In early April, the Russian government announced President Vladimir Putin is signing legislation that potentially extends his power until 2036. Following changes to Russia’s constitution, enabled by a 2020 referendum, it allows him to run for two additional six-year terms after his current term ends in 2024. Passing Parliament’s upper and lower houses in March, the legislation increases pension protection, prevents anyone who holds foreign citizenship from running for president, and restricts future presidents to serving two terms. However, it also includes a vague clause that waives Putin’s previous tenure and resets his term limits. Having served two consecutive presidential terms and four in total, Mr. Putin is projected to become Russia’s longest serving ruler since Peter the Great if he wins both elections.
While critics condemned the reform as a constitutional coup, Vladimir Putin argued resetting his term count was needed to ensure his lieutenants’ focus on their responsibilities, instead of “darting their eyes in search for possible successors.” Former Yekaterinburg mayor and prominent Putin opponent Yevgeny Roizman addressed the legislation on Twitter, quipping to adopt law allowing “the president to live forever,” and that the government believes by deceiving “human laws,” they can “deceive the laws of nature.” According to The Washington Post, a recent survey by Levada Center polling agency found 48% support for Putin and 41% in opposition, but that he is also opposed by over 50% of people ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 39. Deputy Direction Denis Volkov observed a “rising fatigue with Putin,” and “even those who support some of his past achievements are saying that he’s been in power too long.”
In addition to approval by parliament, Russia’s embassies and Constitutional Court, the referendum underwent a national vote last June. With a 65% voter turnout, about 78% of voters favored the reforms, which encompassed over 200 amendments that prioritized Russian law over international customs, adjusted the minimum wage, outlawed same-sex marriages, and added “a belief in God” as a core value. The opposition alleged fraud and ballot stuffing, which officials dismissed, but last year’s European Parliament Resolution also concluded the amendments were enacted “illegally.” Russian law prohibits amending the constitution in its entirety and altering sections of it, except by a convention, which was lacking. The conflicting accounts of election integrity between Putin’s ruling party and the opposition demonstrates high tensions amid his ongoing reign. Although the vote appears definitive, he should consider holding another vote that abides by the law; perhaps, this would sufficiently show willingness to compromise. If Putin makes this offer, the opposition should refrain from accusing his party’s election rigging, which compounds distrust.
The referendum vote was planned for 22 April last year, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, became postponed to 1 July. A military parade was initially planned after the vote, which Queen’s University Belfast historian Alexander Titov posited was intended to strengthen Putin’s legitimacy. The Kremlin assured the amendments would strengthen Russian sovereignty and independence, and improve government social obligations to citizens. Critics suspected the reform vote was intended to obscure its “true” purpose of securing Putin’s continued rule. Nevertheless, television ads featured Russian actors and athletes endorsing Putin’s amendments; pianist Denis Matsuev, who performs regularly at New York’s Carnegie Hall, advertised that they “will preserve and protect our unique cultural code.” Others believe the referendum indicates Putin’s concern over losing power. Marsha Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow, observed he “is no longer as confident as he used to be,” and attributed it to declining public trust, and an economy that is not “in good shape.”
Despite condemnations for signing the legislation, Putin boasts a 65% approval rating, following recent controversy over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who claimed he seeks being “president for life,” and called the referendum vote results a “huge lie.” If the results indicate public desire, Putin should not have trepidation or doubts about obtaining the same results. Therefore, he should offer holding another election that adheres to Russian law. In exchange, the opposition should cease accusations of election rigging. The adversarial rhetoric does not help the Russian people or aid in achieving peaceful resolution. Additionally, Putin’s contention that people are overly concerned about his successor should not be dismissed, as this appears an impetus for ongoing conflict. When pitching the referendum last July, he said on state TV that “[W]e are not just voting for amendments,” but for “an effective government accountable to the public.” Both sides need to recall public accountability, and be willing to compromise in the likely common interest of serving the Russian people. Otherwise, the same issue will continue dividing Russia.
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