Russia’s Vladimir Putin is denying that he’s planning to retain his grip on power when he relinquishes his country’s presidency in 2024.
The 67-year-old Putin dismissed accusations that sweeping constitutional changes he laid out in a speech Wednesday would allow him to retain his grip on a country he’s ruled for 20 years.
Speaking Saturday while on a visit to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Putin said he understood peoples alarm but that he doesn’t want Russia to return to the Soviet-era practice of rulers dying in office without a succession plan.“
In my view, it would be very worrying to return to the situation of the mid-1980s when heads of state one by one remained in power until the end of their days, [and] left office without having secured necessary conditions for a transition of power,” Putin said.“
So, thank you very much, but I think it's better not to return to the situation of the mid-1980s,” he added.
But many of his critics are skeptical of his assurances.
They worry Putin's proposals, the first significant changes to the country's constitution since it was adopted under Boris Yeltsin in 1993, are designed to ensure he keeps a grip on the levers of power after he leaves the Kremlin.
Putin’s term in office is set to end in 2024, and he cannot run again as the constitution prohibits anyone serving more than two consecutive terms.
The proposed constitutional changes he unveiled Wednesday, at this stage still vague, could allow him to retain power as national leader either as prime minister, a maneuver he’s used before to circumvent term limits, chairman of the country’s parliament or as head of a revamped but still ill-defined state council, his critics say.
Political foes have dubbed the proposed shake-up a “constitutional coup,” which would see the presidency reduced in importance. Some former Kremlin advisers say none of the powerful factions within the Kremlin or the country’s oligarchs want Putin to go, for fear his departure would trigger internecine warfare within the governing class.
In a recent interview with VOA, before Putin’s announcement, one of his former advisers, Gleb Pavlovsky, said that to a certain degree he’s trapped within the system he created. Putin can’t quit for fear that everything will fall apart, Pavlovsky said.
While Putin’s proposal has prompted outrage from rights activists, liberals and his political foes, ordinary Russians, even those critical of Putin, seem resigned, with many saying they’d never expected he’d relinquish power in four years' time.
"I feel indifferent,” Ekaterina, a 28-year-old financial adviser told VOA. “Most of my friends are just making jokes about it” because they feel impotent, she added.
In 2011-2012 tens of thousands of people took to the streets following Putin’s return to the presidency for his third term, Ekaterina and others of her age group say they doubt large-scale protests to Putin’s plan will happen now. In August a series of protests were mounted against rigged elections to Moscow’s city council, but they have fizzled.
Some opposition politicians say Putin’s proposals would see Russia gravitate to a Central Asian model of governance. They accuse Putin of wanting to prolong his state leadership by following the model of Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev, left the presidency last year but has maintained his iron grip on his Central Asian country as chairman of an all-powerful Security Council.
"It is a complete ideological switch on the part of the ruling class from a Western ideology to something else — an Eastern one or an Ancient Roman one,” said Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.
The Russian leader’s "reform" proposals include also abolishing the primacy of international law now enshrined in the country’s current constitution. That possible change is alarming Russia’s beleaguered civil society groups, which are already seeing a tightening of restrictions on their work.
"As a member of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia is bound by international standards on human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law — including democratic elections, protections from arbitrary imprisonment, and freedoms of the media, assembly, and association," wrote opposition politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza in the Washington Post Friday.
Those commitments have long been ignored, “but by establishing the primacy of domestic statutes, the Kremlin intends to free itself from its remaining formal commitments under international law, signaling yet another milestone in its growing isolation,” he said.