MOSCOW—The deed is done. Russia’s parliament voted Wednesday—383 to 0—to change the constitution so Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin can hold on to the presidency until 2036. That is to say, until he is in his 83rd year of life and 36th year in power.
This is a shock to some, but not exactly a surprise. It feels so Soviet.
On Tuesday the big pitch for the change was made by Valentina Tereshkova, an 83-year-old general and member of parliament, who has the distinction of being the first and youngest woman ever launched into outer space. That was in 1963, when Nikita Khrushchev was running the USSR.
“Putin knows much more than all of us,” Tereshkova said, presenting a plan to reset the number of his presidential terms, thus dropping the legal barrier to his repeated reelections. “Why do we need to create some artificial constitutions? We should be honest, open, consider publicly, and cancel all limitations on the number of presidential terms in the Constitution. Or, if the situation demands and people want that, let the current president run again for this position.”
Putin spoke from the same tribune shortly afterward and said Tereshkova’s idea to free him of any reelection limitations could be acceptable pending the plebiscite he announced at the end of February: “Obviously, only in case the citizens support such an amendment, say ‘yes’ during the all-Russia vote on April 22.”
Putin’s opponents were furious. “That was a Brezhnev-era, poorly directed performance,” ex-MP, opposition leader Dmitry Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “Putin must be feeling almighty, and hopes to live forever.” The move further weakens such checks and balances as exist in Russia’s government. “By 2024 he is going to be 72 years old, his shrinking popularity rating is going to be even lower than now, so the only way for him to stay is to turn into a brutal dictator or a monarch.”
Putin is always eager to show the world his importance and show his people his thinly gloved iron fist. In recent days he has made headline after headline. Most dramatically, he decided to break Russia’s agreement with the Saudi-dominated Organization for the Petroleum Exporting Countries to limit production, thus launching an oil price war. And Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was only too happy to accept the challenge.
One reason is to fulfill the Kremlin’s long-held dream of ending the U.S. shale oil and gas revolution, which is uneconomical when prices are low. But the immediate effect was to crash world markets.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has courted Putin as a buddy and counted Saudi Arabia a “strategic partner,” quickly blamed both, along with his usual scapegoat: “Saudi Arabia and Russia are arguing over the price and flow of oil. That, and the Fake News, is the reason for the market drop!"
For Putin, the oil price war is a risky strategy. Russian economists and businessmen have watched in shock—even panic—as has much of the rest of the world. But Russian newspapers bannered headlines like Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s: “The low oil price becomes the Kremlin’s geopolitical weapon.” U.S. producers are “teetering on the verge of bankruptcy,” it said.
Last year Putin’s close friend Igor Sechin, the chairman of Rosneft, Russia’s leading oil company, called Russia’s 2016 oil production agreement with OPEC “a strategic threat” that played into U.S. hands.
“Putin and Sechin were so eager to ruin American fracking companies, that they hit the entire Russian business,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “That was an ultimately strange decision.”
But however erratic, even dangerous, his policies might appear, more than 60 percent of Russians support Putin, which may be one reason that the parliamentarians who disapproved of the changes to the constitution abstained rather than vote no.
Putin continues to build his ideology on glorifying Russia’s Victory in World War II and what he sees as the Russian character. Shortly after the seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014, prompting major sanctions by Europe and the United States, Putin sought to soar above the controversy by comparing Russian values to those of the West in somewhat mystical terms: “A Russian man is not focused inside on his own beloved self. Our soul is broader.”
This might have come as a surprise to people who see the country’s politics and economy dominated by the coterie of hugely self-indulgent oligarchs around Putin, but it still touched a chord.
On May 9, the Kremlin is organizing a remarkable celebration to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis in World War II with a huge military parade in Red Square. The Kremlin repeatedly and publicly invited Trump to join. But on Tuesday, Moscow announced that the U.S. leader turned down Putin’s invitation to join the military parade on the Red Square. The Kremlin did not explain the reason for Trump’s refusal, but according to the Associated Press, “White House officials and Trump allies feared that the trip to Moscow in an election year could be politically damaging.”
For Putin, it’s certainly damaging. He made a big deal of the invitation. Earlier he said the anniversary is important for all the nations who fought in the anti-Hitler coalition. “We are waiting and we’ll be glad if they come. If not—that is their choice. But I think that would be a mistake for them.”
But the political price is relatively small for a man who’s now positioned to be, effectively, president for life. And Trump should pay attention whenever Putin refers to Trump’s actions as “a mistake,” especially now as Putin consolidates his authoritarian rule.
Until recently, Kremlinologists believed that Putin wanted to balance between the technocrat dealing with the economy and the demands of the “siloviki” or “securocrats”—many of them former KGB officers and operatives like himself who have become very powerful and very rich thanks to his patronage.
But last month Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet resigned after Putin set his sights on unending power. “Now Sechin, one of the powerful leaders of the hawks, does not have any opponents left,” Kirill Kharatyan, founder and deputy editor in chief of Kommersant newspaper told The Daily beast. “The new PM Mikhail Mishistin is a servant, not a baron.”
“This time the state’s strategy is reminiscent of North Korea,” Kharatyan said. “Putin must be thinking: Russia has tons of money, there is no state debt, we should not be shy. But in fact, the reserve Russia has is about half a trillion dollars, almost the budget of the Pentagon. The attempts to destroy America’s shale gas might succeed, but only for a couple of years.”
And still, Putin would be in power.