President Vladimir Putin this week apparently put to rest the rumors that he was considering amending the Russian constitution to lengthen the presidential term. Speaking at a December 12 Kremlin reception marking Constitution Day, Putin declared that the term would not be extended for him, adding that there were no plans for amendments leading to a “principally new constitution” and that nothing would be undertaken that would “dismantle” the constitution’s “basic values” or abandon the country’s “democratic achievements” (NTV.ru, December 12).
The sturm und drang over the presidential term started earlier this month, when Novye Izvestia, one of the newspapers owned by anti-Kremlin oligarch Boris Berezovsky, reported that Putin’s team was considering beginning the process of amending Russia’s constitution in order to extend the presidential term from four to seven years. Putin’s time in office prior to the passage of such an amendment, the newspaper wrote, would not count as part of his constitutionally permitted two terms, meaning that he could end up serving two seven-year terms plus three years–a total of seventeen years. That report was given credibility when Sergei Mironov, the newly elected speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, and a long-time Putin associate from St. Petersburg, said the presidential term should be extended five years at a minimum and that the Federation Council could initiate the constitutional changes necessary to extend it (see the Monitor, December 7, 10).
Earlier this week, the idea received yet another boost from three governors of regions in Russia’s northwest. Novgorod Oblast Governor Mikhail Prusak, who is close to Putin, said he was in favor of lengthening the presidential term to seven years because “four years is too little for a country like ours.” Prusak added, however, that the president should be given no more than the two terms in office currently allowed under the constitution. Likewise, Vladimir Butov, head of the Nenetsky Autonomous District, said that the presidential term should be increased to five or even seven years. Citing his own experience as an executive, Butov noted: “For the first four years you only start to deal with many issues, and do something in the next four.” If the presidential term were extended to seven years, then two terms–a total of 14 years in office–would be sufficient “to impose order both in the state and in politics,” Butov argued. Pskov Oblast Governor Yevgeny Mikhailov went further, arguing that not only should the presidential term be extended to at least five years, but that there should be no limits on the number of terms in office. Mikhailov argued that such changes were necessary for the sake of “stability,” given that “all artificial limitations clearly lead to the destabilization of society” (Polit.ru, December 11).
Last year, it should be noted, Prusak joined two other governors, Belgorod’s Yevgeny Savchenko and Kurgan’s Oleg Bogomolov, in recommending that the presidential term be extended to seven years, that Russia’s governors be appointed by the president and that the president be appointed by the parliament, prime minister and the “power ministries” rather than be chosen in a direct popular vote (see the Monitor, February 29, 2000).
This week, before Putin rejected the idea of extending the presidential term, a leading political commentator, Sergei Chugaev, theorized that Mironov’s demarche may have been a trial balloon by members of Putin’s team aimed at testing the loyalty of various politicians and officials, or perhaps a “smokescreen” for carrying less important but nonetheless significant reforms, such as changing the procedure for forming the Federation Council yet again. It would make more sense for Putin to push for such a constitutional change closer to the end of his second term, and only if that term had been a successful one, Chugaev wrote (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 11). None of the Russian commentaries recalled that Putin himself last year, shortly before his election as president, declared that he favored extending the presidential term from four to eight years, and that this might be done prior to the 2004 presidential election. Putin said at that time that the idea should be “put before the country’s population,” implying that there might be a referendum on the idea (see the Monitor, December 7; February 29, 2000). In any case, following Putin’s December 12 statement on the issue, the main proponent of extending the presidential term, Sergei Mironov, quickly backed away from it, saying that Putin had pronounced the last word and that the issue was now “closed” (Polit.ru, December 13).
Regardless of who initiated the latest talk about extending the presidential term–and whatever Putin’s real feelings on the matter are–Mironov’s demarche has worked to the Russian president’s advantage, PR-wise. As one publication put it, the issue provided Putin with the opportunity to “demonstrate his role as guarantor of the Constitution (in the most fitting setting possible–at a ceremony marking Constitution Day in the Kremlin Palace) and, in general, as guarantor of democratic rights and freedoms” (SMI.ru, December 13).
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