Putin’s special operation – A constitutional ploy may keep Vladimir Putin in power until 2036 | Europe
VLADIMIR PUTIN likes to surprise. Even more, he likes to confuse. As a former KGB officer, he is comfortable operating in fog and obfuscation, particularly when twisting the law—or even hatching a political plot. This is essentially what Mr Putin has been doing for the two months since he announced constitutional changes designed to keep himself in power after 2024. The current constitution says he must leave office then. As he indicated on March 10th, he has no intention of doing so.
Russians could be forgiven for feeling confused. On March 6th Mr Putin told them that he would not repeat the experience of the Soviet leaders who died in office. “I like my job, but to retain the power I have, [I would have] to agree to some scheme that would be unacceptable for the country or…destroy it.” But four days later he did the opposite, telling the Duma (parliament) that he is willing to reset the clock on presidential term-limits and may stand again in 2024. Two more six-year terms could thus keep Mr Putin—if he stands and wins re-election—in the presidency until 2036, when he will be 83.
Mr Putin has pondered and probably rejected various methods of retaining power: merging Russia with Belarus and so presiding over a new country; presiding over an empowered supreme state council; or becoming prime minister in a new parliamentary system. When confronted with a similar difficulty in 2008, he simply swapped jobs with Dmitry Medvedev, then prime minister. This time, he appears to have chosen the crudest but perhaps most certain method—changing the constitution and remaining president.
His statements have been as murky as the amendments to the constitution, which are confusing and contradict some other articles. He said at first that they would strengthen the powers of the parliament and the regions. In fact, 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. 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).
Yet, for such a momentous event, Mr Putin’s gambit performed before the Duma, lacked panache and drama. The show was contrived and stale. In a stylistic throw-back to deadly-dull Communist Party congresses, Valentina Tereshkova, an MP and former Soviet cosmonaut, said there was no point in trying to erect complicated political constructions. It would be much better to ask Vladimir Vladimirovich to stay as president for the good of the country.
On cue, the Duma applauded, and overwhelmingly voted for the amendments. Mr Putin is expected to sign them on March 18th, the sixth anniversary of the illegal annexation of Crimea. Taking the floor, Mr Putin laid out an extensive, self-serving definition of his role. “The president is the guarantor of the constitution,” he said, “or, simply put, the guarantor of the country’s security, domestic stability and…evolutionary development.” Evolutionary, because “we have had enough revolutions.” He invoked foreign and domestic enemies: “They are waiting for us to make a mistake or to slip up, losing our bearings or, worse still, get bogged down in internal dissent, which is sometimes fanned, fuelled and even financed from abroad.”
Although it would be quite wrong simply to remove term limits, he said casuistically, “lifting restrictions against…any citizen, including the current president, from taking part in an election in the future” was quite a different matter. Naturally, the changes to the constitution would have to be approved by the Constitutional Court, which he controls, as well as by the Russian people.
Their assent is scheduled for another anniversary: Lenin’s birthday, on April 22nd. There will be an “all-people vote”, which appears to be neither a referendum nor an election, but rather a vague display of support with no basis in Russian law, probably involving some televised spectacle. Its purpose, though, is to give Mr Putin’s ploy an air of spurious legality. And just in case anyone who disapproves of his scheme should think of protesting, Moscow’s city authorities promptly banned any gathering of more than 5,000 people, citing the coronavirus outbreak, at least until April 10th.
Mr Putin offered some consolation to the many Russians who are sick and tired of him, promising: “I have no doubt that the day will come when the supreme, presidential power in Russia will not be so personalised.” He said nothing about when that day may come. It may not be within his lifetime.