MOSCOW -- Russian lawmakers have given their final approval to sweeping constitutional amendments that open the possibility for President Vladimir Putin to remain in power for another 16 years.
Parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, and the lower house, the State Duma, both overwhelmingly approved the changes on March 11, with only one lawmaker out of the combined 620 in the houses voting against legislation that contained some 390 amendments proposed by Putin and a special constitutional working group.
The constitutional changes now must be signed by the president, approved by at least two-thirds of regional parliaments, and confirmed by the Constitutional Court. Final approval will come if more than half of the country's voters support it in an April 22 referendum.
Of all the amendments approved, one setting Putin's previous presidential term count back to zero may have the greatest effect on the country.
Putin's current term, his second consecutive six-year term, was slated to end in 2024. The previous rules forbid him from running for a third consecutive mandate, but that changes with the provisions of the amendments, meaning he can seek a fifth overall presidential term in 2024, and conceivably a sixth in 2030.
"Russia has lost its constitution, which didn't work anyway," opposition politician and former lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov wrote on Twitter.
"The fig leaf has fallen off the regime and we can see who turned out to be beneath it," he added.
The 67-year-old former KGB officer has ruled Russia as a president or prime minister for more than 20 years.
Other amendments include a widening of parliament's authority, priority of Russia's national laws over international agreements, banning same-sex marriages, adding the phrase "a belief in God" and the definition of the Russian language as "the language of the state-forming ethnicity" to the constitution, and making it "impossible to alienate parts of the Russian Federation."
Putin remains popular among many Russians, even though the country experienced some of its largest pro-democracy demonstrations last summer over the barring of opposition candidates in some municipal elections.
On March 10, after the State Duma approved the bill in its second reading, dozens of activists held single protests near the Kremlin, which do not require preliminary permission from the city authorities.
Several opposition groups filed requests with the city authorities that day, asking for permission to hold mass rallies against the bill on March 21 and 22.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced on March 10 that all public events with participation of more than 5,000 people were banned until April 10 to prevent the spreading of the coronavirus.