Russian President Vladimir Putin approved constitutional changes on Tuesday which would allow him to stay in power until 2036. Under Russian law, Putin was required to step down in 2024 (at the end of his fourth presidential term). Passing of new legislation, however, means that he could potentially serve another two consecutive six-year terms. As Putin has been in power since 2000, this legislation would make it possible for him to rule for nearly half a century. If the State Duma approves the plan, the amendment will be put to a nationwide vote on April 22nd. Putin’s attempts to pass amendments challenge the constitution as a democratic and consistent document and ultimately threaten its legitimacy. This could potentially create larger threats to international peace and cooperation.
According to Reuters, Putin said in a press conference, “In conditions when a country is experiencing such shocks and difficulties, of course … stability is perhaps more important and must be a priority.” He claims that allowing him to stay in power would be crucial to stabilize Russia in the wake of the 1991 Soviet Union collapse and would ultimately benefit the entire country. He drew comparison to how the U.S. gained stability by keeping Roosevelt in power for four consecutive terms during the Great Depression.
U.S. intelligence officials are opposing this amendment. However, the chaos of the coronavirus is making it more difficult to organize crowds in resistance. By extending term lengths, Putin would demonstrate Russia’s emphasis on Russian law over international norms. The European Court on Human Rights has already accused Russia of human rights violations for their autocratic tendencies and suppression of certain group’s human freedoms. In addition to extended term lengths, changes to the constitution would also outlaw same-sex marriage and mention “a belief in God” as one of Russia’s core values. These changes contradict democratic and human rights ideals that are embedded within international structures (such as the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
While perhaps creating a cohesive national government, Putin’s amendments to the Constitution are restraining the voices of the public. One of the main characteristics of a democracy is free and regular elections of government officials. The Russian government must respect the term limits to avoid becoming an autocracy disguised as a democracy. In order to ensure international security, states must control their national threats without sacrificing the freedom of the people. In 2019, Russia scored 28 out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index (ranking it 137th out of 180 countries on perceived sector corruption levels). Putin’s amendment of the Constitution will likely make this ranking even worse in 2020.
Putin’s constitutional revisions clash with international norms and opens up the risk of potential conflicts between Russia and international institutions. These institutions are aimed at promoting democracy and keeping countries free from government corruption; something that was supposed to be institutionalized with the 1991 breaking of the Soviet Bloc. According to the Eurasian Journal, the corruption of Russia has been facilitated by the failure to socially and economically reform states following the fall of the Soviet Union. This has made it easier for persuasive leaders such as Putin (a member of the political elite) to gain authoritarian control. The frailty of Russian democracy has given Putin few constraints to his decisions and social institutions have lacked the power to organize opposition.
Looking towards the future of security and stability, Russia has emerged as a dominant political and economic power within the international community. With a seat on the UN Security Council and therefore influence in international peace, it is important for Russia to maintain stability. This is especially true amidst the uncertainty of the current COVID-19 crisis. Putin’s proposed amendments could exacerbate existing political tensions between Russia and outside actors who wish to uphold democratic ideals of free and regular elections. It could also promote internal conflict from Russians who disagree with Putin’s changes. The purpose of limited term lengths is ultimately to create a fair and balanced country by ensuring the same voices do not exclusively influence politics. Putin holds an important role on the international stage and at a time where the global economic system is compromised it is more crucial than ever that Russia is stable.
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