Russia’s constitution, drafted in 1993 after a bloody parliamentary rebellion against then-President Boris Yeltsin, places overwhelming powers in the hands of the president.
Ten years later, there are opposition fears that the constitution could be used to increase those powers even further by extending President Vladimir Putin’s time in office.
Putin, Russia’s most popular politician with approval ratings around 70 percent, is set to easily win his second four-year term in March — and his last under the charter’s two-term limit.
But many of his supporters have suggested amending the constitution to allow Putin to run for a third term.
According to preliminary results, the Dec. 7 elections gave the pre-Kremlin parties the two-thirds majority required to push through such an amendment after liberal parties failed to win the 5 percent of the vote to get into the legislature and the Communists lost seats.
“With such a majority, Putin will do whatever he wants,” said Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko faction, which failed to win the votes to get into parliament.
Putin sought to dispel talk of amending the charter at a Kremlin reception Friday on the 10th anniversary of the Yeltsin constitution.
“Strict observance of the constitution is the basis for the successful development of the state and civil accord in society,” he said. “And those who try to speculate on the theme of possible amendments to the basic law should know this well.”
Skeptics say Putin thinks the topic is premature since he has yet to win a second term.
“It would be naive to trust the president’s word now, when we have a Duma that can approve any amendments,” said Sergei Reshulski, a Communist lawmaker.
An amendment can be initiated by the president, parliament, Cabinet or local legislatures. It needs the approval of two-thirds of the members of the lower house, the State Duma, a three-quarters majority in the upper house and support of local legislatures in two-thirds of Russia’s 89 provinces.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who is supportive of Putin, suggested that Putin might consider an amendment to extend his time in office if his second term is successful.
“I don’t exclude that he may use such an opportunity at the end of his term,” Gorbachev said.
Columnist Yulia Latynina said Putin himself may be undecided.
“The issue isn’t what he wants now, but what he will want in three years,” she wrote in the biweekly Novaya Gazeta. “No one knows that, including himself.”
Other analysts say Putin would be unlikely to extend his tenure because it would confirm Western fears of authoritarian tendencies and make him an international pariah.
1993 constitution gives president broad powers
So far, no amendments have been made to the constitution, which was approved in a nationwide referendum on Dec. 12, 1993.
The vote came a little more than two months after Yeltsin sent troops and tanks against rebellious lawmakers holed up in parliament who had declared him ousted. They claimed the old constitution gave parliament the power to sack the president.
Once the rebellion’s leaders were put in jail, Kremlin experts wrote a constitution giving broad powers to the president and leaving little authority for parliament.
The constitution allows the president to rule by decree, appoint Cabinet ministers and sack the entire Cabinet at his whim. The president needs lawmakers’ approval to appoint a prime minister, but has the right to disband parliament if it refuses to approve his nominee three times.
After his March 2000 election, Putin strengthened federal authority without amending the constitution, trimming the powers of provincial governors who had enjoyed broad autonomy under his predecessor.
With a two-thirds majority in the new Duma, Putin could be tempted to further strengthen the Kremlin’s already tight controls over Russia’s political life.
Mercurial nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose party votes with the Kremlin, has suggested governors should be appointed by the president, not elected by popular vote.
Others have proposed an amendment calling for lawmakers to be dismissed if they fail to regularly attend sessions and meet with voters — a potentially powerful lever of influence over those who fail to toe the Kremlin line.