Kremlin group sets date for constitutional vote

Vladimir Isachenkov
Associated Press

Moscow – A working group chaired by Russia President Vladimir Putin has set a date for a nationwide vote on amendments to the country’s Constitution that are widely seen as part of his efforts to extend his grip on power.

The working group’s choice of April 22 coincides with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union’s first leader.

Neither group members nor Putin commented on whether the timing was purposeful or a coincidence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with top Interior Ministry officials in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

Speaking at the meeting, Putin welcomed proposed amendments to emphasize respect for Russia’s history spanning from the time of the Czars to the Soviet Union.

Putin, the longest-serving Russian leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin after more than 20 years in power, has in the past lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

But he has also deplored the 1917 breakup of the Russian Empire and often criticized Lenin for designing the Soviet Union along ethnic lines and granting the right of secession to its republics – decisions that Putin has said paved the path to its collapse.

When Putin first proposed changes to the constitution last month, they were widely seen as part of his efforts to remain in charge after his current presidential term ends in 2024. But the Kremlin draft didn’t offer clues to how he might accomplish that goal and it remained unclear why he is moving now to get the constitution changed.

The meeting on Wednesday didn’t shed any light on the reasons behind the sweeping constitutional reform.

Putin has argued that the changes in the constitution he proposed in a state-of-the-nation speech on Jan. 15 are intended to boost the powers of parliament and strengthen democracy. But the proposals also maintain and even strengthen presidential powers – something Putin described as a must for the country.

Some have suggested that Putin, who served two consecutive terms in 2000-2008 and is currently serving the second of another pair of consecutive terms, may use the constitutional reform as a peg to launch a new count.

Vladislav Surkov, who earlier this month lost his job as the Kremlin adviser on Ukraine but pledged his unwavering loyalty to Putin, made that argument in an interview published Wednesday.

“The logic of law makes it necessary to start a new count of presidential terms,” he said.

Asked about Surkov’s comment, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Surkov was expressing his personal opinion as a private citizen.

Members of the working group created by Putin also dismissed the idea of restarting the term count.

“There is no foundation behind that from the legal viewpoint,” the group’s co-chairman, Pavel Krasheninnikov said after Wednesday’s meeting.