They generally call it a “coup d’etat.” A “very dangerous precedent” reminiscent of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. But when it comes to defining how to stop a constitutional change that could enable President Vladimir Putin to remain in power indefinitely, some Russian constitutional scholars, analysts, and politicians draw a blank.
On March 11, Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, approved a constitutional amendment that enables President Putin to run for reelection when his term expires in 2024. Putin has already served a sequential set of two six-year presidential terms – the maximum the Russian constitution allows at one time. The proposed measure would reset the official count to zero.
Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko justified the move as about maintaining order amidst falling oil prices, a global market slump, and a “challenging international situation.”
“It’s vitally necessary to preserve domestic political stability and predictability,” she told senators after the Federation Council’s vote, the state-run TASS news agency reported.
Only one of the Council’s 160 senators – Communist Party member Vyacheslav Markhayev – voted against allowing Putin to run for reelection and 39 other constitutional amendments. Three senators abstained.
The Constitutional Court, made up of 19 judges nominated by the president, must now decide that question before the 40 amendments are put to a national vote, scheduled for April 22.
Appearing before the Duma, the lower house of parliament, on March 10, Putin claimed discomfort with scrapping the presidential term limit, but acknowledged that “this option would be possible” if the Constitutional Court rules that the change does not violate the constitution.
Watch Current Time's Live Report About The Duma's March 10, 2020 Vote
Former Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky dismissed the president’s fence-straddling words as “leading you by the nose.”
The amendments passed the Duma, the lower house of parliament, on March 10 with only the 43-member Communist Party opposed.
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, leader of the Civic Initiative party, strongly denounced the vote.
“It’s not the government that’s changing, not the [government’s] construction, but the country is changing,” Gudkov noted. “Yesterday, we were living in one country. Maybe it’s not the most ideal; it’s authoritarian. After they’ll approve all this, we will live in a completely different country, and this already will be a monarchy. This already will be a dictatorship with all the consequences: torture, arrests.”
Commenting on Putin’s remark that Russia needs a “strong power vertical,” Communist MP Aleksandr Yushchenko underlined that that vertical should be “accountable” and “responsible.”
“A strong and irresponsible government is much more dangerous than what we have today,” he said.
Political scientist Georgy Satarov, one of the many authors of Russia’s 1993 constitution and an advisor to the late President Boris Yeltsin, charged that the provision is a direct violation of the constitution’s article 81, which sets the presidential term limit.
“We should think about the constitution like about some document that, if we’re up to protecting it, can protect us,” Satarov advised. “But for now, we’re not really in that kind of shape. But, in any case, it’s time to learn how …”
Ilya Shablinsky, a professor of constitutional law at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, agreed. The constitutionally mandated presidential term limit “is not the whim of the creators of the constitution; it’s not their caprice,” Shablinsky said. “It’s a very serious condition for society to develop normally, so that the government doesn’t claim too much for itself.”
“I don’t know what legal bases the Constitutional Court will be able to find to justify this,” he added.
Political analyst Konstantin Kalachev, however, took a more tolerant view of Putin and his intentions. “Let’s not completely demonize him already,“ he advised.
Kalachev described Putin as “a truly sincere Russian patriot” for whom Russia’s sovereignty “is the highest value.”
“I assume that he considers himself the best ruler for the past 100 years, and, perhaps, for the past 200. And he considers that no one will cope with a difficult situation better than him.”
Unlike other analysts, Kalachev projects that Putin has made no firm decision about what he will do in 2024, when his presidential term comes to an end.
A chuckling Satarov, however, dismissed the notion that Putin’s March 10 address to the Duma was anything but “a wonderful, staged show.”
“This kind of thing doesn’t happen in life, that suddenly something interesting pops up in the Duma, and the Duma chairman calls the president and says, ‘Listen, there’s some interesting thingamajig cooking up here.’ And the president says, ‘Oh, I’ll come now! Say, maybe I’ll even make a speech!’”
Gudkov agreed. The fact that 83-year-old Duma deputy Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space, tabled the proposal for overlooking Putin’s previous terms is “no accident,” he said.
“She’s a female cosmonaut, a legend representing the heritage of the USSR” -- a heritage that Putin keenly promotes and that many Russian voters remember proudly.
Opposing this move depends on ordinary Russians, Gudkov continued.
On March 11, the pro-democracy opposition party Yabloko (Apple), which holds no seats in parliament, staged a small protest outside of the Duma in downtown Moscow. The party’s deputy chairman, Ivan Bolshakov, held a poster that declared “The best correction (to the constitution) is Putin’s resignation,” MBKh Media reported.
It plans other such protests outside of regional assemblies and government administration buildings in 47 regions across Russia.
But Gudkov questions whether protests “forced into some framework” can make any real difference at this point. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a loyal Putin ally, recently banned public protests with 5,000 or more participants.
Petitioning for a relaxation on the ban would be akin to asking Putin “to allow a rally that is against the lifelong [presidential] term of Putin,” he noted.
“There probably should be some kind of other decisive actions. We’ll discuss this," he said of the opposition. He did not elaborate.
Political scientist Pavlovsky questioned, though, whether any public approval or disapproval of President Putin can influence the Russian leader’s next steps.
“If you think it’s [possible] to use joysticks and two buttons to direct the destiny of a person who’s already gone too far, then, no, you’re mistaken,” he said.