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Vladimir Putin sets stage for retaining his grip on power

Russian politics

Vladimir Putin sets stage for retaining his grip on power

Russian leader backs constitutional change allowing him to stay in office until 2036

Vladimir Putin addresses lawmakers in Moscow on Tuesday © Sputnik/AFP/Getty

Vladimir Putin has backed a proposal to reset his term limits as part of sweeping constitutional changes, a move that would potentially allow the Russian president to remain in office until at least 2036.

Mr Putin on Tuesday told the Duma, the lower house of parliament, that he would back the measure if, as expected, it was approved by Russia’s constitutional court and if voters backed the overall constitutional changes in a “people’s vote” set for April 22.

“I am sure there will come a time when the higher presidential authority in Russia will not be, as they say, so personified, so linked with one person,” he said.

But, he said, he supported the proposal — made by Valentina Tereshkova, a member of his United Russia party, in the Duma on Tuesday — to discount the four terms he has already served and start the clock anew on his 20-year rule, if the court and voters agreed.

“I am completely convinced that a strong presidential vertical is necessary for our country,” Mr Putin said. “The current situation in the economy and in the security sphere yet again reminds us [ . . .] that we need this for stability.”

After Mr Putin’s speech, the Duma confirmed the amendments, including resetting his presidential terms, with 382 votes in favour and 44 abstentions.

A final vote is set for Wednesday. The Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, is also scheduled to vote on the amendments that day, before they go to an extraordinary session of all of Russia’s regional legislatures on Thursday.

Members of Russia's Duma prepare to vote on planned constitutional amendments that would potentially cement President Vladimir Putin's hold on power © Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

Russia is rewriting the constitution at breakneck speed after Mr Putin’s suggestion in January that it should be overhauled, a move that shocked the country’s political elite and prompted the resignation of his prime minister and longtime ally, Dmitry Medvedev.

The current constitution, adopted in 1993, bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. Mr Putin, who was first elected president in 2000, stepped aside as prime minister in 2008 for Mr Medvedev, then returned to the Kremlin four years later and after presidential terms were extended from four years to six.

The new measures would allow Mr Putin, 67, to remain in power until the age of 83 — potentially making him a longer-serving Russian leader than Joseph Stalin and a more elderly one than Leonid Brezhnev — but bar any successors from holding office for more than two six-year terms.

Mr Putin’s speech was part of a choreographed display that confirmed what people close to the Kremlin said had been a done-deal since he announced the constitutional changes in January — that he would seek to stay in power — according to analysts.

After Ms Tereshkova, a former cosmonaut who was the first woman in space, suggested resetting his term limits, Mr Putin crossed the street from the Kremlin with a pre-prepared speech in support of the constitutional changes.

The amendments, which are expected to sail through the three parliamentary votes this week, strengthen Mr Putin’s grip on power, allowing him to stay on as president but leaving him alternative options to remain Russia’s de facto leader.

One course could have been for him to head the State Council, an obscure body to which he plans to grant extensive new powers. However, Mr Putin ruled this out last week on the grounds that it would be “destructive” for Russia.

“The president is the guarantor of the constitution, of [the] country’s security, its domestic stability and domestic evolutionary growth,” he said. “We’ve had enough revolutions.”

The planned amendments to the constitution, selected from more than 900 suggestions, bundle together changes on term limits and allowing Russia’s courts to ignore foreign rulings with populist measures, such as a pledge to increase wages each year and a ban on gay marriage.

In practice, Mr Putin’s critics said, the changes were a charade that essentially allowed him to rule for life.

“The current constitution guarantees that I can definitely run in presidential elections and Putin definitely can’t. In practice, I won two cases in the [European Court of Human Rights] and still can’t. And Putin has been in power for 20 years but will run for a first term anyway,” tweeted Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician.

Mr Putin refrained from saying whether or not he would run again when his term expired in 2024 but left few doubts as to the ultimate decision.

“You and I, in spite of everything, have managed to do a lot to strengthen the country. I am sure that we will do many more good things — at least until 2024,” he told lawmakers. “And then we’ll see.”

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