The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin once told Russians he didn’t want to be the ‘eternal president.’ Now it appears he does.

A woman outside the Kremlin holds a sign reading “No” as she protests possible changes to Russia’s constitution that would allow President Vladi­mir Putin to run for office past 2024, when his second term expires. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Boris Yeltsin was approaching the end of his second term as president when he appealed for a loophole to seek more time in office.

His aides argued that because Russia adopted a post-Soviet constitution in 1993, when Yeltsin was halfway through his first term, he had technically only served one full term under the new political structure. So, they said, he should be able to run again.

Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled against a 67-year-old Yeltsin in 1998.

That same body will now almost certainly reverse course and side with Yeltsin’s 67-year-old successor, Vladimir Putin, to give him a chance to keep his grip on power possibly into the next decade.

On Tuesday, Putin played coy. But it was clear where he stood. He told parliament that he would support resetting his presidential terms to zero with the adoption of an updated constitution next month — but only if the Constitutional Court deems it legal.

Parliament on Wednesday passed the amendment, which is now pending the court’s approval. There is no suggestion the court will stand in the way — and a nationwide vote on the new constitution is set for next month.

That would give Putin the opportunity to run for two more six-year terms once his current one ends in 2024.

Russia’s ruling party proposes path for Putin to stay in power past 2024

The constitutional rewrite Putin proposed has been widely interpreted as an attempt by him to ensure his influence after this presidential term ends. But the initial speculation was that Putin would eventually head a beefed-up advisory body, like the State Council, and be a kind of leader emeritus.

Putin in January even recommended stricter presidential term limits and the transfer of more power to parliament.

So his apparent shift Tuesday caught Russians off guard. The message now is that Putin could be in the Kremlin until he is in his 80s.

“We were convinced that Putin is going to leave in 2024, and finally we see that we all were wrong,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at Carnegie Moscow Center and the head of R. Politik, a think tank.

Now, she said, the constitutional process seems built to avoid being accused of simply appointing himself “the eternal president,” Stanovaya added.

When Putin first floated potential constitutional amendments in a December news conference, Stanovaya wondered if he could use that to reset his presidential terms. But after reaching out to colleagues and specialists on Russian constitutional law, “everybody said it’s just impossible.”

Russia’s government overhauled as Putin looks to cement influence after presidency

After Putin served two presidential terms from 2000 to 2008, he swapped places with the then-first deputy prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who served one term. Medvedev was widely considered a caretaker, enabling Putin to retain power in the background. Because Russia’s constitution defined presidential terms as no more than two “in a row,” Putin was able to run for the office again in 2012.

That sparked a wave of protests. But opposition rallies this time are expected to be stifled by government measures preventing mass gatherings for fear of a coronavirus outbreak.

The confusion over the past two months also may have worked in Putin’s favor. It hasn’t given much time for Putin’s opponents to mobilize before the April 22 nationwide vote on the package of constitutional amendments.

An editorial by the independent Russian newspaper Vedomosti called Russia’s current government as “close to monarchal.”

It said the “first generation of Russians born under Putin” will take part in the April 22 vote on the new constitution — so that “their children can be born and grow up with him.”

A February opinion poll by the independent Levada Center found that 41 percent of participants said they had not read or did not understand the proposed constitutional amendments. Just 10 percent said they would vote against them.

Asked if Putin should relinquish control of Russia once this presidential term ends in 2024, respondents were split.

But in a January survey by the Levada Center that asked what Putin should do post-2024, the majority responded that is should be in some high-level position in government, and 27 percent said he should specifically remain president.

“This attitude does not signal euphoria or some sort of like of Putin,” said Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center. “It’s most likely understanding that this regime doesn’t have an alternative.”

Putin makes his case by emphasizing the need for strength bred out of stability. He referenced “those who want to deter Russia and are ready to use any method for this” in his televised address to parliament Tuesday.

He pointed to Franklin D. Roosevelt serving more than two terms in the White House at a time when the United States was mired in the Depression and then fighting in World War II. (FDR’s four presidential victories came before the two-term limit was added to the U.S. Constitution.)

“In our case we have not yet overcome all the problems since the” Soviet Union, said Putin. But he didn’t mention Yeltsin failing to use a change in the constitution as an avenue to reset presidential terms.

“As we understand it now, there are two Putins,” Stanovaya said. “One Putin dreams about the very far future, where we will have a just and democratic system with a rotation of leaders.

“But if we’re talking about now, present-day Putin thinks about stability, about enemies abroad, crises,” she added. “And for him, it’s not a good moment to begin to live in this illusionary good world where we have a successor.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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