After more than 420 Russian academics, lawyers and writers published an open letter urging their countrymen to resist President Putin’s plans to remain in power for a further 16 years, over 18,000 people have signed it. The letter was published on 15th March, shortly before the country’s highest court endorsed a move by the Kremlin to enable Putin to extend his presidential term limits as part of a package of reforms.
The open letter, published on the website of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, said it was an “unlawful constitutional coup”, adding:
“The development undermines the possibility of the evolutionary development of our country on the principles of democracy and freedom.”
The letter follows the publication of an online manifesto by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta in January, decrying what it called a “coup” to “keep Vladimir Putin and his corrupt regime in power for life.” That initiative, which has been signed by more than 22,000 people, called on Russian citizens to vote against the amendments if they are put forward in a public ballot.
In January, Putin unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, which the Kremlin billed as a redistribution of power from the presidency to parliament. But Putin, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for two decades as either president or prime minister, made a dramatic appearance in parliament on 10th March to back a new amendment that would allow him to ignore a current constitutional ban on him running again in 2024, although the Kremlin has not confirmed whether he will run again.
The 67-year-old, in power for 20 years, is Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin. If he serves out both terms from 2024 he will surpass the Soviet dictator.
In a speech to parliament, Putin said he hoped that one day the institution of the presidency in Russia would not be “so personified in a single person”, but added: “that is how all of our history ended up and of course we can’t not take that into account”.
A member of Russia’s ruling party proposed the new amendment to the constitution which would “reset” Putin’s presidential term count back to zero. Under the current constitution, a president can only serve two consecutive terms which Putin will have done by the next election in 2024. This amendment would therefore open up the possibility for Putin’s presidency to be extended until 2036.
After the member of parliament proposed the new amendment, Putin announced he would come to address the parliament himself, prompting breathless coverage on state television about whether he would accept or turn down the proposal.
“In principle, this option would be possible,” he said at the end of the half-hour speech. “But on one condition – if the constitutional court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the constitution.”
On 17th March, the constitutional court, as expected, endorsed the move to extend Putin’s presidential term.
Other constitutional changes further strengthen the presidency and emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms – a provision reflecting the Kremlin’s irritation with the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies that have often issued verdicts against Russia.
The changes also outlaw same-sex marriage and mention “a belief in God” as one of Russia’s traditional values.
The Kremlin’s package of constitutional reforms will now be put to a nationwide vote next month. Critics have said this is unfair as the whole package — which also includes popular increases in social spending — must be accepted or rejected meaning you cannot vote against the extension of Putin’s presidency whilst voting for increased spending on welfare benefits. Analysts have also expressed doubts about whether the referendum will be fair.
Russia’s opposition, including Putin’s most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, denounced the proposals as an effort to make him “president for life”.
“Interesting how things turn out,” Navalny said in a tweet after Putin’s speech.
You can find the open letter published by Ekho Moskvy here.