Kennan Institute Discusses Radical Amendments to the Russian Constitution to Keep Putin in Power

How has the Kremlin swiftly proposed and approved measures to extend Putin’s presidency?

by Kamila Magiera

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may remain in power until 2036.

On March 12, the Kennan Institute, a think tank and institute located in Washington D.C. focused on the studies of Soviet and post-Soviet states, held a virtual event titled “Putin’s Extended Presidency” as a part of their Ground Truth Briefing series. The event was moderated by the Director of the Kennan Institute, Matthew Rojansky, and featured speakers including Grigory Vaypan, a Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Marina Agaltsova, a human rights lawyer in Moscow and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Maxim Trudolyubov, Editor in Chief of Russia File, and William E. Pomeranz, the Deputy Director at the Kennan Institute.

In early March, the Duma, Russia’s semi-representational elected assembly, proposed an amendment to allow President Vladimir Putin to rule until 2036. Putin has governed Russia as president or prime minister for over twenty years, and with these constitutional amendments, he would be able to serve for a total of six consecutive presidential terms, citing that a new constitution would “wipe his slate back to zero”. The following week, Russia’s Constitutional Court approved these proposed amendments after a two-day review and will be considered by a national referendum in late April.

The four speakers began by discussing these amendments in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than worrying about the pandemic and internal spread of the virus, the Kremlin has taken this opportunity of chaos and uncertainty to prioritize its political agenda rather than the voice and health of its people. Across the world, many countries have committed to moving their elections due to isolation measures for collective safety, however, Russian authorities have voiced that the referendum will only take place on April 22. Trudolyubov noted that “they [the Kremlin] don’t seem to be threatened or seem to fear that they will lose anything from the grassroots. They just want to keep the political machine running, and they kind of believe that if they manipulate the figures enough, they will win.” This unchanged date of this upcoming referendum demonstrates Agaltsova’s point, citing that recent events are furthering the lack of freedom of speech. With a pandemic occurring, citizens of Russia will be unable to vote as they fear for their own lives and of those around them. With this, the Kremlin will act in a way that will favor their political agenda. 

The speakers additionally responded to the constitutional court’s unprecedented swift response in approving the proposed amendments. Grigory Vaypan highlighted that not only are courts being suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they suspiciously acted by taking such little time of two days to deliberate the amendments. According to Vaypan, “we clearly see this fascinating picture of the Russian judiciary participating in its own self-destruction, and we see the Russian judiciary – especially the constitutional court – getting more and more involved in this political process at the expense of its own integrity.” Implying that the courts are “not working”, many worry that there will be nothing left of constitutional powers in Russia. However, such fast deliberations have occurred before, such as before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, proving that judges are obeying the Kremlin’s orders and keeping Putin in power. 

If you would like to listen to the full event, visit the following website: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/ground-truth-briefing-putins-extended-presidency

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