A new proposal to change Russian presidential term limits could pave the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.
The constitutional amendment proposed by lawmaker and former cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova would reset the current term limits, which limit Russian presidents to two consecutive six-year terms. Putin is already the longest-serving leader of the country since Josef Stalin. Russians are scheduled to vote on the proposed amendment on April 22 in a nationwide constitutional referendum.
Putin spoke to lawmakers at the Kremlin-controlled State Duma on Tuesday about what such a change would mean for the future of presidential power in Russia. It's important, he said, for a president to ensure the country's "evolutionary development." For now, he said, it's important to not move too quickly to change how Russian state power operates: "We have had enough revolutions."
"I have no doubt that the day will come when the supreme, presidential power in Russia will not be so personified, if I may say so, that it will not be connected to a certain individual," Putin added. "But this is exactly how it was in our previous history, and we must take this into account."
Putin told lawmakers on Tuesday that he did not endorse completely eliminating presidential term limits, one element of Tereshkova's proposal. But he strongly backed the idea of resetting the number of terms he could run.
Putin told lawmakers that he thought amending Russia's constitution would be possible as long as the country's Constitutional Court approved it. Putin also pointed to other countries that have no restrictions on presidential terms. Even in the United States, he said, the two-term limit has only been in place since the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951.
The Great Depression, economic uncertainty, unemployment and World War II all called for persistent leadership in the U.S., Putin said. As Russia is also undergoing upheaval and difficulty, "stability may be more important and must be given priority," he said, especially "when a country still has many problems."
The Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, overwhelmingly endorsed the proposal.
Russia watchers, who have long been wondering how Putin would maintain power once his term ran out, have been anticipating a move like this for some time. "The Russian system has been existing under this perpetual question mark of, 'What is Putin going to do?' " Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia adviser, told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
Many observers thought Putin might take on a different role that would let him maintain influence – like Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; or Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who now chairs the country's security council and holds the title "leader of the nation." There was talk of having Putin lead the country's State Council, which would be strengthened as the presidency became more of a symbolic position.
Ultimately, the Kremlin decided to simply change the presidential term limits so that Putin could maintain control, Loyola University Chicago Professor Michael Dhorokovsky told NPR. "The Kremlin is searching for ways to keep Putin in power," Dhorokovsky said. "Putin and his inner circle seem to have decided that the way to do it is to eliminate term limits and allow Putin to run again. It would be inconceivable for Putin to lose."
The 67-year-old Putin has maintained power in some form or another for more than 20 years, serving as both president and prime minister. His current term is set to expire in 2024; should he run again, Putin could be 83 when the next term limit runs out in 2036. "My own feeling," said Dhorokovsky, "is that Putin wants to beat Stalin, who ruled for almost 30 years."
"Putin will stay in power and in his present position for life," said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "As for the future of Russian democracy, we will need to wait till after Putin passes from the stage."
"Putin has become the wild card in his own system," Hill said. "If he goes, it seems destabilizing. And this seems like an effort to kind of put off the inevitable. He surely won't live forever."