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The Russian President's reputed obsession with past strongmen – and their ignominious deaths or defeats – may be a key reason for the coming referendum to keep him in office until 2036. But observers say it's hard for him to control what will happen next to his legacy, or his country

Illustration by Chloe Cushman

You can win a new car – or maybe even an apartment – if you cast a ballot in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk on July 1. In other parts of the country, the prizes range from grocery vouchers to the latest model of iPhone.

There’s a tawdry feel to the referendum that Russia is holding to approve changes to its constitution. There are prizes for voting – intended to drive up turnout – but no substantive debate about the amendments, the most dramatic of which will allow Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already ruled the country for more than 20 years, to remain in office until 2036.

Though polls show Mr. Putin’s popularity rating is at its lowest ebb since he first became a public figure in late 1999, the result of the referendum is assumed. Bound copies of the new constitution are already on sale in Moscow bookstores.

Though Russia has ended its novel coronavirus lockdown just in time for the vote – even as the country continues to record thousands of new positive tests a day – opposition campaigning is banned.

The referendum will also see Russians allowed to cast their ballots remotely for the first time, making attempts to monitor the process almost impossible. The independent Dozhd TV channel reported last week on a vote-buying scheme that saw participants paid 75 rubles (about $1.50) for each account they create on the official online voting platform, with an additional 50-ruble payment for each vote in favour of the amendments.

A printing factory in Podolsk transports ballots for the July 1 referendum.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Barring a shocking turn of events, Mr. Putin will soon have consolidated his near-dictatorial powers for the foreseeable future. But the one thing he still can’t control is what happens after he leaves the Kremlin. That unpredictability, analysts and former members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle say, is why the 67-year-old has repeatedly sought to remain in power.

In a Sunday interview with Russian state television, Mr. Putin said he hadn’t yet made up his mind about running for office again in 2024 if the new constitution is approved. But he suggested that it might be in the national interest for him to do so. “If this doesn’t happen, then in about two years – and I know this from personal experience – the normal rhythm of work of many parts of government will be replaced by a search for possible successors,” he said. “We must be working, not looking for successors.”

His real reasons for remaining in the Kremlin are believed to be two-fold. There are concerns that any successor might reverse the course that Mr. Putin has put the country on – a direction that has seen Russia make geopolitical gains, though at a cost to the country’s economy, which has been hit hard by Western sanctions as a result of the President’s military adventurism in Ukraine and Syria. A recent plunge in the price of oil is also partly the result of Mr. Putin’s foreign policy decisions.

And there are worries about his own fate. Centuries of Russian leaders – including the czars who ruled over the Russian Empire and the Communist Party bosses who ran the Soviet Union – have left power one of two ways: They were forced out, or they died in office. A rare exception was his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, though many believe he was pushed into stepping aside to make way for Mr. Putin at the turn of the century.

“If you enter the Kremlin, you cannot leave the Kremlin on your own. You either leave in a tomb, or you’re kicked out like [Mikhail] Gorbachev,” said Lilia Shevtsova, the author of two books on Mr. Putin’s time in power.

Mugs at a Moscow gift shop feature Mr. Putin, Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin and Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Putin is also believed to be obsessed with what happened to other strongmen after leaving office, particularly Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Mr. Milosevic, who stepped down in the face of peaceful protests against his rule, spent his final days in The Hague, accused of war crimes for his role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Mr. Gadhafi was killed by rebels during a violent 2011 uprising.

Some believe that Mr. Putin’s own battles – a 2008 war against neighbouring Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and his support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, plus Russia’s military backing of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – could leave him exposed in the same way that Mr. Milosevic was.

“If he steps aside, he could end up in The Hague. There is a chance that any successor would send him there,” said Vladislav Inozemtsev, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He hypothesized that a future Russian leader might be willing to hand Mr. Putin over to an international court in exchange for the lifting of Western sanctions against the country. “Russia is in such a dire position economically that it could be some sort of trade-off.”

Events in Libya have also played an important role in Mr. Putin’s thinking. The first time he faced the Russian constitution’s two-term limit, in 2008, he flipped jobs with his former aide Dmitry Medvedev, and moved into the theoretically junior post of prime minister for four years, before returning to the presidency. (This time, the proposed changes would reset the clock on Mr. Putin’s time in the Kremlin with the adoption of the new constitution, allowing him to run for two additional six-year terms after the current one expires.)

