The idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin should stay on beyond his second and last constitutionally mandated term was given fresh expression yesterday (October 19) by Pavel Borodin, state secretary of the still largely notional Russia-Belarus Union. Borodin, the former Kremlin property department chief who was Putin’s boss when the future president first came to Moscow from St. Petersburg in 1996, said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy that it was “very likely” there would be a referendum in Russia like the one held in Belarus on October 17 on whether to lift the constitutional rule limiting the president to two terms. “If a referendum was carried out in Russia similar to the Byelorussian one, I would with my hands and feet vote for the opportunity for Putin to be elected to a third term,” Borodin told the radio station. “There is no possibility to realize [one’s potential] in four years; there should be a third and a fourth term, but it should be set not by the president himself, but by the people.” He added: “In Russia, unlike the West, corporations don’t rule, tsars do. There are tsars in both Byelorussia and in Russia. Power like Putin’s or Lukashenko’s is given by God. History will evaluate their work” (Ekho Moskvy, Newsru.com, October 19).
According to the official results from Belarus’ referendum, 77.3% of the country’s registered voters supported President Alexander Lukashenka’s proposal to remove a constitutional provision limiting him to two terms. An exit poll conducted by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys found 48.4% of 37,602 respondents said they voted to lift presidential term limits, short of the simple majority needed to pass the proposal. Western observers said the referendum, held simultaneously with parliamentary elections, fell well short of international standards (Associated Press, October 18; also see Belarus article in this issue of EDM).
The Kremlin quickly distanced itself from Borodin’s comments. “Borodin is an international bureaucrat and is expressing his personal opinion, which does not correspond to reality,” said Alexei Gromov, President Putin’s press secretary. An anonymous high-level Kremlin source told Interfax that, given Borodin’s position, his comments on Russia’s domestic political situation violated accepted “diplomatic practice.” Another anonymous high-level Kremlin source told Vedomosti that such a referendum was “simply unnecessary” (Interfax, Newsru.com, October 19; Vedomosti, October 20).
Others, however, were less categorical in dismissing Borodin’s comments. State Duma Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who is a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, said the idea of extending Putin’s time in office was “too serious” to reject categorically, while Oleg Kulikov, secretary of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s Central Committee, said the idea “should be discussed with the people.” Kulikov noted, however, that the law on referendums prohibits plebiscites involving changes to the country’s constitution.
However, Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies, said that if the Kremlin wanted to prolong Putin’s term, it could simply introduce a corresponding constitutional amendment that, given the parliament’s domination by United Russia and other pro-Kremlin groups, would likely find the necessary two-thirds majority in the State Duma and three-quarters majority in the Federation Council. Such a constitutional amendment would also have to be approved by at least two-thirds of the country’s 88 regional legislatures, by no means an impossibility given the Kremlin’s increasingly tight grip on the regions (Vedomosti, October 20; Moscow Times, October 11).
One day before Borodin made his remarks, several politicians had speculated that Putin could follow Belarus’ lead and hold a referendum to extend his term. Konstantin Zatulin, head of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute in Moscow and a member of the State Duma’s Committee for CIS Affairs, predicted in an interview with Ekho Moskvy that the Kremlin would take this route, adding that it had not interfered in the Belarus referendum “because after a time it will find itself facing the same problem.” Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) party and the Committee 2008-Free Choice opposition group, told the radio station that there is an “objective tendency” for Russia to do what Lukashenka does “with a small lag of 2-3 years.” He said that the Russian authorities, like those in Belarus, “have the same instincts”: to introduce censorship, suppress the opposition, form the courts, and “appoint everyone from top to bottom.” The term “vertical of power” favored by the Kremlin, Nemtsov claimed, was “imported from Minsk” (Ekho Moskvy, October 18).
In an unscientific interactive poll conducted by Ekho Moskvy concerning the possibility of extending the presidential term, 86% of the respondents said they thought it possible that the situation in Russia would develop along the lines of the Belarus scenario, while 14% said nothing like this would happen in the next few years (Newsru.com, October 19).
Nezavisimaya gazeta recently reported that the Kremlin has a plan that would permit Putin to continue as the country’s leader by turning Russia into a parliamentary republic and putting him in as prime minister. The newspaper cited unnamed Kremlin sources (see EDM, October 14).