Russian leader Vladimir Putin threw his weight behind proposals to amend Russia’s current constitutional cap on presidential term limits — a move that opens the door to Putin, 67, staying in power far beyond the end of his current and, in theory, final term in 2024.
Under the proposed changes, which Putin insisted would need backing by an upcoming nationwide referendum, as well as the approval of Russia’s Constitutional Court, the Russian leader would be eligible to run for two more terms in office, possibly extending his 20-year Kremlin rule through 2036.
“The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president ... would be possible, but on one condition: if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and norms of the constitution,” Putin said in addressing the proposal before lawmakers in the Duma on Tuesday.
Putin framed the move as injecting stability into Russia’s uncertain political future — in effect, suggesting that by staying in power, he could lead Russia toward a day when change in power through elections would be possible.
"I am certain that a time would come when the supreme presidential power in Russia would not be so personified, will not be tied to a certain single person,” Putin said.
“We are done with revolutions in Russia,” he added.
A legendary cosmonaut, a new mission?
The proposed constitutional reforms were the latest in a series of moves that appear to provide Putin with options as he confronts the end of his fourth and final term in office.
Indeed, the announcement came as lawmakers in the Duma debated additional constitutional reforms first proposed by Putin amid a surprise government shakeup last January.
Those proposals included a newly empowered parliament, prime minister’s post and Security Council — all measures that suggested Putin was envisioning a possible new role from which to wield influence beyond the end of his presidency.
Yet today’s announcement signaled that at least some in the Kremlin had united around a simpler plan: Putin would stay right where he is.
The roll out was highly choreographed.
First, lawmaker Valentina Tereshkova, a legendary Soviet cosmonaut and the first woman in space, took to the Duma lectern, to say that lawmakers' recent constitutional debates had failed to take into account Russians' true wishes: that Putin remain in power.
Moreover, Tereshkova said impending new changes to the constitution afforded the president the right to “reset to zero” the number of terms already served.
Next, Vyachaslav Volodin, the speaker of the Duma, informed journalists that Putin had heard the news and was on his way to the Duma to address the idea.
Soon, Putin was before lawmakers agreeing that the “return to zero” option was indeed possible, provided it passed muster during a national vote scheduled for an April 22 referendum and received the subsequent backing of the Constitutional Court.
The Duma quickly approved the measure.
Kremlin critics had few, if any, illusions of the road ahead.
“The fact that Putin was never going to leave — we’ve always known. That he didn’t make any clever moves, and instead stupidly just took another term — now that’s a bit of a surprise,” Leonid Volkov, chief strategist of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, wrote in a post to Facebook.
“The current constitution guarantees that I can definitely participate in presidential elections, and that Putin definitely cannot,” Navalny said in a tweet, noting the Kremlin had banned him from participating in elections despite rulings to the contrary by the European Court for Human Rights.
"Yet Putin has been in power for 20 years and all the same is headed for his first term,” Navalny said, in taking a swipe at the “return to zero” argument.
While members of the opposition pushed for supporters to protest the move, the calls were immediately hamstrung by another crisis: the coronavirus.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that all public gatherings of more than 5,000 people were banned until at least April 10 over fears of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Yet government critics were quick to question the timing of the decision, with many noting that tens of thousands had taken to the streets in 2012, when Putin stretched constitutional norms to return to the Kremlin for a third term in office.
For the time being, critics were left to take part in smaller protests against Putin’s new power move, with a reported 100 people taking part in rotating single-picket demonstrations in order to not run afoul of Russia’s punitive freedom of assembly laws.
Cue the jokes online
Social media churned with grim jokes on the news, parodying a week that, in addition to Putin’s announcement and concerns over coronavirus, saw the ruble collapse amid an oil pricing war with Saudi Arabia.
“You read the news about the government coup, and in fear you want to hug somebody,” wrote one Facebook user. “Then you remember about coronavirus. And you think, better instead to head to see a therapist. And then you remember about the value of the ruble.”
“Due to the quarantine, they’ve forbidden Putin to leave his post,” photojournalist Dave Frenkel jokes in a post on Twitter.
“Putin said that he’s not against zeroing out his presidential terms,” Russian blogger Ruslan Usachev wrote in another tweet. “Now, all those who were born under President Putin, have a chance to die under President Putin.”
Indeed, should Putin remain healthy and retain public support, Russians faced the prospect of Putin remaining in power well into his 80s.
Yet the Russian leader said his country’s ultimate goal was to get to a place where “people in power can be changed regularly,” an argument that some political observers suspected was tightly bound to Putin’s own political reign.
“I hope that by 2036, (Putin) will somehow convince the population that democracy is better than a dictatorship,” Vladimir Inozemtsev, director of the Center for Post-Industrial Society Studies, in a blog post dripping with sarcasm.
“Learning quicker, it seems, is unlikely to happen," Inozemtsev said.