While Mr. Putin remained Russia’s de facto supreme leader between 2008 and 2012, Mr. Medvedev had authority over foreign affairs. He defied Mr. Putin in 2011, when he refrained from using Russia’s veto in a United Nations Security Council vote that cleared the way for NATO air strikes in support of the anti-Gadhafi rebels. Mr. Putin criticized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization action as akin to a “crusade,” leading Mr. Medvedev to publicly rebuke his prime minister for his “unacceptable” comments.

Mr. Medvedev got his way, and six months later Mr. Gadhafi was tortured and killed by rebels in a gruesome scene that Mr. Putin called “disgusting” in televised remarks, after reportedly watching the video repeatedly. (Russia is now deeply involved in Libya’s continuing civil war, sending private military contractors to support warlord Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to topple the UN-backed government.)

Workers attach a pre-election poster of Mr. Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in Krasnodar in 2011, the year the two United Russia leaders switched their jobs back to president and prime minister, respectively.Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters/Reuters

It was the end of Mr. Putin’s flirtation with receding from power. Late in 2011, Mr. Putin announced that he and Mr. Medvedev would again swap jobs so that he could return to the presidency. Mr. Medvedev’s largest contribution to Russian history will likely be his move to extend the length of presidential terms from four years to six, thereby extending Mr. Putin’s stay in the Kremlin.

This time, Mr. Putin is apparently unwilling to cede even the token powers he gave up in 2008.

“Putin built a state that is reliant on his will. Some people call it Putinism. But I think he increasingly understands that the system will not work without him,” said Nabi Abdullayev, a Moscow-based political analyst with the Control Risks consultancy. “Even Medvedev, his closest confidant, allowed the system to deviate from the path Putin had decided on.”

Several former Kremlin insiders told The Globe and Mail – in interviews conducted over the past two years – that Mr. Putin makes all important decisions himself. He calls advisors into his office, or his dacha outside Moscow, to give him their opinion on a file. Mr. Putin listens inscrutably, then sends them away without revealing what his decision will be, or whether their advice has had any impact on his thinking.

“He asks a lot of people, but takes full responsibility for himself,” said Sergey Markov, an occasional Kremlin advisor and former MP in the United Russia party that Mr. Putin founded. “It’s not something where decisions are made at 4 p.m. He just makes decisions and surprises everybody.”

“The system is fragile because it’s based on one person,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin advisor who now works with Russia’s beleaguered opposition. “If something happens to that one person, it will collapse very quickly.”

Mr. Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during a bilateral meeting at last year's G20 leaders summit.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Reuters

Both Mr. Markov and Mr. Belkovsky say that in recent years, Mr. Putin has seemed increasingly bored with domestic affairs, and has focused nearly all of his energy on Russia’s foreign policy, which he views as the centrepiece of his legacy. While Russia has inarguably made gains on the global stage over the past 20 years, it has come at a cost to the country’s economy.

The key achievement of Mr. Putin’s first term in office was stabilnost – a return to stability after the economic freefall Russia experienced at the end of the 1990s – but real incomes in Russia have stopped growing since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, as the President gambled that stabilnost away in a gambit to reclaim what Russian nationalists see as land that should never have been part of Ukraine.

The country’s per capita gross domestic product, which rose dramatically during the first 13 years of Mr. Putin’s time as president or prime minister – from less than US$2,000 at the turn of the century to just more than US$16,000 – plunged in each of 2014, 2015 and 2016, (bottoming out below US$9,000 per capita) as sanctions, and accompanying brain drain, hit hard. The economy started to grow again in 2017, but GDP per capita was still below US$12,000 at the end of last year – and that was before the arrival of the pandemic, which as of June 22 had killed more than 8,200 Russians, and cost more than a million others their jobs.

In other words, ordinary Russians have paid a hefty price to secure Mr. Putin’s place in the history books.

Honour guards take part in a May 9 ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Second World War's end.STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

The annexation of Crimea – which involved the deployment of Russian special forces into Ukraine, while Russia’s nuclear forces were put on standby in case the West reacted militarily – is another decision that Mr. Putin is believed to have made entirely on his own. “With Putin it was not even possible to discuss foreign policy. It was his prerogative,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Mr. Putin’s first prime minister, between 2000 and 2004, before going into opposition. (In a 2018 interview with The Globe and Mail, shortly after Mr. Putin began his current term, Mr. Kasyanov predicted that his former boss would change the constitution in order to remain in office beyond 2024.)

