Tomorrow the State Duma will begin the process of amending the constitution to extend the president's term of office to six years and the terms of Duma deputies to five years. The initiative stems from President Dmitry Medvedev's November 5 address to the Federal Assembly (full text) and appears inevitable, since the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has been granted a constitutional majority in the Duma and majorities in all the country's regional legislatures.
It is telling, I think, that of the dozen or so concrete proposals that Medvedev made during that speech, the term extension is the one that both he and the Duma have rushed to implement.
Initially, overeager beavers in the party -- notably, Duma Constitutional Law Committee Chairman Vladimir Pligin-- stated that the initiative would be shoveled through the lower house at record speed, with all three readings taking place on November 14 and the bill being passed on to the Federation Council before the weekend. But cooler heads prevailed, it seems. Speaker Boris Gryzlov today sagely intoned that such a serious matter could not be handled so cavalierly, saying the bill's first reading would pass on November 14 and then deputies would cogitate until November 19 before rubberstamping the last two readings and passing the matter along ("Ekspert" has an account of the posturing.)
The term extension has prompted considerable speculation -- mostly centering around the likelihood that Vladimir Putin will return to the presidency either at the end of Medvedev's current term in 2012 or as the result of an election prompted by Medvedev's early resignation -- because most observers take it for granted that in Russia nothing is as it seems to be.
If one looks closely at Medvedev's speech, one finds a strange -- and strangely under-explained -- reasoning what is actually a dramatic change for Russia and the first time the country's 1993 constitution has been amended. He begins by saying that the presidency and the Duma have a particularly important status in the country because they are the only institutions that are subject to national elections and "act in the name of the entire country." However, Medvedev can't lean too hard on the "legitimacy-through-elections" argument considering the blatantly undemocratic polls that installed both him and the current Duma in office.
So the professor-lawyer president proceeds quickly to reason that the government's legitimacy rests more on its results than on how it was selected: "I am convinced that our progress toward freedom and democracy will be successful and unwavering only if the authority of the president and the State Duma is sufficiently high, based not only on campaign promises [NB: Medvedev didn't campaign; Unified Russia did not participate in campaign debates.], but on the practical results of their activity." For this, he concludes, they need "sufficient time" before having to "account for themselves to voters."
Elections have long been a problem for the Russian authorities -- who never seem to look as clumsily antidemocratic as they do when they are pulling every string to stage-manage supposedly democratic elections. The argument that Medvedev and the ruling elite simply want to go through that charade as infrequently as possible certainly seems more compelling than the reasoning that Medvedev offered in his speech.
Luckily for the Kremlin, there won't be any real discussion in the Duma or the regional legislatures that might highlight that point.
-- Robert Coalson