Putin Looks Beyond Election in Bid to Expand Authority

  • Former prime minister charged with delivering victory
  • Putin said seeking mandate, agenda for next six-year term

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election reverberates around the world, Vladimir Putin is making sure he’ll remain a force to be reckoned with for the next tenant of the White House.

Putin is setting up a team to ensure he wins a fourth term with a wide margin in 2018, according to five people close to the process. The effort is led by former nuclear-power chief Sergei Kiriyenko, who was appointed last month as the Kremlin’s head of domestic politics and is expected to lead the campaign when it’s announced publicly, probably late next year, said one of the people, all of whom asked not to be identified to discuss confidential deliberations.

Putin is laying the groundwork for his third decade in power. Kiriyenko’s mandate goes beyond the elections, according to the people who’ve discussed it with him. It includes shaking off some of the conservatism that’s permeated the political system in recent years and to do that without threatening stability. That makes his appointment part of Putin’s drive to bring in new generation of top officials.

“The conservative agenda has been exhausted,” said Andrey Ashkerov, a political scientist at Moscow State University. “Putin is calling for young bureaucrats to join him in an attempt to freshen up the system.”

Default, Reactors

Known mainly for a stint as prime minister in 1998 during which Russia defaulted on its domestic debt and the currency collapsed, Kiriyenko, 54, has worked under Putin since 2000. For most of that period, he focused on rebuilding the nuclear industry to its Soviet glory as head of state-run Rosatom Corp. Under his leadership, the company became an instrument of foreign policy as it increased its global reach with deals to build power plants from Finland and Hungary to China and India.

With a year and a half to go until the election, Kiriyenko started his new job with just one colleague, former Rosatom press aide Sergei Novikov. It’s unclear how large his staff will be, though Kiriyenko has indicated that he’d team up with former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who’s developing a plan to strengthen the judiciary, the people said.

Novikov declined to comment and said Kiriyenko was unavailable. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kiriyenko’s role is more “multifaceted” than organizing elections and introducing changes into domestic politics.

‘Putin Elections’

Kiriyenko is to “conduct not normal elections, but Putin elections, which are more like a referendum on trust in Putin,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, head of the domestic-politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Putin’s approval rating is more than 80 percent and the opposition is in disarray. Almost two-thirds of Russians want to see him continue after 2018, according to a survey by the independent polling company Levada.

The president consolidated his support after returning to the presidency from a four-year stint as prime minister amid mass protests. Since then, Putin’s popularity has soared as he annexed Crimea from Ukraine, where he supports a separatist insurgency, and reasserted Russia’s role in global security with an intervention in Syria.

Kiriyenko’s predecessor, Vyacheslav Volodin, built Putin’s 64 percent majority in the 2012 election by casting opponents as unpatriotic and out of touch. Kremlin critics were branded as “foreign agents” bent on subverting the government.

Kiriyenko has signaled a different approach. In meetings since taking his post, he’s indicated a desire to broaden the Kremlin’s appeal to groups beyond Putin’s conservative core without radical changes, the people said. He will also help the Russian leader reassert control over warring factions within his inner circle, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, an adviser to Putin during his first decade in power.

Read more: Putin’s public perception

Kiriyenko’s goal “is to modernize the system, using the country’s hardship as justification,” Pavlovsky said by phone. He’ll drive a “technocratic modernization where the hysteria of propaganda will be pushed aside."

The specifics will come later, with the current focus on stylistic changes, said Alexei Cheshnakov, a former Kremlin political aide. 

“It’s now visible that Kiriyenko is turning over the soil of the field that was so roughly paved over by Volodin,” Chesnakov said. “Kiriyenko is only just planting the seedlings of the new Putin policy. It will be more creative and technological."

Kremlin Revamp

Shifting power dynamics may give Kiriyenko more room to operate. Several high-profile officials, including Putin’s former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov have left recently. Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev was detained and dismissed Tuesday over bribery charges. In came a cadre of younger politicians, many of whom began their careers during Putin’s rule.

Kiriyenko’s relationship with Putin dates back to the late 1990s, when as prime minister he delivered the news of the future president’s abrupt promotion to head the Federal Security Service, the main successor of the Soviet KGB.

Kiriyenko played a role in reigning in powerful regional bosses during the early years of Putin’s presidency and in 2005 he was tapped to head Rosatom. He soon became a regular on Putin’s international trips, pushing billion-dollar deals. A successful result in 2018 could position him for a promotion, several senior officials said.

“It’s not just the 2018 presidential election that depends on Kiriyenko,” said Boris Makarenko, president of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. Kiriyenko has to “propose a new agenda for these difficult economic conditions” that will set priorities for Putin’s next -- and constitutionally his last -- term, the political consultant said.

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