By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
MOSCOW, Dec. 30 -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a constitutional amendment Tuesday extending presidential terms in the country from four years to six, a change that many suspect is intended to benefit his predecessor -- and possible successor -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev gave final approval to the measure after a hurried legislative drive that lasted less than two months, ignoring complaints by the opposition that parliament is legally required to wait a year before ratifying any change to the constitution.
The extension of the presidential term is the first substantive amendment to Russia's post-Soviet constitution since it was adopted in 1993. The speed with which the Kremlin pushed the measure through parliament and the nation's provincial legislatures has prompted widespread speculation that Putin is planning to return to the presidency, perhaps as soon as next year.
After serving two terms as president, Putin stepped aside this year because he was constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term. He engineered the election of his protege, Medvedev, who then appointed him prime minister. With Russia facing its worst economic crisis in a decade, though, analysts say Putin may have concluded he would be better shielded from rising public discontent if Medvedev resigned and allowed him to return to the presidency for a new six-year term.
Medvedev proposed extending the presidential term in an address to parliament Nov. 5, and Putin immediately endorsed the plan, although he previously opposed any amendments to the constitution. Both men said the change was necessary to strengthen the Russian political system, but neither has ruled out an early presidential vote.
At a recent news conference, however, Putin declared he would not run away from the economic crisis, a remark that tamped down conjecture that he intended to abandon the prime minister's post. In the Russian political system, the prime minister is traditionally considered responsible for managing the economy.
In addition to the measure changing the presidential term, Medvedev signed amendments extending the terms of members of parliament from four years to five and increasing parliament's oversight of the government.
The Russian Communist Party and the democratic opposition had protested the amendments but were unable to block passage given Putin's tight grip on the political system. The Kremlin pushed the measures through both houses of parliament and all 83 regional legislatures in less than 50 days.
Yabloko, one of the main democratic opposition parties, objected to the process, pointing out that Russian law requires parliament to give the regions a full year to consider changes to the constitution. But Sergei Mitrokhin, chairman of Yabloko, said Medvedev's decision to sign the amendment was expected.
"Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to appeal to a constitutional court," he said. "We can only say that this process reduces both the legitimacy of this amendment and the legitimacy of the next president."