Russia’s Constitution, which has gone untouched since it was adopted amid bloodshed in the streets of Moscow 15 years ago, is for the first time being amended to extend the term a Kremlin leader spends in office.
The changes are being passed through Russia’s legislative system with dizzying speed, thanks to the vast pro-Kremlin majorities in both upper and lower houses of parliament.
Last week the bill, which would extend presidential terms from 4 to 6 years, whipped through all three needed readings in the State Duma, the 450-seat lower house.
Since nearly all regional legislatures are controlled by United Russia, the mega-party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it is seen as no problem to obtain the obligatory two-thirds backing from them.
Experts say the whole operation to rewrite the Constitution, which was intended to be a long and complex process, will probably be wrapped up by the document’s 15th birthday, on December 12.
But nobody can explain why the Kremlin is in such a rush to get this done, especially since President Dmitry Medvedev has explained in recent interviews that the increased presidential terms will only kick-in only for his successor, who is due to be elected in 2012.
The Constitution was written by former President Boris Yeltsin after he destroyed his parliamentary opponents in a bloody 1993 confrontation.
It bestowed the lion’s share of power upon the Kremlin, and reduced the newly created State Duma to a largely decorative role.
Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, Putin, argued for years that the Constitution should be inviolable.
But he appears to be backing this sudden campaign to alter some of its key provisions, though he insists there is “no personal dimension” and the changes are merely aimed at “developing democracy” in Russia.
However, some critics believe it’s part of a Kremlin-orchestrated plan hatched a year ago to restore Putin to the presidency.
They suggest President Medvedev is just a placeholder who will vacate the top job soon and make way for emergency elections.
“I think Putin will return next year,” says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy.
“A classic authoritarian regime prolongs itself endlessly, using imitation democratic methods.”
Under this scenario, President Dmitri Medvedev may be blamed for the spreading economic crisis and voluntarily step down.
Since the Constitution only limits a leader to two consecutive terms in office, there would be no legal barrier preventing Putin from running for the job again.
“A year ago we were all absorbed with the question of whether Putin will run for a third term?,” said Yevgeny Yasin, a former Kremlin official.
“Now we’ve received our answer. Here we are watching it happen, but we can do nothing about it,” he added.