Vyacheslav Volodin, now that he has won Kremlin support to become the next speaker of the State Duma, has emerged as a potential Putin successor in 2018.

The first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin (pictured center), will become the next speaker of the State Duma. Photo: RIA Novosti

The question of who is going to become the next speaker of the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russian parliament, has now been answered. Russian President Vladimir Putin recommended all four Duma parties to support the candidacy of the first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin. As usual, the parliamentary parties did not oppose the president and expressed their approval.

In Putin’s administration, Volodin was in charge of the nation’s domestic policy. In short, he was the “regime’s architect.” He coordinated state ideology, managed elections, lobbied for specific pieces of legislation and “cleaned up” Russia after the Bolotnaya protests in Moscow that resulted from the allegedly rigged parliamentary elections in December 2011. In fact, dealing with the Russian opposition was probably his most important task.

Russian political scientists are divided in their assessments of whether Volodin’s appointment to the Duma is a promotion or demotion. However, the fact that this new role is much more public suggests that it might be a sort of tryout for the role of being Putin’s future successor – perhaps as early as the 2018 presidential elections.

Rumors about Volodin’s planned transfer to the Duma appeared a while ago. For a time, it seemed that his predecessor, Sergei Naryshkin, did not plan to leave his post until the last moment. However, Putin signed a decree about Naryshkin’s appointment as the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and that settled matters.

Many expect Volodin to be much more of a visible, hands-on presence within the Duma. The director of the International Institute for Political Expertise, Evgeny Minchenko, told Russia Direct that, “Undoubtedly, Volodin will be a more heavy-handed speaker in the Duma than his predecessors.”

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Of course, Russia’s State Duma lost its political weight long ago. During the tenure of the two previous speakers, it just consistently rubber-stamped bills coming from the government and Presidential Administration. Boris Gryzlov, ex-Duma speaker, famously noted that, “The Duma is not a place for discussions.” And, during Naryshkin’s tenure, the Duma was given the nickname “The Mad Printer” because it enacted a large number of restrictive laws.

As for Volodin, he is used to acting directly and firmly, a trait that might increase the Duma’s role and prestige. However, on the other hand, it might add only to his personal influence. After all, now that the United Russia party possesses a constitutional majority in the parliament, it doesn’t necessarily require a strong leader to get its voice heard.

Volodin the manager

Volodin has worked in all branches of the government – from municipal deputy to Duma speaker. His political career started in 1991 when he was elected as a member of the Saratov city Duma, where he became deputy chair. In 1996 Volodin became vice-governor of the Saratov region. In 1999 he became a member of the State Duma and the leader of the parliamentary group “Fatherland – All Russia” (which later gave birth to the United Russia party). In 2003 and 2007 Volodin was reelected as a member of parliament. Hence, it won’t be the first time for Volodin to work in parliament.

In 2010 he started to work in the Russian government and became the deputy prime minister and the government’s chief of staff. In 2011, Volodin took a job in the Presidential Administration, where he took over for first deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, who was considered a protégé of then President Dmitry Medvedev.

The new “Grey Cardinal”

The role of the first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration is not a public role, even though this individual is in charge of the country’s domestic policy. As a result, many in the West may not be familiar with Volodin’s work.

The recent parliamentary elections of 2016 serve as a vivid demonstration of the results of Volodin’s work in the Presidential Administration. While the previous Duma electoral cycle (2007-2011) ended with massive protests at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, this election cycle did not see any major protests so far.

In fact, not a single opposition party received more than 2 percent of the votes. According to sociologists, the liberal part of the population just did not believe in the elections and skipped them. The voter turnout was a bit over 47 percent. However, it did not change the majority of Russians’ unconditional support of Putin.

Under Volodin’s supervision, the State Duma introduced two amendments into the Russian constitution, banned foreigners from adopting Russian orphans, brought back an article on slander into Russia’s Criminal Code, and hardened the punishment for the violation of the law on meetings and demonstrations. [Since 2014, holding a demonstration without the permission of authorities, even a peaceful picket involving a single person, is punishable by a fine or detention of up to 15 days, or up to five years in prison if the citation is the third in 180 days – Editor's note].

Moreover, the country started to search for an external enemy, just as it was during the Soviet era. The term “fifth column” – which describes some sort of internal enemies – is being constantly used in the country’s mass media. The new law, which obliges non-commercial organizations receiving funds from abroad to mark themselves as foreign agents and pay additional tax, was introduced.

Finally, the number of Russian Orthodox activists in the state apparatus increased, and the policy rhetoric from the government now talks about “traditional values” and “spiritual bonds.” Also, the number of national-patriotic entities such as the Cossacks, national-liberation movements and patriotic activists increased.

The return of Volodin to the Duma

With Volodin’s appointment, the primary question is: Why is such a tough and straightforward person needed in the Duma?

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“Prime Minister Medvedev and I will ask [them] (United Russia) to support the candidacy of Vyacheslav Volodin," said Putin, addressing representatives of the parliamentary parties. "He knows what parliamentary work is; he was a deputy himself for a long time, and while in the Presidential Executive Office he maintained direct contacts with the deputy corps, the factional leaders and with the parties. This was part of his professional duties. I hope all of this will help him to manage the work in the lower house of parliament."

“He is a tough ‘apparatchik’ who is used to commanding. During his time, the Duma will become even more centralized and rigid. It will resemble a barracks and the Duma won’t turn into a place for discussions,” says former Duma member Gennady Gudkov.

The reason for Volodin’s selection might be quite prosaic – the Kremlin simply decided that the Duma’s nickname of “The Mad Printer” needed to be changed. Political scientist Konstantin Kalachev underlines that, “If the political role of the Duma increases, it will improve media coverage of its work.” Also, it is important for the Kremlin to demonstrate the improved work of the Duma ahead of the coming presidential campaign of 2018.

Remarkably, the name of Volodin’s successor within the Presidential Administration has not yet been revealed. Some media sources speculate that it could be Sergei Kirienko, the head of Rosatom (the state atomic energy corporation) and a former Russian prime minister, who was in power during the period of the 1998 default and economic crisis. However, there is also speculation that Volodin's position within the Presidential Administration will be canceled and Anton Vaino, the recently appointed chief of staff, a political unknown, will primarily deal with domestic policy.

So does Volodin himself view his career change as a promotion or demotion? The business publication Vedomosti, citing its sources, reported that Volodin did not want to work in the Duma and it was Putin’s decision. Some experts suggest that the position of Duma speaker is a sort of a tryout for the role of Putin’s successor in 2018 when the next presidential elections will take place.

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Putin has not yet given a definite answer as to whether he will take part in the next presidential campaign. In an interview with BloombergPutin described Volodin as “young but mature.” The recent political shakeup within the government could suggest that the search for a successor is already underway. Anton Vaino, who recently replaced Sergei Ivanov as the head of the Presidential Administration, could also be a potential candidate for presidential tryouts.

It seems that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is not in the game anymore. During his presidential term, he did not fully demonstrate his foreign policy ability and had too little political weight during his premiership.

Thus, if Volodin aspires to become the next president of Russia, he needs to qualify as the type of strong orator beloved by the people and the mass media. The rest – managerial and governmental experience – he possesses in abundance.