MOSCOW — Even the new coronavirus can’t stop President Vladimir Putin when his power is on the line.
As rumors abound that Russia’s capital is about to be locked down to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19, Mr. Putin said this week that an April 22 nationwide vote on constitutional amendments that could keep him in power until 2036 will proceed as planned.
The amendments are part of a package of changes to Russia’s constitution that Mr. Putin, who was expected to step down in 2024 after a quarter century of de facto rule, sprang on the country two months ago. Putin allies hustled the measure through the national legislature, and the president made clear that a global pandemic is no reason to delay a popular vote to ratify the changes.
“The situation is generally under control despite high-risk levels,” Mr. Putin said.
Russia, which shares a 2,615-mile long border with China, where the virus originated, has 199 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with one death. Critics say the true figure is almost certainly far higher and accuse the government of a cover-up.
Meduza, an independent news website, reported this week that hospitals in St. Petersburg were overwhelmed with patients suffering from “influenza and pneumonia.”
Maxim Trudolyubov, editor in chief of the Russia File, said the determination to press ahead with the vote — when countries around the globe are canceling or postponing elections — shows where the Putin government’s priorities lie.
“Moscow, the Kremlin and the current president clearly prioritize this process of political legitimacy that they think will make Putin’s next term legitimate,” he said Thursday in a teleconference with reporters in Washington. “They seem to prioritize this over quarantine, which, yes, are a strain to the economy, but clearly they don’t want to cause any strain to their political process.”
Both houses of parliament and the Russian Constitutional Court approved a “one-off” exception for Mr. Putin, 67, that will allow him to stand for two additional six-year terms. The two-term limit would apply only to Mr. Putin’s successors.
If he serves two more terms, Mr. Putin will have ruled Russia for 36 years, overtaking Soviet leader Josef Stalin and drawing almost level with Ivan the Terrible, the bloodthirsty csar who was in power for 37 years. At 83, he will also be the oldest person to lead Russia in its more than 1,000-year history.
Dealing with ‘turbulence’
Under Russian law, it is illegal for any president to serve more than two consecutive terms of office. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, confirmed that the restriction on term limits would remain in place for Mr. Putin’s successors as president.
He claimed the move, which critics say places the former KGB officer above the law, was necessary for national security amid global “turbulence.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, the parliamentary speaker and a former Kremlin official, went further. He suggested that the president is the vast country’s one indispensable resource.
“Based on the challenges and the threats that exist in the world, oil and gas are not our strengths,” Mr. Volodin said. “Both can fall in price. Our strength is Putin, and we must protect him.” State television told viewers that there was no alternative to Mr. Putin.
Mr. Putin acknowledged Tuesday that the April 22 national vote could be postponed if COVID-19 cases spiral. He also said home voting was an option.
The Kremlin has sealed Russia’s borders to foreign nationals until May 1, and high schools and universities will shut down from Friday until mid-April. Anyone returning from abroad has been ordered to spend 14 days in self-isolation. Police in Moscow have used facial recognition cameras to identify more than 200 people breaking quarantine orders, the Tass state news agency said.
Although polls say Mr. Putin remains broadly popular, opposition figures are furious about what they see as Mr. Putin’s constitutional bait-and-switch.
But a ban on large public gatherings over coronavirus fears works in the president’s favor because his opponents have few avenues to register their disapproval.
“Coronavirus quarantine means Putin is barred from leaving the Kremlin until 2036,” Russians joked bitterly on social media.
Alexei Navalny, the country’s most prominent opposition leader, acknowledged that holding large protests would be “irresponsible.”
“Maybe in a year we will laugh at today’s quarantine and find out that all these measures were unnecessary, but now we all should proceed from the fact that the risk of catching a virus somewhere and infecting parents or grandparents is completely unacceptable,” said Mr. Navalny, 43.
Smaller opposition rallies have been held. On Saturday, more than 50 people were arrested in central Moscow as they protested Mr. Putin’s power play. Over 20 were taken into custody in St. Petersburg.
Resetting the clock
Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, served two four-year presidential terms from 2000 to 2008. He then shifted to the role of prime minister and installed Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime loyal ally, as president in order to sidestep the limits on consecutive terms. He returned to the Kremlin for another six-year tenure in 2012 and won reelection in 2018 amid reports of vote-stuffing.
The proposal to “reset the clock” on Mr. Putin’s term limits was sponsored in parliament March 10 by Valentina Tereshkova, a former Soviet cosmonaut who in 1963 became the first woman in space. Ms. Tereshkova, who has been a member of Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party since 2011, denied that she was acting on the Kremlin’s orders.
“Ordinary people begged for this,” she told Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-government tabloid. “Begged!”
Just one in four Russians want Mr. Putin to remain as president beyond 2024, according to an opinion poll published in January by the Levada Center, an independent think tank in Moscow, and Mr. Putin has been careful not to say whether he actually plans to run in 2024.
Ms. Tereshkova introduced her proposal after weeks of discussions on constitutional reforms that Mr. Putin launched in January. Kremlin watchers initially suspected that Mr. Putin’s move to rewrite the constitution was part of a strategy to allow him to shift to another post, such as prime minister, in 2024. Critics now suspect that those discussions served as a smokescreen.
“All this indecent fuss with the Constitution was conceived for the sake of two new terms of Putin,” said Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician.
More than 420 Russian academics, lawyers and writers have published an open letter urging their countrymen to resist Mr. Putin’s plans.
The open letter, published on the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station, said Mr. Putin’s move amounted to an “unlawful constitutional coup” that “undermines the possibility of the evolutionary development of our country on the principles of democracy and freedom.”
The term limit amendment is part of a package of constitutional changes that also emphasizes the importance of God, enshrines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and obliges the government to boost social spending, including on pensions.
William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute, said the proposed changes mark a bigger ideological shift from the old constitution by placing the sovereignty of the state ahead of the protection of individual rights and freedoms — “not very different from the Soviet and czarist legal systems.”
“These amendments really transform the division of power in Russia,” he said.
Golos, an independent election monitoring group in Moscow, has said the April 22 vote on the constitutional reforms will not be free and fair because independent observers will be barred from polling places. Russians will have to vote on the amendments as a single package, with no option to reject particular provisions that they oppose. Mr. Navalny has called for a boycott of the vote.
“To Putin, his mission of keeping Russia in one piece and making it great again is a lifelong endeavor,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “Having carried out a masterful political operation that virtually no one understood until its final act, he will now stay at the helm as long as it takes.”
⦁ Madison Hirneisen contributed to this report from Washington.