‘The president’s term resetting threatens with instability more than other situations’

What Putin fears, if young ministers will come to replace Lavrov and Shoigu and if the second “denunciation of the personality cult” is possible in Russia

Last week, Vladimir Putin signed a law lifting age restrictions on functionaries the president personally appoints. Until recently, they had had to retire at 70. The State Duma almost at the same time adopted the law on “term resetting” permitting Putin to declare his candidacy for the Russian presidency two times more. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, expert in public administration, Docent of the Department of Theory and Practice of Public Administration at HSE NRU Pavel Kudyukin explains why it is hard to see positive things in these laws for Russian political life.

“We already nearly see this gerontocracy”

Mr Kudyukin, what do you think the law lifting high-ranking functionaries’ age restrictions means?

I think this is an indicator of a very narrow ‘bench of substitutes’ for those posts the president appoints — it is people from both the president’s administration and other agencies that obey it. The politics in this sphere has been built on criteria of personal loyalty for long, while the number of people Vladimir Putin trusts is very small. And as they are approaching the age, which was the ceiling for them to occupy public posts, he cancelled these restrictions.

Does it turn out that relatively young people won’t appear on some key posts soon?

The case is that Vladimir Putin knows these people, he more or less trusts him but fears new people.

In other words, is it a fantasy to imagine a young Security Council secretary or defence minister?

Putin doesn’t have people he trusts. His psychological problems aggravated with time, and this is seen in the staff policy. He trusts a very narrow circle of people. And this, without doubt, is a sad situation because paths of career development for younger servants close, which will cause certain tensions in society.

There is a version that one of the reasons for the Gorbachyov Perestroika was that social mobility for a big number of people closed by the end of Brezhnev’s stall. And the middle class underpinning beneath was raring for changes. And today’s picture can lead to a serious crisis in power.

Are we now going towards gerontocracy, the power of old people?

We already nearly see this gerontocracy.

What would the correct age norm be like for top functionaries?

I think that quite normal age restrictions were previously presupposed for functionaries in the law on civil service — under 65. The people who reached this age could be appointed as consultants or advisers if they can work normally, if they are in sound mind.

It is the most normal practice — you can still keep working on a good and prestigious post, simply not as a public servant. European and US experience talks about it, by the way.

Photo: duma.gov.ru
I think that quite normal age restrictions were previously presupposed for functionaries in the law on civil service — under 65

“A lot of people would like to see younger people instead of Lavrov or Shoigu”

Can you say that the top authorities have some distorted perception of reality because of the managers’ age?

In general I can, there is already such a problem. People with age (and it’s not ageing) lose flexibility in perceiving something new. This means that it is necessary to create opportunities for a constant update in such spheres as public service — there must be change at all levels, including at the top.

Suffice it to remember USSR Minister of Foreign Affairs Gromyko.

Undoubtedly, eternal ministers, no matter how good they were, are a wrong practice because these posts are very responsible. It is necessary to demonstrate flexibility, a quick response to reality. And I think a lot of people would like to see younger people instead of Lavrov or Shoigu.

While political expert Yevgeny Minchenko recently claimed that he didn’t see a high demand for a younger administration from society.

For this purpose, it is necessary to look at the results of public surveys. It is hard for me to generalise like Minchenko, but I still see some irritation in society because ‘old people rule the world’.

But the Kremlin doesn’t completely disregard the problem of staff rejuvenation — governors become younger.

It is good because an experienced staff reserve appears in the country: a person gains serious experience of management of a region, which can come in handy to him for federal posts. You must admit that the one who was a governor will deal with federal affairs more effectively than a person who did his service only in the federal apparatus. The one who worked precisely in federal power agencies can’t really understand that Moscow isn’t the whole country.

Look, most presidents in the same United States had experience of managing states, they are former governors. Yes, some presidents were both senators and members of the House of Representatives but they anyway managed to look at the country not only from the capital.

Though objectively, the USA is a strongly decentralised country, and a person from Washington has a slim chance of occupying a post there. But here in Russia, Muscovites didn’t occupy top post during the Soviet and post-Soviet period — either among secretaries general, presidents or premiers.

Young people should grow by gaining experience. Yes, the demand mainly for young managers isn’t manifested well, but there is demand. I don’t understand what Minchenko went by generalising his summary that there was no demand for the youth. He probably carefully makes allowance for the age of the country’s president not to offend him.

Photo: kremlin.ru
Undoubtedly, eternal ministers, no matter how good they were, are a wrong practice because these posts are very responsible. It is necessary to demonstrate flexibility, quick response to the reality

“Besides the resetting, the principle of former presidents’ immunity to jurisdiction was introduced too”

Last week, the State Duma adopted a law permitting Putin to run for the presidency again. This means that in the case of success in elections, there is a probability that he will rule the country through 2036. Do we know now what this idea means?

