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Putin endorses brazen remedy to extend his rule, possibly for life

Russian President Vladimir Putin looked at a Soviet-era banner depicting Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during his visit to a parachute manufacturer in Ivanovo, 158 miles northeast of Moscow, on Friday.Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool via AP/Pool Sputnik Kremlin via AP

MOSCOW — It looked as though Vladimir Putin had been gearing up to push through obscure constitutional changes as a surreptitious way to remain Russia’s leader after presidential term limits forced him to step down in 2024. But Tuesday, Putin endorsed a proposal stunningly simpler and more brazen: resetting the Constitution’s term-limit clock to zero.

The proposal, passed by the lower house of Parliament just hours after it had been introduced, would allow him to run for an additional two six-year terms when his tenure expires.

The legislation must still be approved by Russia’s Constitutional Court and a nationwide referendum in April. But in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, the choreographed flurry of events Tuesday was the clearest sign yet that after 20 years as president or prime minister, Putin, the 67-year-old former KGB spy and icon of strongman rule, is intent on staying in the Kremlin possibly for the rest of his life or at least until 2036.

In the past, Putin proceeded cautiously, seeking to preserve a veneer of legality. Confronting term limits in 2008, Putin opted for a four-year hiatus as prime minister while his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, became the caretaker president.

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In January he proposed some murky constitutional changes that analysts said pointed to his intention to stay beyond the end of his current term.

But with his proposal Tuesday, Putin seemed to prefer something bolder, saying he supported the legislation for the good of the country. The president is the guarantor “of the security of our state, of its internal stability — its internal, evolutionary stability,” Putin said. “And I mean evolutionary. We’ve had enough revolutions.”

While momentous, the events that unfolded Tuesday in Parliament were hardly a surprise. Under Russia’s current constitution, Putin is obligated to step down at the end of his presidential term in 2024. But few in Russia expected him to relinquish power so soon, and analysts and politicians have long been speculating about how the president would hold on to the reins.

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It became clear Tuesday that a constitutional overhaul initiated by Putin in January would become the vehicle to do just that.

“The intrigue was fully resolved today,” said Grigorii V. Golosov, a professor of comparative politics at the European University at St. Petersburg. “He had to send the signal as soon as possible that nothing will change in the country — that everything will remain as it was.”

Putin initially proposed amendments to the constitution that covered the intricacies of the authority of the president and the prime minister, while another proposed amendment would ban gay marriage.

But Tuesday, as lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament took up the amendments, one added a new one to the mix. Putin should be allowed to run again in 2024, said cosmonaut-turned-politician Valentina Tereshkova, who in 1963 became the first woman in space.

“Given his enormous authority, this would be a stabilizing factor for our society,” Tereshkova told lawmakers, referring to Putin’s ability to run again.

What followed was a quick cascade of developments that seemed to be carefully planned to carry a patina of spontaneity. The speaker of the lower house, the State Duma, said Putin would personally appear in order to give his own input on the new proposal. While the lawmakers waited, members of the pro-Putin United Russia party said they would back it.

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“No one is saying” Putin will run again in 2024, one lawmaker, Aleksandr Khinshtein, said in a televised interview. “But the possibility of doing so must exist for the head of state in order to maintain stability in society.”

Soon after, Putin took the podium to a standing ovation and explained that he had taken the rare step of making an unscheduled visit to the Duma because he wanted to address lawmakers “without delay.”

Putin said he believed that in the years to come, Russia must develop into a country in which the president changes regularly. So, he said, the constitution should retain a two-term limit. But he also said Russia might not be ready for such changes yet because of foreign and domestic threats to the state’s stability. And he hinted at the idea that political power in Russia had long been vested in a single leader.

“I’m sure the time will come when the highest, presidential authority in Russia will not be, as they say, so personified — not so bound up in a single person,” Putin said. “But that is how all of our past history came together and we cannot, of course, disregard this.”

Minutes after Putin spoke, Duma lawmakers voted in favor of legislation that would reset the term-limit clock for Putin if he were to run again in 2024.

Putin emphasized that the legislation allowing him to run again would have to be approved by Russia’s Constitutional Court. The legislation would also be part of the package of constitutional amendments to be voted on in a previously scheduled nationwide plebiscite April 22.

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He did not reveal whether he actually planned to run again, saying at the end of his speech: “I’m sure that together, we will do many more great things, at least until 2024. Then, we will see.”

In response, some Russians took to social media to post how old they would be in 2036 — underscoring that Russia’s “Putin Generation” that grew up during his rule could be entering its 40s when he leaves the Kremlin.

“He’s usurping power and resetting term limits, but dumping the responsibility on the Constitutional Court,” an opposition politician, Lyubov Sobol, posted on Twitter. “Does he think people are stupid?”

Putin’s declaration in 2011 that he’d return to the presidency helped precipitate large-scale street protests. But despite a burst of anger online, it wasn’t clear whether something similar would play out this time.

Three opposition activists quickly applied for a permit for a Moscow rally March 21 against Putin’s move.