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Breaking Down Putin's Latest Move To Consolidate Power In Russia


What happened in Russia on Wednesday - a power grab, a step towards democratization, a coup or something more subtle? Well, these are questions we want to put to longtime Russia watcher Masha Gessen, who writes about President Vladimir Putin's moves to amend Russia's Constitution and the subsequent resignation of the entire Russian cabinet in The New Yorker.

Masha Gessen, welcome.

MASHA GESSEN: Hi. Good to be here.

KELLY: Hi. So the most common take on all this that I have seen is this is Vladimir Putin laying the groundwork to stay in power and to stay in power past the end of his presidential term, which is set to run out in 2024. Is that your read?

GESSEN: I think that's basically accurate. But, you know, we immediately run into language problems. Like, the moment we start using terms like power grab or coup or constitutional amendments or even, you know, laying the groundwork, it kind of suggests an assumption that's different from reality. So the assumption is that there is power to be grabbed that hasn't already been taken or that there is consolidation to perform that hasn't already been consolidated or that one could perpetrate a coup against oneself, etc.

KELLY: You're saying he already controls the courts in Russia and the Parliament and a lot of the media, and so he doesn't need to consolidate power. He's - he already has it all.

GESSEN: He already has it all. So he's acting paranoid. He's acting to preempt any possible challenge to his power. And I think he, at this point, overestimates the possibility of challenge to his power, which actually makes him very, very strong as a dictator. Dictators fall when they're overconfident; they stay in power when they're paranoid. We, unfortunately, in Russia have long experience with that. The most paranoid dictator in our history was probably Joseph Stalin, who stayed in power until his death, after 30 years at the helm.

KELLY: Do you think that's Putin's goal, by the way, to stay in power till his death?

GESSEN: Absolutely. I think that is his goal. I think he cannot even imagine any other possibility.

KELLY: I mean, let me push back for a second. If you're saying he already controls all the power anyway, why is he bothering with constitutional reforms? Why not just say, hey, guys, I'm not going anywhere - you figure it out?

GESSEN: That's a great question. You know, it's like - sometimes you watch Russia and you think, why are they even bothering with the courts, with trials - right? - when they could just order people to go to prison? Because, effectively, that's what the courts do; they always do exactly what the state tells them to do.

But I think there's a problem of the toolbox. You can't just order somebody to be put in prison when your toolbox kind of sort of looks like a legal system, remotely. The same with the Russian presidency. It is, for whatever purpose at this point, defined by a constitution, right? It hasn't veered very far from the constitution in practice, but it doesn't have any other basis in kind of shared reality besides the constitution. And so he's creating this convoluted process for entrenching it further.

KELLY: Even Putin must know he's not going to live forever. Are there signs that he is grooming anyone to succeed him?

GESSEN: There are no signs he's grooming anyone. I think that he believes himself to be an extremely healthy 67-year-old. I wouldn't be surprised if he planned to live to 100. And again, you know, weirdly, for the second time in this interview, I want to refer to Stalin because we know that when Stalin died, even though he had been in ill health for years, there was no successor. There was no idea in the Soviet power structure about what happens next. Somehow they were all kind of magically convinced he was going to live forever.

KELLY: And it was almost politically dangerous to suggest otherwise.

GESSEN: Absolutely. It was a huge risk to try to look beyond the unimaginable.

KELLY: That's Masha Gessen. And her latest New Yorker article is headlined "The Willful Ambiguity Of Putin's Latest Power Grab."

Thanks so much.

GESSEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY JEWEL'S "THE KEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.