MOSCOW — Aug. 9 came and went in Russia without an official celebration. And yet, the date is significant. It marks the moment Vladimir Putin first came to power — 18 years ago.
Everyone, from his closest advisors at the Kremlin to independent political scientists, expects the Russian president to continue to heed his well-worn playbook. In recent weeks, we've been exposed to images of a bare-chested Putin fishing on holiday, apparently to counter rumors that he's sick and tired. And on Aug. 8, he went to Abkhazia, wedged between Russia and Georgia and bordering the Black Sea, to celebrate the ninth anniversary of victory against Georgia in 2008. The visit was meant to stress that aspect of Putin that makes him so popular among Russians: his image as the "Gatherer of Russian Lands."
He is seen as a leader who can stand up to the Americans, and who doesn't hesitate to reclaim territory from countries that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia). It's no coincidence that the date of Russia's 2018 presidential election was recently moved so that it falls on the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea.
Putin hasn't officially declared his candidacy for the election as yet. But there's no doubt he wants to be president until 2024. He will then be 72 years old, a little younger than Stalin, who was 73 when he died at the helm.
"Putin will be in better physical shape, which means he'll be able to rule the country for another 30 or 35 years," far right columnist Piotr Akopov writes in the online newspaper Vzgliad. "Does that mean the country will stagnate terribly? Of course not. The stronger and more experienced he will be, the easier it will be to accelerate the country's development."
Akopov then asks: "Will Putin change in the future? No, he will simply be more and more confident in what he does. And it doesn't matter what his title will be after 2024, when he ceases to be president, ... Putin will clearly remain the real head of state." Under Russia's constitution, a president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms.
The presidential election, scheduled for March 18, 2018, "should give Putin his place in history," says political scientist Konstantin Kalachev, who is close to the Kremlin. "After the Russian president's efforts on foreign policy, after Crimea's annexation, the result of this election must not only be convincing; he must equal the vote he obtained in 2012 (63.6% in the first round). It must strengthen Putin in the role of the popular leader with indisputable authority, whose popularity is the basis of the political system."
A few lines of Putin's future mandate leaked to the Russian media at the beginning of the summer. Putin talks about a justice reform, building a "digital economy" and a "development program for big cities." Political scientist Alexander Morozov sees the judicial reform as "probably the only reform we can expect from Putin." But he remains skeptical given that over the past decade, he observed a "complete merging of the security forces and judicial authorities."
The digital economy program would appeal to young voters, though restrictions and censorship on the internet risk limiting this project to "fulfill the needs of the military-industrial complex and support geopolitical ambitions," laments Morozov. At the same time, the Putin administration has been working discreetly for months on a "model for the future." Russian television, in the meantime, continues to deify Putin.
"It's impossible to find a model for the future," says economist Vladislav Inozemtsev. "The ideological effort of the past few years is a negation of any model for the future. It's oriented towards the popularization of the concepts of stability and conservatism."
Political analyst Aleksandr Golts is just as critical. For him, Putin's literal flaunting of muscle — already tested out in 2007 and 2009 — is "a sign of the refusal to look for something new. We can deduce from this that the administration's feverish search for a "model for the future" is completed. An immortal Putin is our future," he says, with irony.
In terms of foreign policy, "There's no turning back — Putin cannot give Crimea back," notes Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The relations with the West will always be more or less tense. They can be better than they're now, but they'll never return to what they were between 2012 and 2014."