The Duma today by an overwhelming margin passed in their first reading amendments to the constitution that would extend the president's term of office to six years and the term of Duma deputies to five years.
Despite the importance of the changes, the bill is sailing through the legislature with virtually no discussion, either by lawmakers or the public. The Communists, the only "opposition" faction in the legislature, put up token resistance to the initiatives. First, they were shot down with a proposal to postpone the voting; then they declared they favor extending their own terms while opposing amending the president's.
"If we take the scope of power of the current president, he has more power than the general secretary [of the Soviet Union], the czar and the pharaoh altogether," Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told deputies, according to AP. "He has enough power to solve any issues. And there is not a single element of control over this authority."
In the end, the Communists voted against the bill, which passed 388-58.
Perhaps because of the appalling lack of justification for the changes on the part of President Dmitry Medvedev, a few people are speaking against the changes, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The liberal Yabloko party arranged a rotating one-person picket (one-person demonstrations do not require the permission of the authorities; here's a history of how Russians lost their right to demonstrate) outside the Duma, with activists taking turns holding a sign that said, "Deputies should be ashamed to extend terms." Security guards ended the demonstration, saying the lone picketer "blocked access" to the building.
Our service also quoted several leading cultural figures as opposing the changes, which would be the first amendments to the constitution since it was adopted in 1993. Writer Valentin Oskotsky called the measure "the canonization of presidential power."
"Imagine that Barack Obama, upon entering the White House, with his first law decided to begin by changing the constitution to extend the president's term of office -- and, what is more, insisted it had to be done immediately," actress Liya Akhedzhakova said. "We'd all think he was up to no good."
Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin told RFE/RL that "Russia is becoming more and more like some Asian countries, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where presidential powers are granted for life."
-- Robert Coalson