Explained: What is the new Russian legislation that allows Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036?

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a legislation on Monday clearing the way for him to remain in power until 2036, when he will be 83 years old.

Since 1999, sixty-eight-year-old Putin has continuously been in power, either as prime minister or president — from August 9, 1999, to May 7, 2000, as Prime Minister; May 7, 2000, to May 7, 2008, as President; May 7, 2008, to May 7, 2012, as Prime Minister again; and since May 7, 2012, as President. He was re-elected in March 2018 for another six-year term, which expires in 2024.

The former KGB officer has run the country for more than 20 years, which is the longest time a leader has been in power since Soviet authoritarian leader Joseph Stalin, who was the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922-1953) and the premier of the Soviet Union from 1941-1953.

How long was a Presidential term in Russia before this legislation?

Before this legislation was signed, a President could serve a maximum of two six-year terms. But now Putin has given himself the chance to serve two more six-year terms.

What is this legislation?

Putin’s signing of the legislation has formalised changes to the Russian Constitution that were endorsed by the people through a referendum held last year. During this referendum that took place around July last year, the changes he proposed were approved by over 78 per cent of the votes. Putin, who is currently serving his fourth presidential term, was scheduled to step down in 2024.

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In January 2020, he called for changes to the Constitution, which included the removal of term limits. In March 2020, Putin justified this extension by saying that he would favour them once the country became politically “mature”. During this speech, which he gave to the State Duma (Russia’s lower house of Parliament), Putin invoked the example of US President Franklin D Roosevelt, who was the only President to have served four terms in the US.

Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944 and when seeking the third and the fourth terms, he pleaded “extenuating circumstances”. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency paved the way for the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution that was ratified in 1951. This amendment limited the presidential term to two four-year terms.

In his speech, Putin said that Roosevelt had to serve four terms because of the problems the US was facing at the time (Great Depression, World War II) and that this is the reason that putting limits on presidential terms was sometimes superfluous. “In conditions when a country is experiencing such shocks and difficulties, of course stability is perhaps more important and must be a priority,” Putin said.

The Amendments were passed by the lower house of the Parliament in March last year. Essentially, when this legislation comes into effect, all previous terms served by Putin will not be counted because they will be “zeroed out” giving him the option to serve two more terms.

What have critics said about this move?

Critics have likened the move to a power grab while some others have referred to the changes as a “constitutional coup”. They have also pointed out that the legislation will allow Putin to become “president for life”.

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In fact, Golos, a Russian association that carries out independent election observation called the July vote a “PR campaign”, “…the purpose of which was not to reveal the free will of citizens, but to form the necessary perception of this will by the authorities.”

What has been the recent state of dissent in Russia?

One of Putin’s most well-known opponents include lawyer turned anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny who was poisoned in August 2020. Navalny has maintained that the poisoning was carried out by the Russian authorities, who, however, have denied any involvement in the attack.

Russia has long been known to use poison as a way of eliminating political dissidents and spies. Other alleged poisonings by Russia include that of Sergei Skripal (this poisoning is the subject of the BBC One drama titled, “The Salisbury Poisonings”), Pyotr Verzilov (anti-Kremlin activist and Putin critic), Vladimir Kara-Murza (Putin critic and journalist), Alexander Litvinenko (former spy paid by the MI6 for investigating Spanish links to Russia) and Viktor Yushchenko (Ukrainian politician).

An article published by the Atlantic Council, a think tank, says that many victims of Putin’s assassins “serve as useful symbols of what happens to anyone accused of betraying or otherwise cheating the Kremlin.”

Significantly, at least two prominent protests have happened since the July 2020 referendum. The first of these protests happened soon after the referendum, in Russia’s far-east. In July, more than 10,000 people joined the protests in the region’s Khabarovsk city demanding the release of popular regional governor Sergei I. Frugal who was arrested on July 9, 2020, on suspicion of multiple murders that happened between 2004-2005. When Furgal came to power in 2018, he defeated longtime incumbent Vyacheslav Shport, a member of the United Russia Party that backs Putin. Therefore, Frugal’s victory was seen as a sign of rising anti-establishment sentiment in the region.

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This year, Navalny called for nationwide protests after he was arrested on his arrival to Moscow from Germany post his recovery from the poisoning. Navalny was further remanded in pre-trial detention for 30 days in January this year despite demands by the US and some European countries to release him. By the end of January, about 800 protestors participating in the so-called pro-Navalny protests demanding he be released, had been detained by the authorities, including Navalny’s wife and close aides. The police maintained at the time that the rallies were illegal.

A month before these protests, Putin had alleged that Navalny relied on the “support of US special services.” Previously, Putin has even told journalists jokingly that if Russian operatives wanted to kill Navalny, “they would have probably finished the job.”

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