Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday signed a law extending presidential terms from four years to six, apparently expediting Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. The move fed speculation that Putin, eager to act before the financial crisis further erodes his popularity, is unlikely to wait until scheduled elections in 2012 to return to the office.
The Kremlin acted unusually quickly, pushing the amendment through both houses of the Duma and all of the nation’s 83 regional assemblies in less than 50 days. The liberal Yabloko party objected, highlighting a clause in the 1998 law which requires that regions be given a year to consider proposed constitutional amendments.
“They’re completely ignoring the law,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko’s chairman. “Unfortunately, this happens quite often, but this is the first time the process has been ignored for such a significant issue as a constitutional amendment.”
The amendment coincides with another proposal to expand the definition of treason, a move that democrats fear “could mean a return to Soviet-style prosecutions of government critics as traitors, making crimes even of conversations with foreign reporters and nongovernmental organizations.“
Activists and lawyers suggest that the law is being pushed through in anticipation of increased political dissent and social unrest prompted by the financial crisis and the Kremlin’s economic mismanagement.
The financial crisis is testing the viability of the Putin-Medvedev “tandemocracy,” notes one observer. “The two centers of power promised a gradual evolution of Russia’s political system toward more pluralism and public accountability,” Vladimir Frolov writes in the Moscow Times. But Medvedev’s modernization agenda has given way to crisis management and Putin’s White House is “the political center of gravity.”
The declining price of oil – from $140-plus to $40 a barrel – is hurting authoritarian “petrocrats” like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Hugo Chavez as well as Putin. The Wall Street Journal suggests that the Russian premier is particularly vulnerable, noting that the authorities have banned state media from using the word “crisis,” although the Public Opinion Foundation reports that 42% of Russians believe the country is in one.
The closure of political space and emasculation of democratic institutions may backfire against the regime as discontented citizens take to the streets:
As the state is unable to tolerate or channel public anger into democratic debate, hostility can erupt in unpredictable ways. Earlier this month, some 30 Russian cities held demonstrations against a high new tariff on imported second-hand cars. … Riot police were sent from Moscow 3,750 miles east to Vladivostok, the epicenter of the movement. So far, the anti-tariff demonstrations aren’t overtly political, but the Kremlin seems to believe that can change and isn’t taking chances.
Robert Amsterdam’s blog features a rare document of dissent from within the security services, highlighting a posting on the Interior Ministry’s website from a disaffected police officer:
The power knows that actions of people’s protest are possible, and that the consequences could be unpredictable. A question. On whom is the power relying? Who can save it from the people’s wrath? Who will help hold on to what has been pillaged? That would be you and me, colleagues. The Russian police. We are going to disperse the protesters, like we did on 1 May of 1993 and in October of that same year, like we dispersed the Russian March in 2008. So, in everything that has taken place with our Motherland since the year 1993, there is our guilt…. A question. Are we going to be the dogs-on-a-chain of this regime?