MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin’s surprise move to allow himself to remain as president until 2036 caught even many Kremlin insiders off guard, leaving some feeling deceived by his motivation for changing the constitution.
His sudden reversal — approving a plan that he’d long publicly resisted — was a blow to some senior officials’ hopes that he would find a more elegant way to retain influence once his current term ends in 2024. Some drew parallels to the clumsily announced move in 2011 that saw him retake the presidency from protege Dmitry Medvedev, who had fueled expectations of liberalization that were dashed with Putin’s return.
Putin had probably already formed his plan to stay on as president in January, when he unveiled the constitutional shake-up that seemed to respect term limits, four people familiar with the matter said. The amendments were a “grand deception,” said one person close to Putin, while another called them a “smokescreen” intended to allow him to ditch the term-limit restriction at the last moment to minimize potential opposition within the Kremlin elite.
Putin’s move to allow himself up to two more six-year terms tilts Russia onto a new trajectory of entrenched authoritarianism similar to China, where Xi Jinping has changed the constitution to prolong his presidency. It also puts to rest any questions of whether Putin would step down and allow Russia to evolve into a European-style democracy.
“This is a very different kind of Russian state, unashamedly authoritarian in design,” said Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It sets back any chances of normalizing ties with the West and will halt development at home, most likely intensifying stagnation.”
It also reveals difficulties Putin faced in maintaining a careful political balance as rival Kremlin factions began jostling for position ahead of a succession that was still four years away. The move was seen as a way to end growing uncertainty about the president’s ability to keep control and bring restless elites into line, two senior officials said.
“This was one of the most brilliant special operations of Putin’s rule,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of R. Politik, a political consultancy. If he had set out his plan in January, “it would have triggered massive protests and given time to derail the referendum,” she said.
The national public vote that the president made a condition of the constitutional changes taking effect is scheduled so far for April 22. About the only thing Putin may not have planned for is the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Russia that may force the Kremlin to delay the vote until June.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Putin carried out the constitutional reforms with the intention of avoiding term limits and that Kremlin officials had been unaware of this, declining to comment further.
For most of his two decades in power, Putin, 67, was a stickler for the appearances of democratic procedure, if not the substance, taking pains to make Russia seem to be playing by something like western rules. While he could choose not to run again for president in 2024, few think he will pass up the opportunity.
The global chaos unleashed by the coronavirus and Putin’s own decision to tear up Russia’s oil-production agreement with OPEC, sending crude prices plunging to the lowest in a generation, offered a “perfect storm” to achieve his objective, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies the Russian elite at the State University of Management in Moscow.
Still, Putin faces risks with many in his own inner circle puzzled over why he chose to strike now. Public anger at his 2011 maneuver to reclaim the presidency helped spark the largest anti-Kremlin protests of Putin’s rule in 2011-2012.
A survey of 1,600 Russians published Jan. 30 by the independent Levada Center found that just 27 percent wanted Putin to stay on as president after 2024, while 25 percent preferred him to retire from public life.
The president’s approval rating with Russians has suffered after years of falling incomes and an unpopular 2018 pension-age reform. An extended period of low oil prices would deal a blow to Putin’s ambition of bolstering living standards during this term by ramping up spending. The central bank warned last year that Russia would slide into recession in 2020 under a “risk scenario” of $25 oil.
In the end, Putin seized his moment with breathtaking speed. He took less than two hours to endorse the surprise proposal by Valentina Tereshkova, a ruling-party lawmaker and the first woman in space, that the lower house of parliament should “set to zero” the term limit for him during final debates on the constitutional changes.
The Kremlin later insisted it had no advance knowledge of her statement and said Putin changed his view on term limits because of the growing turmoil in the world. No ruling-party lawmaker would have made such a proposal without being told to do so by the leadership, two officials said.
Parliament approved the amendments, including Tereshkova’s addition, the next day and Putin signed it at the weekend before asking for a review by the Constitutional Court. The court gave the plan its stamp of approval on Monday.
With Putin able to stay as president, “Western leaders are going to have to get used to the idea that Russia equals Putin and give up any illusions that he’ll be on his way out,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin.