Comment - With vote interest low, attention turns to 2024 Kremlin power struggle
Less than a month before Russia's presidential election Vladimir Putin cancelled several trips and unexpectedly disappeared from public view for nearly two weeks. When asked why, his spokesman blamed a common cold.
Mr Putin's absence mirrored the lack of excitement in the moribund race, in which the popular president is virtually guaranteed to win his fourth six-year term. Although he has reappeared since his illness, interest in the election has not, and polls have suggested record low participation in the March 18 vote.
With opposition leader Alexei Navalny calling for an election boycott, the Kremlin has been mainly concerned with avoiding an embarrassingly low turnout.
The real question is what will happen in 2024, since the constitution limits the president to two consecutive terms.
Mr Putin has got around this rule in the past and in 2008 pulled off the "castling" move, switching places for four years with his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Although incomes have been declining and economic growth is projected to be only 1.7pc this year, there have been few signs of widespread unrest.
"The meaning of the 2018 election is not in the year 2018 but in the year 2024," political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote last week in the leading business newspaper 'Vedomosti'. "Will Putin leave or will he try to become ayatollah of all Russia? If he leaves, who will replace him and guarantee him peaceful old age?"
In the Kremlin, however, what will happen in 2024 is not being discussed openly, former and current insiders said.
"The decision will be made closer to the date, not now, but closer to the date," said a presidential administration source who was not authorised to comment officially. "There are still six years until 2024; that's a long time."
Yet the president's future will affect the fate of the whole country. The regime is so personalised, with Mr Putin seen as the only one who can arbitrate serious conflicts among political and economic elites, that a transition of power could be volatile, and anything could come next.
During his 18-year rule, Russia has been transformed from a poor, pro-Western developing democracy into an authoritarian, revanchist world power - and many hardliners would like to take it even further in that direction.
In 2024, few expect a repeat of the "castling" move of 2008, as that would destroy what thin veneer of competitive elections is left.
Changing the constitution to remove the term limit would also seem drastic, but Mr Putin could easily keep the reins while switching seats to another position, perhaps speaker of the parliament.
"Remind me of a [Russian] leader who left power voluntarily," said economist and political pundit Konstantin Sonin. "They left like [Mikhail] Gorbachev, when the lights are out in the office, when they were told, 'That's it, you have to go already'."
But does Mr Putin himself want to stay in power forever? He has looked listless and tired discussing domestic issues at events such as his annual call-in show, and his interventions in political squabbles have become more infrequent.
Some have argued that the "governor's purge" last year, when Mr Putin replaced the heads of 20 regions, was in fact a casting to start identifying potential successors.
Finding a competent leader in Russia's scorched-earth political landscape could be difficult, and he or she must be absolutely loyal given the corruption accusations against the Kremlin inner circle sparked by the 'Panama Papers' leaks and Mr Navalny's investigations.
Mr Putin's own first decree as president was to grant immunity to the outgoing Boris Yeltsin and his family. Although speculation has touched on everyone from the mayor of Moscow to the head of the wealthy Tatarstan region, no obvious candidates have yet emerged.
Three former bodyguards have even been seen as potential heirs after Mr Putin appointed them to head the national guard and the Tula and Yaroslavl regions in 2016 and 2017. That is assuming Mr Putin remains powerful enough to pick his own heir, rather than have one forced on him amid the constant infighting and coalition-building around the Kremlin.
"A struggle is starting for the concept of the successor and the next regime," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser to Mr Yeltsin and Mr Putin who helped facilitate the transition between them. "The successor is not just a name, it's a model of power."
Recent political conflicts have suggested Mr Putin's control is weakening and certain players are gaining more clout. The most notable case was economic development minister Alexei Ulyukayev's imprisonment on bribery allegations brought by Igor Sechin, Mr Putin's long-time aide who now heads the state oil giant Rosneft.
It was the first jailing of a sitting minister since Joseph Stalin's time and highlighted Mr Sechin's influence and independence from the president, who kept out of the affair.
Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia's remote Chechnya republic, has amassed a personal army of up to 30,000 security troops - he's publicly ordered them to "shoot to kill" federal agents encroaching on their territory - and increasingly flaunted the Russian law in crackdowns against critics and alleged extremists.
But in the current system, where Mr Putin plays different Kremlin clans off against each other, any potential leader who grows too strong too quickly would be torn to bits by rivals.
An unexpected successor is more likely to emerge as the solution to a late-term political crisis, just as Mr Putin did when he was appointed acting president in 1999.
"The person who has the best chance is the one we don't see," Mr Pavlovsky said, "the one we're not even thinking about." (© Daily Telegraph, London)