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In a country with the formal trappings of a democracy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has held onto power for over 20 years while adhering to the letter of the law, or at least the constitution as it applies to the presidency -- and arguably even to its spirit.
This time, it's different.
When he stepped out of the Kremlin in 2008 and back in four years later, Putin was abiding by the rules and using a loophole -- as he essentially called it with a snicker this past December, when he offered his first hint that big changes to the constitution were coming -- that was entirely legal and certainly not designed with him in mind.
In 1993, when Russia adopted its post-Soviet constitution, Putin was head of the external relations committee at the St. Petersburg mayor's office and was perhaps best-known for a legislative probe that called for his firing over an alleged multimillion-dollar kickback scheme.
True, placeholder President Dmitry Medvedev's move to change the constitution months after his inauguration in 2008, extending future presidential terms to six years, did turn out to be tailored to Putin -- who would be facing the end of his presidency this May if terms were still four years long, like in the United States.
But other than that, it was all done by the book -- which is what Olympic pole-vault champion and Putin supporter Yelena Isinbayeva called the Russian Constitution after she was appointed to a committee charged with handling the changes: "a very important book."
There was, of course, a great deal of anger over Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin in 2012. The September 2011 announcement that he and Medvedev would trade places the following year sparked protests that grew larger after a December Duma election that was marred by allegations of widespread fraud in favor of the United Russia party, which is Putin's main political lever nationwide.
2008, 2024 -- 2036?
He weathered those protests, however, securing a six-year term in March 2012 and then, as expected, another one in 2018.
That set up the same problem he faced in 2008, with his more advanced age adding a twist: If he were to sit out the 2024 election and run again in 2030, he would be 77 years old at the start of a new six-year term.
Putin likes to use the Russian expression "Feel the difference," often pausing for effect after uttering it, and there is a palpable difference between the path he took in 2008 and the one he has laid out for himself long in advance of 2024.
Back then, he adhered to the existing constitution, something he has seemed very careful to do until now. This time, the constitution is being altered for the express purpose of giving him the option of remaining in power until May 2036 -- when he will be 83 and, if he is still president, will have the longest reign in Russia since Peter the Great.
Putin will presumably still claim that he is adhering to both the letter and spirit of the law. In 2008, he said he had decided on his first day as president that he would "not violate the existing constitution." And in fact, he hasn't violated the existing constitution this time --- he is changing it instead.
He is also taking great pains to make it all look not only legal but unremarkable. In his appearance at the State Duma on March 10 to back a proposal that he be allowed to run again, he made statements that seemed aimed at portraying an obviously momentous change in the constitution as a run-of-the-mill procedural issue -- but that it seems safe to say fooled nobody.
Precondition Or Punch Line
First, he rejected the more straightforward of two proposals delivered by Valentina Tereshkova, the former cosmonaut who was the first woman in space and is now a ruling-party lawmaker -- that presidential term limits be scrapped altogether. Then, in backing her second proposal -- that the adoption of an amended constitution set the needle on the number of terms he has served back to zero -- he said it would be fine as long as it is approved the Constitutional Court.
For Putin's opponents, and many other Russians, that sounded much more like a punch line than a precondition.
Even senior officials such as Medvedev have voiced concern that Russian courts are beholden to the executive branch. And the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, happens to have been one of the most prominent figures to call for constitutional changes since Putin's reelection in 2018 thrust the "2024 Question" to the fore.
An opinion article Zorkin wrote for the official government newspaper a few months after Putin's inauguration was seen by some analysts as a sign that Putin was toying with the idea of changing the constitution to prolong his tenure in office.
Back To Zero
Meanwhile, much of the procedure by which Putin's constitutional amendments will go from submission to the Duma to adoption as law in just over three months -- and about six weeks in the case of the amendment allowing him to rule until 2036 -- is essentially made up, legal experts say.
If the idea of an impartial decision by the Constitutional Court came as a punch line, the premise behind the rule that will enable Putin to run for two more terms if he chooses was widely treated like a joke. And critics unleashed a hailstorm of biting humor in response, posting mocking memes playing on the word used to describe resetting his term count to zero: "obnuleniye,'" or annulment.
One Facebook post -- later removed -- showed Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's tomb on Red Square, but bearing the word "Obnulenin" instead of just Lenin.
An opposition deputy showed up for the Moscow City Duma vote on Putin's constitutional changes wearing a T-shirt with a crude mashup mixing "obnuleniye" with a slang word meaning "f***ed up."
There were also jabs referencing the coronavirus pandemic, including one that went: "Coronavirus quarantine means Putin is barred from leaving the presidency until 2036."
Peter The Great And The Point Of No Return
If Putin does extend his stretch as president or prime minister until then, he will be Russia's longest-ruling leader since Tsar Peter the Great -- the Westernizer who wrenched Russia into the global mainstream and built the stately, European-style city where Putin grew up 250 years later: St. Petersburg, the Window on the West.
Putin has sometimes spoken of Russia as being part of Europe, but in recent years has increasingly criticized the West and suggested that the values championed in Washington and Brussels are misguided. And with the constitutional changes, observers say he may be taking Russia to an entirely different place -- with few prospects for a rapid return once he is gone.
INFOGRAPHIC: Putin's Long Reign
"A new Russia is taking shape which is more disdainful of democracy -- and takes its cue from many other countries and regimes around the world in being so. Undemocratic but stable China is now openly deemed a more powerful model than Europe," Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an article published on March 11.
"There may still be discussion about a constitution which is still European on the page, if not in reality. But this is a very different kind of Russian state, unashamedly authoritarian in design," Baunov wrote. "If Russia ever wants to return to the European model, it will have to dismantle the entire political legacy that this regime has built."