Vladimir Putin’s term as president of Russia is due to end in 2024, marking 24 years in power. However, the prospects of Putin ending his rule as scheduled had always been considered low, and recent events have confirmed that he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Putin first came into the public eye in Russia in 1999 when he was appointed as Prime Minister by President Boris Yeltsin, and on December 31st 1999 he became acting president when Yeltsin resigned. Putin then ran in the presidential elections in March 2000 and officially became the president of Russia. Unlike in Ireland, the president is the most powerful figure in Russian politics, in charge of directing domestic and foreign policy.
Putin served as president until 2008, after being reelected in 2004. In 2008 he could not run again as the Russian constitution prevents presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. He therefore became prime minister under president Dmitry Medvedev. The Russian prime minister is appointed by the president to be the chair of the government, which is similar to the cabinet in Ireland, consisting of deputy prime ministers, and ministers of the government departments. While this typically means that the prime minister is subordinate to the president, Putin is considered to have remained in control of the country throughout the Medvedev presidency, and Medvedev proposed Putin to run for the presidency again in 2012. Medvedev also enacted changes to the constitution, extending the presidential term from four years to six. As a consequence, Putin ran for a six-year term in 2012 and has remained president since, recently reelected in 2018. However, he is barred from running for a third consecutive term in 2024. This has led commentators to wonder whether he will appoint a successor or if he will remain in power himself, either by becoming prime minister again or by changing the constitution, for example by getting rid of the rule banning more than two consecutive terms.
That question was answered in January, when Putin announced proposed changes to the constitution. These amendments change the role of the presidency, limiting future presidents to a maximum of two terms in office (as opposed to the current restriction of two consecutive terms), and giving the parliament more power in choosing the prime minister and government. They also give the president more power to dismiss judges, and the president will be able to ask the constitutional court to check the constitutionality of laws proposed by parliament. Furthermore, they change the status and role of the State Council, a body which advises the president, probably increasing its power. Other notable changes include a more nationalistic tone, making the constitution superior to international law, preventing anyone who has held foreign citizenship from running for president, and preventing anyone currently holding foreign citizenship from holding important roles such as minister or judge.
While the changes were being debated in parliament, the bill was amended to include a re-setting of Putin’s term count back to zero. The constitutional court of Russia approved this change as being legal, meaning Putin is free to run again for two more terms if the amendments are adopted. He could therefore be president until 2036. The full list of constitutional changes was scheduled to be voted on in a referendum in April, but this has had to be postponed due to coronavirus. Reactions to the proposals have been mixed. No votes were cast against the amendments in the final confirmation in the lower chamber of parliament. However, opposition groups are against the changes, criticising them for opening the door to Putin’s continued power. The opposition have arranged protests against the constitutional amendments, but these have also had to be postponed or cancelled due to coronavirus. Petitions against the legal changes have also circulated.
Despite the opposition’s protests, Putin seems to be hoping that the referendum will pass due to his popularity among many Russians, and his inclusion of some socio-economic protections in the constitutional changes. These are that the minimum wage will be prevented from being lower than subsistence level, and that pensions will be indexed (essentially meaning that pension amounts will increase with inflation). However, these are apparently already guaranteed under Russian law, just not in the constitution, so it is not certain whether this will change much for Russians. It is also not clear cut how Russians will vote in the referendum, as Putin’s approval ratings remain high, but Russians seem to be split about 50/50 on whether they want him to stay in power past 2024. However, Putin did not need to put these changes to a referendum, and it is unlikely he would’ve done so if he thought it would fail. Nevertheless it is possible that Putin’s handling of the coronavirus could affect his ratings and the postponed referendum in ways he may not have anticipated, but this remains to be seen. But with little independent media existing in Russia, the opposition to the constitutional changes is likely to be low.
It is not yet clear what Putin will do in 2024 if the constitution is changed, or if he has even decided yet. He could choose to remain on as president, or lead a more empowered State Council and control another president (like he did as prime minister to Medvedev), or something else entirely. It is likely that he won’t reveal his plans until much closer to the end of his current term, and his ultimate decision is likely to be whatever he thinks will be the least risk to himself. Stepping down can be a dangerous move for autocrats who have made enemies during their time in power, and it is unlikely that Putin will expose himself to that risk unless he is convinced he can protect himself.
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