At a Moscow rally against the Kremlin’s war in east Ukraine late last year, a protester held up a sign that read: “Vladimir Putin is 62 years old. The average life expectancy for a man in Russia is 64. We live in hope.”
Given that the Russian president has access to far better medical care than the vast majority of his fellow citizens, it’s likely he’ll be sticking around for a while yet. Russia’s longtime “national leader” is also reportedly a near teetotaler, which removes at a stroke one of the most common causes of death for Russian males.
But the protester’s sign raises an interesting question: What if Putin really were to suddenly drop dead? (Or, if that’s too morbid a thought, what if he were abducted by aliens? Or decided to retire to North Korea with his new buddy Kim Jong Un?) What would be the consequences of his sudden and total departure from the political scene?
Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin recently told journalists, “There is no Russia if there is no Putin.” Other pro-government supporters have regularly predicted the near collapse of the Russian state without Putin in the Kremlin.
But, first, the facts.
According to the Russian Constitution, the prime minister, currently Dmitry Medvedev, would be named acting president. Three months later, presidential elections would be held. Sounds straightforward enough, right?
“If Putin were to vanish from the political scene, either through his death or any other circumstances, it’s extremely unlikely that the constitution would be observed to the letter of the law,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor, tells Vocativ.
Indeed, political analysts we spoke to were united in predicting that instead of a smooth transition to a new president, Russia would see a violent internal struggle for power among the Kremlin elite, especially if Medvedev—largely seen as a weak figure with little political clout—were named acting president.
“A weak acting president would not be able to control the infighting and dirty politics that would inevitably break out around the elections,” says Anna Arutunyan, author of The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult.
“This could have devastating consequences, from mass protests and crisis to the worst-case scenario of civil war.”
And the likely result of this no-holds-barred battle for the Kremlin? Analysts believe it would be victory for anti-Western hardliners led by men like Igor Sechin, the head of the state-run oil giant Rosneft, over the more liberal wing represented by Medvedev. “We would almost certainly see a regime that was far more authoritarian than Putin’s come to power. Given Russia’s current economic problems, Western sanctions and the war in Ukraine, possibly even a military junta,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, a pro-opposition analyst who heads the Moscow-based Mercator political research group.
And if Putin has done his best to crush Russia’s opposition movement, his successor could clamp down even harder, analysts suggest. “The new regime would be even less inclined than Putin to pay even lip-service to the rule of law,” Oreshkin says. “This is why I am hesitant when people call for a Russia without Putin. What do they think is going to follow him? Some liberal politician? No, things would only get worse.”
Oleg Kashin, a well-known Russian journalist who was beaten to within an inch of his life by suspected pro-Kremlin thugs in 2010, suggested in a recent article that if Putin left the Kremlin, opposition leader Alexei Navalny would be shipped off to a prison camp, as the new regime sought to consolidate power.
But if Putin’s death would spell doom for the opposition movement, who would stand to gain from the passing away of the ex-KGB officer who has ruled Russia for 15 years? Pavlovsky, who advised the Kremlin from 1996 to 2011, believes that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov would see his political influence rocket, and that he would be able to gain even more autonomy for the North Caucasus republic he rules with an iron first.
“Kadyrov would be able to dictate his conditions,” Pavlovsky says of the Chechen leader, who denies frequent allegations of human-rights abuses, including murder, abduction and torture. “The new authorities would be unwilling to take him on, as this would prove a very tough test of the loyalty of the security forces.”
Then there is the question of Putin’s legacy. “He would be glorified unabashedly in the event of his death,” says Arutunyan, the author. “I doubt we would see a North Korea-style cult built up around him, or if he would join Lenin in the mausoleum on Red Square—but we would see parades and the like, for sure.”
Not everyone is certain that’s how it would play out, though. “Putin would be used as a scapegoat by the new authorities,” says Pavlovsky, the former Kremlin spin doctor. “All of Russia’s problems would be blamed on him, at least initially. But after the passing of this political generation, he would later come back into vogue, in much the same way that Soviet rule is hankered after now by some members of the population.”
And what of the oligarchs, those fabulously wealthy men who have been able to keep allegedly ill-gotten gains in return for political loyalty? What would happen to the engrained corruption that even the Kremlin has admitted costs Russian billions of dollars every year?
“A monopoly on power is the root of this corrupt system,” says Dmitry Gudkov, one of just a handful of genuine opposition-minded lawmakers in Russia’s parliament. “If we were to see a power grab by hardliners in the event of his death or retirement, then things would continue as before. Perhaps they would even get worse. The power of the oligarchs could even increase.”
But the most depressing prediction was made by Kashin, the journalist who survived the attempt on his life. He believes his homeland is fated to suffer eternal oppression, corruption and stagnation. With or without Putin. “There is nowhere to get new leaders from, or a new opposition, or a new people,” Kashin has written.
“Nothing ever changes in Russia,” he lamented. “Tomorrow will be the same, and the day after tomorrow, and after that, and forever.”