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Explainer

Will Putin Be Russia’s President For Life?

A series of choreographed moves have set the stage for him to potentially rule until at least 2036.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23, 2020. (YURI KOCHETKOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23, 2020. (YURI KOCHETKOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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The question of what comes next for Vladimir Putin after his current presidential term expires in 2024 has been the central question driving Russian politics. The looming deadline has led to months of theories and speculation about how Putin would chart the country’s political future by exploring various ways to stay in power or slowly transition away from the Kremlin. On Tuesday, that future became a little bit clearer when a series of choreographed political moves in Russia’s parliament set the stage for the longtime leader to serve as the country’s president for another 16 years. 

The proposal, which was passed by the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, opens the door for the 67-year-old Putin—who has already ruled for more than 20 years—to serve as many as two more six-year terms, potentially extending his rule over Russia to 2036, when he would be 83. The Russian president is required by the constitution to step down in 2024 when his second sequential presidential term ends, but the motion unexpectedly proposed in parliament on Tuesday would amend the constitution in a way that would reset Putin’s presidential term count back to zero. 

Putin has already endorsed the amendment, but he said that the legislation must first be approved by Russia’s Constitutional Court, which is largely a formality given the country’s tightly controlled politics. The forthcoming ruling from the court is part of a wider set of changes to Russia’s constitution that will be put to a national vote scheduled for April 22 and define the country’s trajectory for decades to come. 

So what just happened?

The proposal to reset Putin’s term limits was put forward during a parliamentary session by Valentina Tereshkova, a member of the ruling United Russia party who was also the first woman in space, who argued that the change was needed because, “Putin needs to be there—in case something goes wrong.” Lawmakers offered overwhelming support for the idea, and the session that was focused on amendments to the constitution was later suspended when Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that he wanted to consult with Putin on lifting the term limits. 

Putin then appeared in person in parliament, and in a televised half-hour speech he said that he agreed with the proposal and that he should be allowed to run again as president in order to ensure Russia’s political stability. 

“Russia has had enough revolutions,” Putin said during his address. “The president is the guarantor of the constitution and, to say more simply, the guarantor of the security of our state, its internal stability and internal evolutionary development.”

Despite supporting the decision to allow two more presidential terms for himself, Putin said that future presidents should abide by a two-term limit. The Russian leader also added that while “stability” is the country’s primary need at the moment, in the future when Russia is stronger, the country “needs a guarantee that the people in power can be changed regularly.” Putin also rejected an earlier proposal put forward during the session for early parliamentary elections, which are currently scheduled for 2021.

Remarking on the day’s unexpected turn of events, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, tweeted: “It’s all clear: There won’t be early elections. Putin will be president for life.” 

Why now?

This latest venture is part of a set of recent measures looking to answer the difficult question of what comes after 2024. In January, Putin announced sweeping constitutional reforms that would redistribute some of the powers of the presidency to the parliament and State Council, an obscure body that would grant its head extensive powers over Russian foreign and military policy. Putin appeared to be signaling his intent to leave the presidency, and many analysts predicted that he would then remain as the head of the State Council, where he could still wield significant influence over the country.

But last week, Putin said that he did not intend to head the newly empowered State Council after 2024, adding that him doing so would be “destructive” for Russia. Tuesday’s announcement has only added to the confusion of what comes next, as earlier expectations that Putin intended to weaken the presidency and empower the parliament have faded. The decision to turn to the Constitutional Court comes as the booming energy prices and rising incomes that helped propel Putin’s popularity in the early days of his presidency have largely passed and the Russian economy continues to be hit by low oil prices during a spat with Saudi Arabia and hurt by the financial fallout from the spread of the coronavirus. 

Moreover, while Putin still remains popular, his government has faced falling ratings and rising distrust that could only grow. The dismissal of the unpopular government in January and the appointment as prime minister of Mikhail Mishustin, who has since promised increased social benefits, were seen as moves to boost Putin’s popularity and reverse the tide. A January poll from the Levada Center, an independent pollster based in Moscow, found that Putin’s approval rating stood at 68 percent, but trust in the president was down to 35 percent, the lowest since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Will Putin rule forever?

While Wednesday’s surprise turn of events has opened a new path for Putin, it has not eliminated ambiguity about the Kremlin’s course of action. Rather, the dramatic move is widely seen as part of an effort to create options for the Russian leader. While Putin endorsed the proposal in parliament, he did not definitively say he would run again as president and addressed the Russian public at the end of his speech, saying: “I’m sure that together, we will do many more great things, at least until 2024. Then, we will see.”

Still, the move offers a noteworthy shift from the Kremlin and reflects a lack of faith in many of the more sophisticated ways put forward for Putin maintaining power. Some proposals have looked at granting retired presidents immunity from prosecution, while others would make Putin a lifetime senator in Russia’s upper house. Another unsuccessful option saw the Kremlin pressure neighboring Belarus into agreeing to merge the country with Russia, allowing Putin to sidestep term limits as head of the new unified state.

Restarting the clock on Putin’s term limits will do little to satisfy the public’s growing desire for change, but it will certainly deliver for Russian elites who are anxious about preserving the status quo. Putin is the top of the country’s authoritarian system and functions as an arbiter for high-level disputes, preventing palace intrigue from spilling out into public view and protecting the wealth of the elite. With Putin removed from this role, many have speculated that the current system would become unstable, leading to power grabs and competition to fill the vacuum left by the president. 

This presents a difficult balancing act for Putin in the coming years as the Kremlin looks for ways to contain public backlash and still keep elites in check. With few alternatives, Putin until 2036 appears to be the most comfortable option for the Kremlin.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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