Can a Personalist Dictatorship Remain Itself After its Leader Changes?
April 4, 2024
  • Grigorii Golosov
    Political scientist
In a chapter from his new book, political scientist Grigorii Golosov looks at the current political regime in Russia in comparative perspective and concludes that maintaining personalist power – either with Putin amid a significant change in his role or without Putin – is not realistic.
A chapter from Golosov’s 2024 book, Politicheskiye rezhimy i transformatsii: Rossiya v sravnitel’noy perspektive (Political Regimes and Transformations: Russia in Comparative Perspective), published in Russian by Ruthenia, is republished here with the publisher’s permission.
As the 2020 constitutional reform was being discussed, the contours of a solution emerged that would allow Putin to retain most of his power but also significantly change some aspects of how the regime functioned. I am referring to the creation of the State Council as a body with full power, chaired by Putin, who in this case would cede the presidency to a successor. The real power of the successor would be limited, with the last word on critical decisions remaining with the chairman of the State Council. A similar arrangement had at one point been implemented in Kazakhstan.

It is difficult to judge how seriously Putin himself considered this scheme as a way to solve the “2024 problem,” though it does not matter, as in the end a different method was chosen. Events in Kazakhstan in 2022 showed that Putin had every reason to be wary of that arrangement. It works in a stable situation, but as the domestic political situation becomes even slightly strained, the de jure head of state could have enough institutional power and political resources to get rid of his predecessor, sacrificing him to quell popular discontent.

There is only one solution in which the division of power between the de jure leader and his de facto boss is relatively safe for the latter. This is when power is transferred based on hereditary succession or, in a broad sense, within a family clan. Even party regimes can degenerate into such a situation, as the experience of North Korea shows. Such cases are far from uncommon among electoral authoritarian regimes, ranging from Djibouti to Singapore.

There is the very recent example of Turkmenistan, where the presidency was transferred from father to son while the former, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, remained the de facto ruler as the chairman of the upper house of parliament.

In Russia, such an arrangement is unlikely not because the 2020 constitutional reform did not provide the institutional prerequisites, however: experience has shown that the Russian Constitution can be amended with incredible ease, meaning putting in place those prerequisites would not be a problem.
“The problem, rather, is the lack of a plausible candidate for a hereditary successor. There are, of course, Putin’s mysterious, not-so-well-known daughters, but there are no signs that they can succeed him.”
The lack of information makes this topic extremely difficult to make an informed judgment. Nevertheless, it seems that Putin himself is not inclined to place high hopes on his daughters, either in terms of their readiness for major political careers or even, perhaps, as potential guarantors of his actual power and security.

For comparison, note that for a long time Nursultan Nazarbayev looked closely at his eldest daughter, Dariga, to potentially inherit power; however, in the end he abandoned the idea, with Dariga’s rather eccentric political style apparently playing an important role in the decision. Relationships between fathers and children are often difficult.

The outlook for recreating the current regime after Putin

Let us now consider the prospects for recreating a personalist regime in a situation where Putin, due to some circumstances, loses power but in all other respects the configuration of the current ruling group does not see significant changes. This option is, in fact, the most difficult to examine, as any stable configuration of this group can hardly be established.

There are two reasons for this. The first is trivial – a lack of information. Even Yevgeny Minchenko’s attempts to reconstruct the composition and distribution of powers within what he called “Politburo 2.0” have now ended, and were not particularly convincing before. The second reason is fundamental and lies in the fact that in a personalist regime, the configuration of the ruling group, by definition, cannot be fixed and largely depends on the situational desires and preferences of the leader. Simply put, we do not and cannot know who will be closest to the decision-making center at “moment X.”
Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. Stalin died in March 1953 and his death triggered a power struggle in which Nikita Khrushchev after several years emerged victorious.
Source: Wiki Commons
Let us assume, however, that the composition of this group will be determined not by the formal position of its members in government structures (this is part of another scenario, which I shall not dwell on now), but by their personal resources of power (which cannot be formalized).

Have made this assumption, the first thing that can be said quite definitely is that in this situation none of the possible contenders for supreme personal power will have a decisive advantage over the others. The emergence of such a figure in a functioning personalist regime is extremely difficult, since he would pose too obvious a threat to the current leader, and in Russia no one is even visible on the horizon.

It can, of course, be argued that since the regime will retain its electoral basis, the leader will also be chosen in elections. Yet Putin did not immediately acquire his colossal political resources – it took a couple of electoral cycles for everything to change. Putin won his first presidential election in conditions of electoral democracy, while the second election was not entirely pretend.

Now, the situation is different. All members of the ruling group know that if the main features of modern Russian “electoral politics” are preserved, the elections will be won by any candidate who represents the existing regime.
The real moment of truth will not be when citizens are called to the polls, but when members of the political leadership, in a small circle, decide on who of themselves to nominate for president.”
I submit, however, that in this situation the winner will have only one decisive argument on his side – force, i.e., the ability to attract the support of the armed forces or other powerful security bodies.

These circumstances take us beyond a model in which the existing regime is preserved more or less unchanged. An absolute monarchy or a party regime can survive the active intervention of security forces in politics. In the former case, this is because the proverbial “Preobrazhensky regiment,” having carried out a coup, may well limit its intervention to swapping one monarch for another. In the latter case, it is because the military leadership is closely intertwined with the political leadership within party organs. The military leaders who took part in the struggle for power simply remain members of the party leadership. This does not result in the establishment of a military regime.

This is impossible in a personalist regime. There are no institutions – like the royal court or the party – to ensure the integration of the security forces that play the leading role in the struggle for power into the new order, meaning they would stay on the sidelines. Everything goes to whomever ensures the transfer of power by force, even if officially he does not immediately become the head of the regime. Thus, in my view, maintaining personalist power – either with Putin amid a significant change in his role or without Putin – is not realistic.
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