The president’s term resetting threatens with instability than other situations. While the decision on the resetting indicates there is some deformation of the president’s thinking, namely, his fear of changes.

Look, besides the resetting, the principle of former presidents’ immunity to jurisdiction was introduced too. This means that people from ruling circles simply fear the future. They seem to understand they have done a lot of things and are afraid that when they lose power, they can lose freedom, property and so on — elementary fear drives them.

Do you think the decision on the resetting isn’t Putin’s own decision?

It is a decision of Putin’s group — everybody from this team is afraid of changes because they are one team. And they assume they will have to be held accountable as a group in case of changes.

Generally speaking, can we already understand if Putin wants to declare his candidacy in 2024?

First of all, we don’t clearly know the state of President Putin’s health. The age is so that whatever can happen. Let’s remember words from the famous Bulgakov novel: ‘Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he's sometimes unexpectedly mortal—there's the trick!’ This is why we should live to see 2021 — everything will depend on both Putin’s health and the situation in the country and the world. We don’t know what will happen in three years. There are many unknowns here, it’s hard enough to make some forecasts.

How should we consider those rumours that the power transfer has allegedly already been launched?

A transfer is a wider concept than simply a chance of the leader. The transfer here is already underway — the management in the country is transitioning from the civil bloc of Putin’s team to the force bloc, that’s to say, not specialised offices of the president’s administration resolve issues of domestic politics but the Security Council and related security agencies. Not Sergey Kiriyenko, as it was previously, but Nikolay Patrushev — the Security Council secretary — turns out to supervise the domestic politics.

Can this mean that another person can be the president with the security block in the lead, let’s say, Mishustin?

It is ‘Kremlinology’ without reason. Such rumours remind me of Boris Yeltsin’s second term during which he was re-elected who would be the successor of the president. And then every premier was considered as a successor, and the same guesswork will take place now. But we should keep in mind that the one nobody talked about became the successor in 1999 — Putin came out of the blue.

Photo: kremlin.ru
A transfer is a wider concept than simply a chance of the leader. The transfer here is already underway — the management in the country is transitioning from the civil bloc of Putin’s team to the force bloc

“The 20th CPSU session with the ‘denunciation of the cult of identity’ can repeat here”

You said about the possible instability of the situation regarding Putin’s term resetting. But the president’s rating is still very high.

Again, everything will depend on the situation. The economic situation won’t obviously improve and will work to keep Vladimir Putin’s rating, it is plain to see. Moreover, the information environment is changing — a bigger part of the population is refusing television, and the aggression that we have been showered with from federal TV channels is becoming less effective. But at this moment almost half of the population watch TV and trusts it, give or take.

A lot of people in Russia link their financial future only with the current authorities and wait for support only from them.

What support do the authorities provide people with? The rise in the pension age still irritates people. Yes, it is rising gradually, but for those who are of pre-pension age now and find it tougher to stay in the workplace due to such an age, it is harder to find a new job in case they lose it, they obviously don’t feel such support of the authorities. If we are talking about support during the pandemic, again, people can easily compare it with the support for citizens in more developed countries (for instance, with the USA with their helicopter money) and ask a question: ‘Why can’t we be supported in the same way?’ There is hope for state support but it is melting.

Of course, the authorities will try to support people, but their opportunities for this are reducing. The stance of the Ministry of Finance with its stubborn aspiration to save money, not to allow or keep the budget deficit can work actively against the president’s position. Yes, some money can be handed out now, before the elections, but then the authorities will have to fight against inflation...

Why do you still think that the resetting rather threatens with instability than it doesn’t?

The system is stable when the change of the top official doesn’t lead to commotion and thoughts about them, while many here fear commotion if Putin retires. The thoughts about commotion can be not groundless because the system isn’t set up. Our system doesn’t depend on legal things but an identity (‘No Putin — No Russia’). This means the 20th CPSU session with the ‘denunciation of the cult of identity’ can repeat here. And it may turn out that the president’s ex-supporters will voice these revelations — the top is afraid of this now.

Photo: kremlin.ru
The system is stable when the change of the top official doesn’t lead to commotion and thoughts about them, while many here fear commotion if Putin retires. The thoughts about commotion can be not groundless because the system isn’t set up

How to avoid commotion, chaos?

It is necessary to have normal parliamentary and presidential elections at least twice, without fearing unrest and commotion. These factors can influence the stabilisation of the system.

It is very hard to assume that there will be normal elections to the Duma in 2021 — talks about the admission of only those the Kremlin will consider necessary to see in ballots are already heard.

It is comparable with the parents who won’t give their child the minimum freedom of choice. If a child is under very strict control until he matures, what will he become? Yes, freedom is a risky thing, but the non-freedom can predetermine the collapse of many things in our future.

By Sergey Kochnev