Putin lays out path to staying in power

MOSCOW, Russia – Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out a path Tuesday, March 10, to staying in power after 2024, as lawmakers approved sweeping reforms to the constitution.

In a surprise address to the lower house State Duma, Putin said there could be a presidential "reset" allowing him to run after his current term expires.

"This would be possible...if the constitutional court rules such an amendment would not go against (the constitution)," he said.

Putin appeared before the Duma after lawmakers proposed a series of amendments to a package of constitutional reforms he announced in January.

Among them was an amendment annulling previous presidential terms – effectively allowing Putin to run again after his current six-year term ends in 2024.

"These amendments are long overdue, they are needed, and I am sure they will be useful for society, for our citizens," 67-year-old Putin told lawmakers.

He said Russia needed evolutionary change, "because we have had enough of revolutions" while suggesting that Russia may not yet be ready for a new leader.

"There will be a time when the highest power...will not be tied to one specific person. But all of our previous history happened in this way, and of course we cannot ignore this," Putin said.

Lawmakers also proposed holding early parliamentary elections but Putin said that was not necessary and the amendment was withdrawn.

They then voted to approve the reforms in the key second reading, with 382 in favor, 44 abstentions and none against.

A third and final reading is due in the Duma on Wednesday, March 11, followed by approval in the upper house Federation Council and a public vote on the reforms planned for April 22.

Putin shocked Russia's political establishment by announcing the package of reforms in January, the first major changes to the country's basic law since 1993.

The political changes will give parliament the power to choose the government and increase the role of the State Council, an advisory body.

'President for life'

Other proposals aim at boosting living standards, including a guaranteed minimum wage and state pensions adjusted to inflation.

And – in line with Putin's strongly conservative views – the reforms would enshrine a mention of Russians' "faith in God" and spell out that marriage is a heterosexual union.

Russia's opposition, including Putin's most prominent critic Alexei Navalny, has criticized 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.

"Putin has been in power for 20 years but he's going to run for the first time."

But so far there has not been upswell of public opposition to the reforms.

According to a study by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, 64% of Russians did not have a clear idea of what the constitutional proposals meant.

A quarter of Russians said they would back the amendments, while 23% said they would not vote.

It is unclear why Putin is pushing ahead with the reforms now, though some observers say he is anxious to head off a power struggle as he approaches his term limit.

Others have pointed to Putin's flagging poll numbers since his reelection in 2018, as Russia's economy struggles under the weight of Western sanctions and as living standards fall.

The economy is set for more turbulence in the coming weeks and potentially months after oil prices crashed following the collapse of the production limits deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Russia's economy is heavily dependent on energy exports. The ruble tumbled to a four-year low on Monday, March 9, and the RTS stock index dived more than 10% at Tuesday's opening.

Russia has huge financial reserves to weather these kinds of crises, but Putin had planned to tap the funds for a series of major infrastructure projects. – Rappler.com