In 2012, after four years of ostensibly playing second fiddle to Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency.
And the guessing game began: How long would he remain there?
Would it be until 2018, after a six-year term, or 2024, when he hit the constitutional barrier of two consecutive terms? Would he leave prematurely, as did his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who stunned the nation with a 1999 New Year’s Eve address in which he stepped down and named Putin as his heir?
Or would Putin in fact seek to stay longer, beyond existing legal limitations, extending his time in power beyond what has already made him the longest serving leader in Moscow since Josef Stalin? And if so, how would he do it?
Weeks of preparations to amend the constitution led to complex speculation about the paths Putin might conceivably take to remain in power.
On March 10, Putin signaled that he may choose the simplest of all: staying on as president.
In an unusual and unexpected appearance before Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, Putin said he supported amending the constitution in a way that would allow him to run for a fifth term in office in 2024 – and a sixth in 2030.
He stipulated a precondition: that the Constitutional Court approve the change. But the court, like all courts in Russia, is widely seen as beholden to the Kremlin.
"In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition: if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the constitution," Putin, 67, told the Duma in nationally televised remarks.
“The president is a guarantor of security of our state, its internal stability, and evolutionary development,” he said. “We are done with revolutions in Russia.”
Putin did not explicitly say what he plans to do in 2024. But for many – supporters, opponents, observers, and others -- it was a strong indication that he would indeed stay on.
If he does stay on for two more full terms, he will be 83 when he runs up against a constitutional barrier again in 2036.
For staunch supporters of Putin, who remains popular and by the far the dominant politician in Russia, it was a welcome call.
“This is the result of politicians in the United States and the European Union, who have been fighting a hybrid war against Russia for six years to destroy it,” said Sergei Markov, an openly pro-Kremlin lawmaker.
“The more the United States and the European Union oppose Putin, the more Russian citizens want Putin to be the leader of Russia,” he wrote on Facebook.
Among Russian liberals, opponents of Putin, and other citizens who want Putin’s time in power to end sooner rather than later, the reaction was scathing: A “constitutional coup” was how one critic described it, while another decried the “Turkmenbashization” of Russia – a mocking reference to the late autocrat who ruled the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan until his death.
Hours after he made the announcement, the Duma approved a motion that would pave the way for Putin to run again by effectively returning the count of presidential terms he has served to zero once the amended constitution is adopted. The vote was 382-0, with 43 abstentions.
“Putin announced ‘we’ve had enough revolutions already’ and then he decided to stay in power for another 12 years,” Georgy Alburov, a researcher with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a post to Twitter.
Another critic made the point that Putin has already had plenty of time to address Russia’s problems – including those opponents say he himself has caused or aggravated.
“Putin will finally fix all the flaws of the previous six years of the presidency, which were the result of the mistakes made by the leadership of the country in 2012-2018, which were committed by the Russian government of 2008-2012, which untangled the mess of what the head of state had done in 2004-2008, which was caused by the strategic miscalculations of the president in 2000-2004,” Nikolai Podosokorsky, an editor at a Moscow literary journal, wrote on Facebook.
Yabloko, a stalwart liberal political party that has been pushed to the margins since Putin first became president in 2000, called the move a fraud.
“The cancellation of Putin’s presidential term [count] under the pretext of amending the constitution is nothing more than fraud,” the party said in a statement. “It is a vile scam that makes a mockery of citizens and all of Russian statehood, the existence of which is now generally a major question. However, a scam is quite expected. This is not the first year we have known this president and the style of the existing system.”
“The Kremlin no longer has any constitutional complexes,” wrote Kirill Martynyov, political editor of the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta – meaning that while Putin in the past had balked at changing the constitution to remain in power, he now may be doing just that. “Putin is prepared to remain in his post as long as he, and the Constitutional Court judges he appointed, see fit.”
Though Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, after four years as prime minister, started the clock on when he would leave office, the guessing game about Putin’s intentions did not start in earnest until he won his second, six-year term in 2018.
Immediately after the election, Putin and the Kremlin allies in parliament pushed through major reforms to the country’s pension system, raising the retirement age and prompting nationwide protests. The government later hiked the national value-added tax, which, along with stagnant wages, further dismayed average Russians and dented his popularity.
Many Russians have also grown weary of economic troubles and unhappy about sanctions that were imposed by the West in 2014, in response to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and other actions abroad.
That, plus the even deeper unpopularity of the ruling United Russia party, stoked uncertainty about the Kremlin’s near-term political plans, particularly given Duma elections in 2021, which had the potential to tarnish Putin’s image.
In December, after months of hints and signals from his allies, Putin gave the first indication that something was brewing.
"This is a living document. It should reflect the level of development of society," he said in response to a reporter’s question about the constitution.
A month later, during his nationally televised speech to lawmakers and Russia’s political elite, Putin called for amendments to the 27-year-old constitution, including a major reordering of political powers and new role for the advisory body, the State Council.
For many observers, that was a signal that he was plotting ways to remain in power past 2024 -- and creating as many options as possible to do so.
Then on February 26, in his first interview since leaving as one of Putin’s longest serving confidants and aides, Vladislav Surkov said that changing the constitution should reset the clock on presidential terms.
Not long before Putin’s March 10 appearance before the Duma – an unusual occurrence for a president who reportedly disdains the nitty-gritty details of politicking and schmoozing with lawmakers – the idea of tweaking the constitution to allow his return was floated by a celebrity lawmaker with United Russia: former cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
“I propose to either lift the presidential term limit or add a clause that after the revised constitution enters force, the incumbent president, just like any other citizen, has the right to seek the presidency,” she told lawmakers, who responded with resounding applause.
In addition to the State Council option that had been floated, experts had also pointed to the Security Council – a top-level advisory body comprising the country’s most senior directors of intelligence and security agencies – as another possible way for Putin to retain authority. Medvedev, Putin’s long-time ally, protege, and fellow St. Petersburg native, was tapped to serve in a newly created position as deputy chairman of the Security Council.
Putin serving on the Security Council as an alternate means for retaining power now no longer seems to be the case.
“It looks that after playing with ideas of State Council and Security Council, Putin has finally decided in favor of running again in 2024,” Dmitry Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a post to Twitter. “Which would probably make eventual transition, whenever it happens, less smooth.”
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.