Life After Putin: The Technocrats
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because good managers come with experience.
The year was 2011, and the largest protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union were raging through Moscow. Tens of thousands of mostly educated, middle-class Russians were taking the streets to decry their country’s stifling political atmosphere. Among them was Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister and Putin ally, who shocked observers by urging the Kremlin to consider their plight.
It wasn’t long, however, before those protests petered out. The scattered and poorly organized opposition fell victim to a vicious state campaign casting protesters and their leaders as a dangerous “fifth column.” The man credited with overseeing that crackdown was Vyacheslav Volodin, then the deputy head of the presidential administration in charge of domestic policy.
In recent years, these two influential men have occupied key positions in the Kremlin court: Kudrin is a longtime personal friend of Putin’s, and Volodin is a loyalist who put the president’s political agenda into practice while serving as his top aide. Putin is expected to breeze to re-election this month for another six-year term, with no obvious successor apparent. These technocrats may belong to different parts of the ideological spectrum, but their backgrounds mean they both could play prominent roles in a sudden succession.
During his tenure as finance minister from 2000–2011, Kudrin presided over a period of economic growth on which Putin built his popular reputation. Soaring oil prices helped fuel that boom, but Kudrin’s efficient economic management also helped Russia weather the global financial crisis — earning him widespread recognition both at home and abroad.
But Kudrin’s personal history with Putin is what keeps the 57-year-old economist center stage, according to Sergey Aleksashenko, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former deputy head of Russia’s Central Bank. The two men climbed the professional ladder in St. Petersburg together and later took jobs at the Kremlin around the same time. “As we can see from his 18 years in power, [Putin] relies on people he knows very, very well,” says Aleksashenko.
There’s one crucial element that determines even theoretical contenders for the post: political ambition.
Today, Kudrin still provides economic advice to Putin, even if it’s not exactly what the ex-KGB chief wants to hear. A political moderate, Kudrin has recommended the Kremlin pursue structural reforms, such as streamlining the state bureaucracy, cutting the country’s dependence on oil and improving ties with the West — pretty much the opposite of Russia’s current trajectory.
But while his advice is valued, Kudrin’s appearance at the 2011 protests may have signaled to Putin that he’s ultimately untrustworthy, at least as a political ally. “Since then, Putin does not believe that Kudrin is completely loyal,” Aleksashenko says. “He believes that in certain urgent situations and under pressure, Kudrin may betray him.”
The 54-year-old Volodin, meanwhile, has proven himself both indispensable and loyal. Another consummate technocrat, he rose to the occasion when he arrived at a Kremlin deeply shaken by the large-scale protests. In short order, opposition leaders found themselves jailed, and Russia’s powerful state media machine began pumping out propaganda vilifying the liberal-minded intelligentsia as a destabilizing force.
“Volodin arrived with this assignment in hand, and his name became associated with the tightening of the screws,” says Pavel Salin, head of the Center for Political Studies at the Russian government’s Financial University. “He was an operator, not an ideologue.” Volodin also helped ensure the ruling United Russia party’s dominance during the 2016 parliamentary elections.
What’s more, his loyalty to Putin was never in question. Case in point: Volodin made headlines in 2014 when he declared “there is no Russia” without Putin. Equally curious was his dissemination among Russian officials during the 2015 holidays of a book of the president’s quotations, apparently aimed at inspiring the country’s political class.
Most analysts agree the often opaque nature of Russian politics makes it almost impossible to predict who might succeed Putin, or even under what circumstances a succession would take place. Still, they say there’s one crucial element that determines even theoretical contenders for the post: political ambition.
Largely devoid of major political plans, Kudrin — whose name has circulated for years as a candidate for prime minister but never for the presidency — seems to have little taste for the top spot. He could, however, play a leading role in a hypothetical transitional government, “from authoritarian rule to something more democratic,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
Volodin is different. A lawmaker for more than 10 years before coming to the Kremlin, his political instincts betray his image as a largely gray, nondescript bureaucrat. In his current post as speaker of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, Volodin has been highly visible while also sharpening his managerial skills. “This may be a starting point for him to demonstrate his capacity to be both a technocrat and a populist,” Kolesnikov says. The role often puts him in front of the press, with sometimes prickly results. Volodin recently said female journalists worried about sexual harassment in the Duma should “get another job.” His post also puts Volodin fourth in line — constitutionally, at least — for the presidency.
Either way, experts say the current political climate in Russia is tense. Salin says there’s far more uncertainty today than 10 years ago, when Putin tapped Dmitry Medvedev to be a placeholder president while he served a stint as prime minister. As a result, he adds, many observers have begun anxiously searching for signs behind even the most mundane political developments. “For the most part,” Salin says, “our political elites are nervous.”
This story was originally published in 2017 and has been updated ahead of Russia’s March 2018 national elections.