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Under a package of constitutional amendments, Vladimir Putin could stay in power until 2036 © SPUTNIK/AFP/File / Alexey NIKOLSKY

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Allies back Putin as critics denounce plan to ‘usurp power’

President Vladimir Putin shocked the Russian establishment by announcing constitutional reforms in January © AFP/File / Alexander NEMENOV

Moscow, Russian Federation, Mar 11 – President Vladimir Putin’s allies on Wednesday backed reforms that could allow him to stay in the Kremlin until 2036, but critics accused him of seeking to usurp power and called for protests.

A day after voting for a package of Putin-backed constitutional amendments — including a last-minute addition to “reset” his presidential terms — the lower house State Duma gave its final approval on Wednesday.

The upper house Federation Council quickly followed suit, voting overwhelmingly a few hours later in favour of the reforms.

The votes followed months of speculation about Putin’s political future after he shocked the Russian establishment by announcing constitutional reforms in January.

Key dates in the career of Russian president Vladimir Putin © AFP / Vincent LEFAI

In a speech before the Federation Council vote, its speaker Valentina Matviyenko said Putin “must have the right” to compete for the presidency again after his current term expires in 2024.

“He raised Russia from its knees,” she said, and “is considered one of the world’s great leaders”.

Other Kremlin allies lined up to praise the amendments, saying Putin was the kind of stabilising figure that Russia needs.

The proposal sparked a fierce backlash from critics © AFP/File / Dimitar DILKOFF

“A president who is barred from being elected for another term cannot be a strong figure,” said Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a loyal Putin ally.

Limiting his ability to run would be “a destabilising factor” for Russia, he added.

State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said the constitutional changes would “strengthen our country” and pave the way for Russia’s future.

The amendments must now be approved by two-thirds of Russian regional parliaments — which is all but certain — before being put to a public vote on April 22.

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– ‘Just unthinkable’ –

The package Putin announced in January includes a slew of political and social reforms. On Tuesday, an addition was made to restart the clock on Putin’s time in the Kremlin once the amendments are adopted.

Putin, 67, backed the addition, though he said it would have to be approved by Russia’s Constitutional Court.

First elected in 2000, Putin is currently serving a second consecutive six-year term so would not have the right to run again.

A pro-Putin souvenir in a shop in Saint Petersburg © AFP/File / Olga MALTSEVA

The reset would let him run again in 2024 and 2030, potentially allowing Putin to rule longer than Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

The proposal sparked a fierce backlash from critics, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who accused Putin of seeking to become “president for life”.

Dozens of demonstrators assembled near the Kremlin after Tuesday’s vote to voice their frustration.

“Putin until 2036, it’s just unthinkable,” said Ilya Azar, a journalist and activist who organised Tuesday’s protest.

– ‘Corrupt system’ –

Russia’s opposition has called for mass demonstrations against the proposals, including one in Moscow on Friday, despite a ban by local authorities on gatherings of more than 5,000 people over coronavirus fears.

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Mugs decorated with images of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin are on sale at a gift shop in Moscow © AFP / Dimitar DILKOFF

An open letter signed by more than 20 opposition figures called on Russians to reject Putin’s attempt to “usurp power”.

In the letter released by newspaper Novaya Gazeta, they said the reforms were “nothing more than a gross violation” of the law aimed at propping up Russia’s “deeply corrupt system”.

On the streets of Moscow on Wednesday, some residents welcomed the prospect of Putin staying on, while others said there was no point in opposing the president.

“I don’t know who would be a better alternative candidate. Under his rule, nothing bad has happened,” said Natalia Muratova, 34. “Let him stay and rule.”

Elena Volkova, a 62-year-old retiree, said Putin had made up his mind and the courts would do as he asked. “What can we do if Putin has decided something?”

Still, political analyst Alexei Makarkin said the proposals could trigger a wave of anti-government action, like in 2011-2012 when tens of thousands took to the streets against Putin’s return to the Kremlin following four years as prime minister.

“Resetting Putin’s term gives the opposition an additional emotional boost and argument,” said Makarkin, an expert with the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technologies.

“We do not know when this trigger will be pulled,” he said.

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