MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday backed a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek re-election after his current term ends in 2024, ending uncertainty about his future.
A lawmaker who is revered in Russia as the first woman to fly in space proposed either scrapping Russia’s two-term limit for presidents or resetting the clock so Putin’s four terms wouldn’t count. Putin and the Kremlin-controlled State Duma quickly endorsed the proposal put forward by former Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.
Kremlin critics denounced the move as cynical manipulation and called for protests. Lawmakers also passed a sweeping set of constitutional changes Putin proposed in January that Kremlin foes saw as intended to keep him in power.
In a speech to lawmakers Tuesday, Putin spoke against scrapping presidential term limits altogether but backed the idea that if the constitution is revised, the two-term limit only would apply from 2024 on. The president’s current six-year term expires in 2024.
A vote on the constitutional amendments is scheduled for next month.
Putin, 67, has been in power for more than 20 years and is Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. After serving two presidential terms in 2000-2008, he shifted to the Russian prime minister’s office while protege Dmitry Medvedev served as a placeholder president.
After the length of a presidential term was extended to six years under Medvedev, Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012 and won another term in 2018.
Observers had speculated that Putin could use the constitutional amendments he unveiled in January to scrap term limits; move into the prime minister’s seat with strengthened powers; or continue calling the shots as the head of the State Council.
However, it wasn’t clear until Tuesday how Putin would try to achieve that goal. The Russian leader finally revealed his cards after Tereshkova, a legendary figure widely revered for her pioneering 1963 space flight, offered her ideas.
“I propose to either lift the presidential term limit or add a clause that after the revised constitution enters force, the incumbent president, just like any other citizen, has the right to seek the presidency,” she said to a raucous applause.
After Tereshkova spoke, Putin quickly came to parliament to address lawmakers.
He said he was aware of public calls for him to stay on as president and emphasized that Russia needs stability above all.
“The president is a guarantor of security of our state, its internal stability and evolutionary development,” Putin said. “We have had enough revolutions.”
However, he said that since the constitution is a long-term document, scrapping the term limit wasn’t a good idea.
Then he dropped the bombshell, saying he positively viewed Tereshkova’s alternate proposal to restart the term count when the revamped constitution enters force.
“As for the proposal to lift restrictions for any person, any citizen, including the incumbent president, to allow running in future elections … this option is possible,” Putin said.
He added that the Constitutional Court would need to judge if the move would be legal, although the court’s assent is all but guaranteed.
Putin’s statement came as lawmakers were considering the amendments in a crucial second reading when changes in the document are made.
The Kremlin-controlled lower house, the State Duma, quickly endorsed the proposed amendments by a 382-0 vote with 44 abstentions. A vote on a third reading will be a quick formality. A nationwide vote on the proposed amendments is set for April 22.
Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, mocked the proposed change.
“Putin has been in power for 20 years, and yet he is going to run for the first time,” Navalny tweeted.
A group of opposition activists called for a protest rally in Moscow on March 21, saying in a statement, “The country where the government doesn’t change for 20 years has no future,” they said in a statement.
Putin’s approval ratings have remained high despite a recent drop amid Russia’s economic troubles and stagnant living standards. It’s unclear if the fragmented and disorganized Russian opposition can mount a serious challenge to the Kremlin.
The ruble’s sharp drop this week, caused by a steep fall in global oil prices in the wake of the collapse of OPEC’s agreement with Russia to control crude output, could herald deeper economic problems and hurt Putin’s popularity.
“It looks like this crisis situation has made Putin drop his mask and do something he had originally planned, and to do it quickly,” Abbas Gallyamov, an independent political analyst said.
In a speech to lawmakers, Putin vowed that the new coronavirus and plummeting oil prices would not destabilize Russia.
“Our economy will keep getting stronger and the key industries will become more powerful and competitive,” he said.