Kirill Rogov

Political Analyst

“A New Prince”: non-democratic transfer of power in the post-soviet space

According to the current Constitution, Vladimir Putin cannot run in the 2024 Russian presidential election. The norm limiting a person to two consecutive presidential terms first appeared in the 1991 reviewed Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), was then guaranteed by the 1993 Constitution1, and was observed during the next two presidential tenures – Yeltsin’s (from 1991 to 2000) and Putin’s first one (from 2000 to 2008). Later, during Medvedev’s presidency (from 2008 to 2012), the presidential term was extended to six years. Thus, Putin’s second tenure will span 12 years and expire in 2024. What will happen next?

Putin’s reelection in 2012 was marred by a tense atmosphere of mass protests provoked by wide-scale fraud during the 2011 parliamentary election and societal discontent about the prospect of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin. These demonstrations along with the 2014 revolution in Ukraine have largely defined the evolution of the Putin regime in the 2010s. By 2018 the next presidential election in 2018, the Russian authoritarian regime looked much more consolidated. According to official estimates, Putin received 77 percent of the vote on 67.5 percent turnout, which accounted for more than half of all registered voters (51.8 percent). This was exactly the goal set by the presidential administration before the election. This result was supposed to provide Putin with a kind of ultra-legitimacy: he had not simply been elected head of state in accordance with the current Constitution and legislation–the impressiveness of his victory and its plebiscitary character allowed him to claim a legitimacy rivaling the constitutional one.

On March 19 of this year, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had led Kazakhstan for 30 years (since the Soviet times), announced his resignation. He later named Parliament Speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokayev candidate for presidency from the ruling party. The election will be held on June 9, and there is little doubt about its outcome. Nazarbayev himself will remain head of the National Security Council as well as leader of the ruling Nur Otan party for life, thus retaining much of his political power and resources.

In democratic systems, the transfer of power is subject to a strict procedure that is modified in extreme cases only; property rights on the whole are protected by the law; and voters are the ones who decide who will head the executive branch or will be included in the executive coalition. In non-democratic electoral systems, the procedure, property rights, and even voting results are to a far greater degree affected by arbitrary decisions of the head of the executive branch. Consequently, the irremovability of government and the preservation of power in the hands of the same executive coalition become the regime’s key objective. This objective largely defines the logic of the regime’s evolution, its tactical and personnel decisions. As a rule, the irremovability of government is achieved through manipulating the will of the voters. However, there are times when the executive coalition faces a greater challenge: the death (or incapacitation) of the coalition’s leader, or constitutional restraints not allowing them to remain in office any longer. Such situations serve as crash-tests of sorts for non-democratic systems. Whether the system can or cannot handle such a challenge reveals the true weight and importance of its institutions, the actual balance of power within society and the elites, and the fundamental characteristics of this polity and the basic restrictions that it imposes.

In the first part of this work we intend to examine the cases of non-democratic transfer of power in the post-Soviet space, while in the second part we will discuss in detail the mechanisms of the emerging transition in Kazakhstan and possible scenarios of a similar transition in Russia.

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