Putin’s constitutional overhaul: a smorgasbord of reforms

As well as giving President Vladimir Putin the chance to extend his stay in power until 2036, the constitutional changes approved by Russian lawmakers this week are a smorgasbord of reforms.

The draft legislation sailed through parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, in a key second reading on Tuesday and a third reading on Wednesday and now must be approved by regional assemblies and the upper house Federation Council. 

A public vote which Putin has termed a “plebiscite” has been set for April 22.

Here is an overview of the changes being made to Russia’s constitution, the first reforms to the country’s basic law since 1993.

– New presidential terms –

The potentially most important amendment — suddenly proposed Tuesday by ruling party lawmaker and first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, and swiftly adopted by the Duma — would reset Putin’s constitutional term-limit clock to zero.

Putin first came to power as prime minister in 1999 under Boris Yeltsin before becoming president in 2000. He served the maximum two consecutive terms between 2000 and 2008 before a four-year stint as prime minister. 

He returned to the Kremlin in 2012 for a newly expanded six-year mandate and was re-elected in 2018. 

During a rare and unscheduled appearance in parliament on Tuesday, Putin agreed to Tereshkova’s proposal “if the constitutional court rules such an amendment would not go against” the law.

The announcement came even though Putin had previously ruled out bending the law to stay in power.

Other constitutional changes somewhat expand the role of parliament, but they also strengthen the already-powerful role of the president, with some observers calling the reform “super-presidential amendments”.

The president will have the right to dissolve parliament if it refuses to support the candidacy of a minister proposed by the head of state three times in a row.

The president will also have greater say over the work of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts and prosecutors.

The reform also strengthens the role of the State Council, currently an advisory body.

– Conservative values – 

In line with Putin’s strongly conservative views, the reforms enshrine a mention of Russians’ “faith in God” despite Russia’s long history as a secular country. 

The reform also stipulates that marriage is a union between a man and woman, effectively banning gay marriages.

The new amendments also ban giving away Russian territory and outlaw any calls promoting such a move.

Such an amendment would ensure that Russia keeps Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, or the Kuril Islands — disputed with Japan for decades — even after Putin exits the political scene.

The amendments also seek to protect the “historic truth” about the country’s role in World War II and honour the memory of “the defenders of the fatherland”.

The Russian leader has repeatedly railed against attempts to “rewrite” history and complained that the West does not fully appreciate the huge losses sustained by the Soviet Union during World War II. 

– Social guarantees –

The constitutional reform guarantees a minimum wage that should not be below the subsistence level and state pensions regularly adjusted to inflation.

The amendments spell out principles of “justice and generational solidarity” to ensure the proper functioning of the pension system.

Observers say the Kremlin chief could have included the social guarantees into the country’s basic law to boost support for the proposals among the general public.