Russia's constitutional court clears proposal to let Putin stay in power beyond term limits

The move clears another barrier to Putin staying president until at least 2036.

March 16, 2020, 1:49 PM

MOSCOW -- Russia’s Constitutional Court on Monday gave its approval to an attempt by Vladimir Putin to reset the count on his presidential terms, opening the way for him to run again for president in 2024 when term limits would have forced him to step down.

Last week, with Putin’s encouragement, Russia’s parliament voted quickly to pass a constitutional amendment that would reset the clock on his presidential terms to zero. In a speech at the time, Putin said that he would accept the change on “one condition”—that the Constitutional Court found it did not violate the constitution.

On Monday, the court, based in Saint Petersburg, said it had already reached a conclusion, just two days after Putin formally submitted the request. In the decision published on its website, the court said the proposed amendment “corresponded to the Constitution of the Russian Federation.”

"The present conclusion is final, and is not subject to appeal, it comes into force immediately after its official publication," the 52-page document read.

The court's decision removes another barrier as the Kremlin races ahead with changes that would allow Putin to remain in office until at least 2036. Putin, who has ruled Russia since 1999, is already in his fourth term as president, despite the constitutional limit of two terms. The question of how he would resolve the next limit has become the central question of Russian politics, fueling fears about a succession struggle.

Sweeping changes

But since the start of the year, Putin has unleashed a series of moves seemingly intended to open ways for him to remain in power; in January, he proposed sweeping changes to the constitution and replaced his government.

Until last week, however, it had been unclear how those changes would allow Putin to do so. In a highly choreographed political theater, Russia’s parliament and senate voted to approve the amendment within hours, a day after it was put forward by a lawmaker from Putin’s ruling party and endorsed by him.

The Constitutional Court's decision did not come as a surprise, though its speed was perhaps unexpected; the court is widely viewed as dominated by the Kremlin and its judges controlled by Putin's administration.

The next step is for the amendment to be approved in a national referendum, scheduled for April 22, when it will be alongside other constitutional amendments put forward by Putin.

Some of the amendments have been interpreted as creating for Putin options for retaining power outside the presidency, including strengthening a previously obscured body called the State Council.

But others would introduce conservative ideas into the constitution, including a statement that marriage is between a man and a woman, as well as a reference to "God." Other additions would declare Russia the successor to the Soviet Union and refer to the special role of the Russian people in the creation of the country.

Those additions are viewed by some experts as intended to encourage turnout for the vote to ensure the term limit change passes. They have also been criticized as dangerous for a country as multicultural as Russia, where there are dozens of ethnicities and languages, and millions of people with faiths other than Orthodox Christianity.

The court on Monday said none of those proposed amendments contradicted the constitution.

Ordinary Russians feel they have no control over the changes

The constitutional changes have been largely met with a shrug by most Russians, who believe they are out of their control. A survey by the Levada Center, Russia's only independent pollster in late February-- before the term limit changes were announced-- found only a quarter of Russians said they were prepared to vote for the constitutional amendments, with a majority saying they did not really understand the changes.

But the moves have appalled Russian liberal society. Hours before the court decision was published, 350 prominent legal experts, writers and journalists wrote an open letter condemning the attempt to reset Putin's term count as an "anti-constitutional coup." In the letter published on the site of the liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow, the authors said the changes clearly violated the constitution and a 1998 decision expressly rejecting the possibility of manipulating presidential terms.

Legal experts have noted the court in 1998 opposed a proposal to reset presidential term counts following the adoption of a new constitution in 1998, when it was it put forward by then-president Boris Yeltsin, who was seeking a third term.

The court on Monday, though, said that decision was not related to the current situation.

There have been very small protests against the proposed changes since they were announced last week. Over 40 people were detained in Moscow on Saturday after they formed a picket outside the headquarters of the FSB secret police in Moscow.

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