Russia’s State Duma recently approved a law that would reset the term-limits for Vladimir Putin. The amendment was proposed by Valentina Tereshkova, a member of Putin’s United Russia party as well as the first woman in space, and would essentially allow him to stay in office until 2036. The amendment is currently awaiting a nationwide referendum which will ultimately decide whether the changes will be put into effect. Putin is barred by law from running for president after 2024 under the current constitution.
Following the passing of the law, Putin appeared in a televised speech in which he emphasized that he did not support the move, but would accept the changes if ratified and supported in the national referendum. He then went on to emphasize the importance of his position, stating, “The president is the guarantor of the constitution and, to say more simply, the guarantor of the security of our state, its internal stability and internal evolutionary development.” This move was largely supported but some took to twitter to voice their discontent. Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader to Putin, said, “It’s all clear: There won’t be early elections. Putin will be president for life.”
The message of the speech was clear, political turmoil will be avoided at all costs in the Russian Federation. If that means sacrificing the legitimacy of the Russian Constitution, then so be it. The question of life after Putin has been an anxiety-inducing one on the minds of Russians and the government ever since the man won his fourth and supposedly final term in office in 2018. Last month he began to push for transferring powers to the Russian parliament, with the expectation that he would step down and settle into a seat there to continue to run the country from behind the scenes. Now it would appear he is choosing to stay in his current position, using an Augustustinian show of reluctance to fulfil his plans. With his current approval ratings sitting at 68%, it is highly likely that the motion will pass, and Putin will have robbed a generation of their right to democratic elections. If he truly cared about the sanctity of Russia’s laws, then he would accept the end of his final term with grace.
That is not an option for him though. Over his 20-year tenure, Putin has steadily weakened all opposition while simultaneously divesting power from his own United Russia party into himself. He has, in essence, created a political landscape in which no legitimate opponents can exist, and those that do, such as Alexei Navalny, are barred from participating in free elections by drawing up bogus charges against them. Civil liberties have also seen a sharp decline under Putin, with the country now scoring 20/100 on Freedom House’s index. Protesters are frequently subject to police violence; media is tightly-controlled. All this adds up to give Putin total control over the past, present, and future of Russia. That he is holding onto power after creating an environment in which no one can succeed him comes as little surprise, but it is sad news for the Russian people.
Putin first became president in 2000 when Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the newly-christened Russian Federation, resigned. Life under Yeltsin was widely regarded as a difficult time for the country as it struggled to switch from the heavily-regulated economy of the U.S.S.R. to a free market. Corruption was rampant and thousands lost their jobs. Putin’s policies managed to pull Russia out of the chaos of the 90s and, minus a small stint as the prime minister, he has led as the strongman president ever-since. To many Russians, he is all they have ever known and even if the country has experienced an extreme democratic-backslide under his reign, they continue to support him.
Yet the days of mafiosos and economic depression are long since past in Russia. Now more than ever, it needs a president who is willing to end his term and demonstrate that power can be transferred peacefully. The country stands on the precipice of becoming a dictatorship. It could experience a regrowth of free elections and civil liberties but all of that depends on Putin, who so far has demonstrated a strong distaste for western-style democracy. The country stands in waiting until this question will finally be answered in the referendum on April 22nd.