In Depth

Putin’s plan to rule for longer than Stalin

Russia’s parliament approves new constitution that allows Putin to stay on for another 16 years

Both houses of the Duma - Russia’s parliament - have given their approval to constitutional changes that would allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in power for the next 16 years.

Only one of the 620 lawmakers in the lower and upper houses voted against the sweeping amendments, which do not extend presidential term limits but reset the clock so Putin can serve another two terms.

The legislation would let the president remain in office until 2036, surpassing Stalin to become the second-longest-serving Russian leader after Peter the Great.

 It was proposed by Valentina Tereshkova - a parliamentarian, but also the first woman in space. “Given his enormous authority, this would be a stabilising factor for our society,” she said.

In its current form, the country’s constitution demands that Putin will leave the presidency in 2024, when his current term ends, but few Russia-watching analysts had expected him to relinquish power.

In January, he announced that he planned to instigate constitutional changes, and many commentators speculated that he would shift power from the presidency to politburos such as the state or security council, allowing him to remain as de-facto ruler while giving up the title of president.

Some guessed he would go so far as to unite Russia and Belarus, taking up the reins in Minsk and ruling as leader of both nations.

The last time his term limit was approaching, Putin opted to become prime minister, pulling the real strings of power while Dmitri Medvedev served as president from 2008 to 2012, before returning to the office he has inhabited since then.

This time he has opted for the blunter methods employed by both Xi Xinping of China and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - both of whom have changed their countries’ constitutions to allow them to hold power beyond what was previously allowed.

What exactly is Putin proposing?

“The amendments grant the president near-absolute power, further reduce the authority of elected mayors and scrap the primacy of international norms over Russian laws,” say The Economist. “The power-grab is shrouded in the language of God, ancestral traditions, heterosexual families and sacred victory in the second world war (the 75th anniversary of which Russia will mark on May 9th).”

The legislation must be approved by Russia’s constitutional court and a nationwide referendum, which is set for April 22. Neither are expected to oppose the move.

“Putin remains popular among many Russians,” says Radio Free Europe, “even though the country experienced some of its largest pro-democracy demonstrations last summer over the barring of opposition candidates in some municipal elections.”

The changes to limits on Putin’s term as president are embedded in a raft of other populist constitutional amendments, such as, says the Financial Times, “pledges to increase wages each year and a ban on gay marriage.”

These changes are calibrated to increase the likelihood of the legislation being accepted by the public in April.

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Will the country accept Putin’s move?

Russia and its neighbours have long leaned towards strong individual rulers in the Tsarist model. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only Baltic states have seen relatively stable transitions of power. Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan have all experienced dysfunctional changes of administration.

In his speech to the Duma on Tuesday, Putin acknowledged this perception.

“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,” he said. “But that is how all of our past history came together and we cannot, of course, disregard this.”

The president, he continued, is the guarantor “of the security of our state, of its internal stability - its internal, evolutionary stability - and I mean evolutionary. We’ve had enough revolutions.”

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

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