The presidential election in Russia a week ago resulted in an impressive, if unsurprising, victory for Vladimir Putin. He was elected to a fourth term with a wide margin and high turnout in a vote that appeared to be the cleanest in Russia’s recent history (at least when it comes to what happened on Election Day itself).
But this election was about more than just reinstalling Mr. Putin in the Kremlin. It signaled the beginning of post-Putin Russia. Because while the president has gained popular support for policies like annexing Crimea and confronting the West, the legitimacy of his next term will be determined by his success in reassuring ordinary Russians that his regime will endure even when he is no longer in the Kremlin.
Mr. Putin’s role in the Russian public imagination today is similar to that of post-colonial national liberation leaders of the 1960s and ’70s. He is viewed as the founder of a new Russian state, the savior of Russia’s dignity and the restorer of its status as a great power. And contrary to Western fantasies, Russians under the age of 25 are among his strongest supporters.
They not only vote for him, many of them want to be like him. Seventy-six percent of people between 18 and 30 perceive working in the security services as “very prestigious,” compared to 59 percent of those older than 60. As the analysts Andrei Kolesnikov and Denis Volkov observed, within the Russian public, “there is no debate about Putin.”
“Almost no one questions his legitimacy as president,” they wrote in a recent report for the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He is a constant, the portrait on the wall that can no longer be taken down.”
The question is what will happen to those whose portraits are not on the wall. In late 2011, the magazine Russian Reporter published a study of Russia’s elite that revealed that the most important predictor of membership in the elite circle (the top 300 government positions) was to have known Mr. Putin before he became president. In short, a circle of friends has governed Russia for the last 18 years.
There are no signs that the president is planning to take power away from this circle of friends. But it is clear he intends to open the system to loyal outsiders — in particular younger ones — in order to increase its chances of survival. He is ready to offer society generational change as a substitute for political change.
When thinking about the years ahead, Mr. Putin, unlike Boris Yeltsin, does not think in terms of a successor but in terms of a successor generation. He envisions a transfer of power from his generation to the “Putin generation,” comprising politicians who came of age during, and have been shaped by, his rule. This process has already started: In the several months before the election, nine young politicians were appointed regional governors.
This generation, he hopes, will preserve his major achievement: Russia’s re-emergence as a great power, one able and determined to resist the United States. For Mr. Putin, an independent foreign policy is not an instrument but an ultimate objective.
This new cohort includes young technocrats who have different backgrounds and experiences but one thing in common: They are loyal to the regime while aware of its deficiencies. They see themselves as crisis managers rather than visionary leaders. They trust technology and mistrust politics. They know how to carry out Mr. Putin’s instructions but not how to disagree with the president.
Sergei Kiriyenko, the current deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration who in 1998 at the age of 36 was prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and an example of a young liberal reformer, is their coach. In this sense, the contrast between Mr. Yeltsin’s young reformers of the late 1990s and Mr. Putin’s young technocrats of today is revealing.
Mr. Yeltsin’s reformers had a clear political profile: They were liberal and pro-Western and they acted as a team, strongly supporting each other. They had political ambitions and viewed themselves as a political force apart from their connection to the Kremlin. Mr. Putin’s young technocrats, by contrast, are experts in logistics with no identifiable political convictions or loyalty to any constituency. They are not a team and they will not stand for each other.
Until fairly recently, after every election in Russia, the question being raised was who would prevail in the Kremlin: Western-style modernizers or anti-Western hard-liners? This question is no longer relevant.
Speaking English, graduating from Harvard, or working for a big Western company does not tell you much any more about the political views of Russia’s future leaders. The Putin generation of technocrats is Western-style but not pro-Western.
The coming generational change in Russian reality tells us little about the future of the regime, because President Putin is its biggest asset but also the biggest vulnerability. He dominates the political scene to the extent that he promotes to the top only people with moderate ambitions who know how to work for the president effectively but could not be the president.
The irony is that Mr. Putin is placing these new technocrats in power as an alternative to his failed attempt to reinstall the current prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, as his successor. But in reality the Putin generation is just a collective Medvedev. And when it comes to what post-Putin Russia will look like, the president is back where he was when he put Mr. Medvedev in the Kremlin and then decided to return to his old office.
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the author most recently, of After Europe.