And two decades of Mr. Putin’s fists-first foreign policy has seen Russia restored as an important, if disruptive, player among not just its neighbours in the former Soviet Union, but also further afield, in historical great-power arenas such as the Balkans and the Middle East.

Zivadin Jovanovic, who served as Mr. Milosevic’s foreign minister in the last years of the former Yugoslavia, pointed to how Russia was left fuming on the side lines in 1999 as NATO bombed Belgrade and drove the Serbian army out of what was then its renegade province of Kosovo. It’s almost impossible to imagine Mr. Putin’s Russia standing aside in a similar situation today.

Under Mr. Putin, Russia has used its veto power at the UN Security Council to support Belgrade’s claim that Kosovo remains part of Serbia. Russia has also helped Serbia rebuild its air force, which was largely destroyed in the NATO bombings. The Kremlin can make further trouble in the region through Milorad Dodic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb mini-state inside fragile Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mr. Dodic, who told The Globe and Mail that he sees Mr. Putin as the most important world leader, regularly muses about a declaration of independence that many worry would restart the bloodiest of the Balkan wars.

“No major problem in the contemporary world can be solved without the direct involvement of Russia,” Mr. Jovanovic said in an interview at his Belgrade office last year, shortly after Mr. Putin was welcomed in the Serbian capital by cheering crowds. “No serious solution can be sustainable without Russia.”

Russian soldiers reposition in the town of Derouna Arha, near the Syrian border with Turkey, on June 16.DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

The same is true in the Middle East, where the deployment of Russian troops, warplanes and anti-aircraft defences to Syria saved Mr. al-Assad’s regime from looming defeat in 2015. It also made Moscow a central player in the region just as the region’s old superpower, the United States, was beginning to withdraw. As in the Balkans, Russia’s military and diplomatic manoeuvres are backed by Kremlin media, which has stepped up its broadcasting anti-Western narratives in Arabic.

When U.S. President Donald Trump rolled out a vision of Middle East peace earlier this year – one that proposed resolving key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely on Israel’s terms – many in the Arab world looked to Russia for help, leading to hopeful talk of an alternative, Moscow-led peace process that has yet to materialize.

“Russia has become a very important player,” said Zeev Elkin, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, who has served as a translator in meetings between the Russian and Israeli leaders. Mr. Putin, Mr. Elkin said, is in a unique position in the Middle East, able to act as an arbiter, or to take sides, as the Russian President sees fit. (Russia has allied itself with Iran to achieve shared aims in Syria – where both support Mr. al-Assad – but has repeatedly stood aside to allow Israel to strike at Iranian targets in Syria.)

Many analysts believe that Mr. Putin would be willing to trade some of its gains in the Middle East and the Balkans – perhaps even terminate its support for Mr. al-Assad, or its alliance with Iran – in exchange for an end to Western sanctions, and recognition of Russia’s claim to Crimea.

Muscovites walk on June 19 past a poster reproducing photographer Robert Hopkins' historic image of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the 1945 Yalta conference.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Fyodor Lukyanov, who edits the Russia in Global Affairs foreign policy journal, said Moscow would “eagerly” make a grand bargain with the West, as Joseph Stalin did when he met with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Crimean resort of Yalta near the end of the Second World War. There, the three men divided the world into “spheres of influence.”

The idea of a second Yalta summit – this time attended by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council – is one that Mr. Putin personally promoted last week in a 9,000-word essay published in The National Interest, a U.S.-based magazine. “Today, as in 1945, it is important to demonstrate political will and discuss the future together,” he wrote.

Mr. Putin’s falling approval ratings suggest the pressure is rising on him to trade some of his geopolitical gains for economic relief. The 59 per cent who said they supported the President in successive surveys at the end of both April and May was the lowest level recorded by the Levada Center, Russia’s lone independent pollster, since September, 1999, three months before Mr. Putin became president for the first time.

The pandemic forced the Levada pollsters to conduct their most recent surveys entirely by telephone. A post-Soviet fear of discussing politics with strangers over the phone has resulted in telephone polls showing inflated levels of support for the authorities.

In other words, Mr. Putin’s real rating may be lower than we know, though the official referendum result is unlikely to reveal the scale of the dissent.

“People are tired of [Mr. Putin]. The elites are tired of him. But they understand change could bring chaos and collapse,” said Ms. Shevtsova, the Putin biographer. “I think everybody’s scared of what could happen. Including Putin.”

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