There is suddenly too much entropy in the Russian political universe. At least some people are acting as if there are no adults in the house. Political campaigns seem to start without the Kremlin’s blessing, state TV channels contradict each other in their coverage of important stories, and infighting between Kremlin factions gets into the open. A major player in that infighting has been Igor Sechin, the head of the oil giant Rosneft, who helped engineer the arrest of Economy Minister Alexey Ulyukayev, but who is currently ignoring court summons for the same the case.
All of this prompts one question: Where is Vladimir Putin?
The March 2018 elections
Of course, the Russian leader is very much still around, his busy schedule reflected in daily news broadcasts on state TV. But as political expert Gleb Pavlovsky writes: “the president is disappearing”. Currently a critic of Putin’s political regime, Pavlovsky was one of its chief architects in the 2000s – definitely a man whose opinion matters on such occasions. In the article, he goes on to describe the Russian leader as a “not-so-young gentleman dogged by power fatigue and accumulated weaknesses”.
Putin does often look drained during public appearances. Kremlin sources, quoted by Independent, went as far as claiming that he was on the verge of quitting in 2016 and only changed his mind after the surprise election of Donald Trump in the US.
It is conventional wisdom that Putin will seek re-election for what would be his fourth presidential term. But is a lame duck presidency what he really wants?
Russia’s next presidential election is due in March 2018, but with only four months to go, the Kremlin is not giving away enough clues about how it is going to run the campaign and, in fact, still hasn’t confirmed that Putin will be running. It is conventional wisdom that Putin will seek re-election for what would be his fourth presidential term. But is a lame duck presidency what he really wants?
There is also the issue of perceived legitimacy, which didn’t come up for years as Putin had no strong rivals. But now he is being challenged by Alexey Navalny, who has revolutionised Russian politics by running an efficient presidential campaign and mobilising opposition supporters not just in Moscow and St Petersburg, but all over the country. No other opposition politician was ever able to achieve this during Putin’s era.
Again, conventional wisdom goes that the authorities will bar Navalny from the election. But as time passes without the Kremlin making any coherent statements on whether Putin will run, Navalny is gaining strength. The stronger he gets, the weaker Putin’s claim to legitimacy will be in the event that he chooses to run in an uncompetitive election.
If the Kremlin allows Navalny to register as a candidate, Putin is still very likely to win, but for him, that means stepping into unchartered territory. Will this let a revolutionary genie out of the bottle, as it happened with Mikhail Gorbachev’s limited reforms leading to the colossal release of political energy which destroyed the entire communist system? Will it be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the hardline part of the establishment? And is this allegedly tired man up for the challenge of running a real campaign against a real rival? Can he run in an election that does not use the surrogate opposition leaders who helped the Kremlin maintain a semblance of pluralism in the last three elections?
A paramount issue is the agenda of the next presidency. Russian political cycles can be compared to TV series, where each season is tied by a single coherent plot. The first season was all about political stability and economic growth, spurred by high oil prices. That theme exhausted itself by 2012 when the economy slowed down and the middle class showed open discontent with corruption and undemocratic nature of the regime.
The second season began with the chaotic revolution in Ukraine, which allowed the political leadership, or – as many Russians say – the “collective Putin”, to rebrand the regime by embracing irredentist nationalism and aggressive conservatism, a plagiarised version of the Christian fundamentalism of the US Bible Belt. That transformation culminated in the annexation of Crimea, which sent Putin’s approval ratings soaring to almost 90 percent.
But this plot is about to exhaust itself, too. Whatever new unifying agenda Russia’s ruling elite might come up with, it will define both the direction the country will take in the next six years and who will be the face of this new political brand. Putin is a not a brand per se – it is the agenda he embodies, which matters.
The third season with a new plot
The Kremlin already has a plot in mind for the third season that will help keep the pro-Kremlin majority intact and the Navalny-led opposition at bay. It already has something up its sleeve. It is the mind-bogglingly massive reconstruction and modernisation of urban infrastructure in Moscow – an accomplishment the government is preparing to replicate during the next presidential term in dozens of other large Russian cities.
Such a new positivist agenda would contrast sharply with the confrontational negativism that defines Putin’s current presidential term. The modernisation of Russian cities, which retain much of the outdated Soviet-era infrastructure is long overdue. It will not only improve the quality of living for Russians, but also serve as a contrast to the impoverished and war-torn Ukraine, which the Kremlin desperately wants to prevent from becoming an alternative Russia – a place where millions of Russian-speakers will live better and freer than in Russia proper. Besides, such a large-scale public-sector project may boost the sluggish economy.
The current face of this agenda is Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who used to serve as Putin’s chief of staff between 2005 and 2008. A shrewd apparatchik experienced in dealing with both politics and the economy, Sobyanin is also relatively old (59 years old) and uncharismatic, the latter two qualities, in fact, giving him an advantage in the anti-meritocratic system that the Russian establishment is. Crucially, he defeated Navalny in the 2012 local elections in Moscow, when the opposition leader was surprisingly released from prison and allowed to run for mayor’s office (Navally gained 27 percent of the vote campaigning on a shoestring with almost no access to state TV airtime).
If Putin finally confirms that he is running for the fourth term, Sobyanin could become a near-ideal replacement for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev providing a sense (or at least an illusion) of change to the growing number of Russians who seek it.
If – perhaps not now, but sometime in the middle of his term – Putin decides to call it a day, the current Moscow mayor will be uniquely positioned to offer a popular forward-looking agenda that preserves the pro-regime majority and provides a smooth transition into a post-Putin era.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.