopoly Agency claimed that that share has reached 70 percent; according to Aleksashenko, these statistics might be exaggerated and in reality, the number might be closer to 45 percent, which is still high. The result of this process has concentrated economic power in the hands of the state and a circle of powerful people close to the Russian president, slowing down the economy.
“This happened because the goal of people in charge has been to acquire more power and to stay in power longer and pursue personal and friends’ enrichment,” said Boris Grozovsky, a Moscow-based business journalist and researcher.
This has resulted in a monopolistic and less efficient economic system which is bound to stagnate, said Grozovsky. In his opinion, the coming six years will be like the past nine: they will be “lost”.
In a public address on March 23, Putin promised his electorate major improvements in the socioeconomic sphere.
“We will create new jobs and boost the efficiency of our economy. We’ll increase the real income of [Russian] citizens and decrease poverty rates, we’ll develop infrastructure and the social sphere – education, healthcare – and solve environment and housing problems,” he declared.
But the expected stagnation in the Russian economy in the next six years casts a shadow of doubt over whether Putin would be able to fulfil all these promises. According to Grozovsky, the current state of the economy will limit spending on education and healthcare and pull back the standard of living.
“There will be a very slow gradual deterioration [in these services],” he said.
Who will succeed Putin?
Apart from stagnating relations with the West and a sluggish economy, Putin’s rule resembles Brezhnev’s in one more thing: the reluctance to transfer power and set up a succession plan.
In Brezhnev’s case, the decision on who was to succeed him wasn’t made until after his death, with KGB head Yury Andropov winning the scramble for power within the party elite.
In an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly in early March, Putin said that he has been thinking about the succession issue since 2000. But for the past 18 years, no apparent successor has been put forward. This might be a sign that he does not intend to leave power, or at least not completely.
According to head editor of Radio Echo Moscow Aleksei Venedictov, Putin early on was preoccupied with what his legacy would be and how his presidency would go down in history books. In time, especially after the annexation of Crimea, he came to believe that he is fulfilling a mission.
“Until this mission has not been completed, he won’t leave office. But the mission has no end and cannot be accomplished … so it will not give him a chance to leave,” Venediktov told Russian journalist Yury Dud in an interview just days before the elections.
While Putin, indeed, might hang on to power even beyond his next six-year term, he might not necessarily remain president.
According to Nikolay Petrov, professor of social sciences at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, he might attempt to change the system.
“Putin [risks becoming] a lame duck. In order to avoid this, I think he’ll start the process of transformation of the regime,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It will not be preparation for the transfer of power from President Putin to President Ivanov or someone else. It will be a preparation for the transfer of power from Putin as the president to Putin as someone else, like national leader, chief of state council, or something like that.”
Petrov said the main problem he will face in transforming the political system is one he created himself: the high level of personalisation of power. In transforming the system, he will have to find a way to retain control while also not being responsible for all decision-making, added Petrov.
There were already signs of the changes to come in the past few years, according to Petrov. People in leadership positions in the government were replaced; heads of security agencies were removed and more recently a number of governors across Russia were fired or forced to resign.
The political system thus became even more dependent on Putin as a source of legitimacy in anticipations of any changes to be introduced. According to Petrov, this system transformation might see a new generation of technocrats be pushed to the fore.
It might be this new set-up and new faces in the political system that will eventually also determine the direction of the post-Putin period, when the time comes. And perhaps then there will be a chance for another reformer, like Mikhail Gorbachev, to steer Russia away from stagnation and towards change.