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Vladimir Putin's power play paves the way for 16 more years — but not without challenges

Russian leader “faces a number of challenges, some of which are pretty fundamental,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

MOSCOW – The coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s stagnating economy are among the challenges facing President Vladimir Putin after a controversial national referendum that paved the way for him to stay in power until 2036, experts have warned.

Putin thanked Russian voters for their “support and trust” Thursday after election officials confirmed almost 78 percent of the voters backed the constitutional amendments, one of which will see presidential term limits reset, allowing Putin to run for the job again in 2024 and in 2030 if he so chooses.

“The result of the vote shows that the vast majority of citizens believe that we can work better. And the so-called expanded government — from municipalities to the president — is obliged to do everything it can to justify the high confidence placed in it by the people,” he said in an address on the state-run TV channel Rossiya 1.

Pointing to a high voter turnout of almost 68 percent, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov had earlier declared the result a “triumph.”

The Russian leader nonetheless “faces a number of challenges, some of which are pretty fundamental,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told NBC News.

The most immediate is the coronavirus pandemic. Russia has recorded almost 655,000 cases, according to the country’s crisis response center. Only the United States and Brazil have reported more. More than 9,500 people have died from the respiratory illness in Russia.

Perhaps his biggest challenge is the economy, which has been stagnating for almost a decade and led to a slow but steady decline in the majority of the population’s standards of living, Trenin said.

It has also been hit hard by plummeting oil prices as people stopped traveling and factories stopped production during the pandemic, lowering the value of the ruble on world markets and affecting prices at home.

In an op-ed published on the website of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, Grigory Yudin, a sociologist at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, argued that the true purpose of the referendum — and in particular, publishing the turnout number — served a specific goal for Putin, giving him “an instrument of moral pressure” to push back on the elite and the bureaucracy.

Russia’s political class, he argues, is dissatisfied with the president after two disappointing years that have seen public discontent grow, putting the system on uncertain footing.

“Putin was afraid they would begin to doubt his ability to manage the system,” Yudin wrote, adding that this is also a tool of pressure on “a very skeptical middle class, that Putin is gradually losing,” as well as any potential opponents from within the system.

Image: Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally to mark the 5th anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's murder and to protest against proposed amendments to the country's constitution, in Moscow, Russia
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny urged people to boycott the referendum.Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

The referendum results are meant to demonstrate he still commands the support of a vast majority of the public, Yudin added. “If this perception prevails, then this is a good result for Putin.”

Wednesday’s vote was the final phase in the effort to amend the constitution. The amendments earlier this year already passed votes in both houses of parliament, all 85 regional legislatures, and received the approval of the Russian Supreme court. The vote was a means for the Kremlin to claim a public mandate to make sweeping changes.

The reform package also moved the power to appoint the prime minister from the Kremlin to the lower house of parliament and defined marriage constitutionally as a union between a man and a woman, among other things. But the most important provision simply “zeroed” presidential term limits while defining them as limited to two terms back to back, rather than for all time.

The Russian opposition and independent observers have cried foul, claiming the results are obviously rigged. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who urged citizens to boycott the referendum and not take part in legitimizing the outcome, called the results “a fake and huge lie.”

While he had cleared the way to run again for president, the specter of political transition still looms large.

“Putin himself hardly believes he can simply rest on his laurels from now until 2036, as some critics suggest,” Trenin said. “He needs to offer Russians a path forward that will energize them. And all of this will be very hard.”