Putin lays out path to staying in power

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a session prior to voting for constitutional amendments at the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament, in Moscow. (AP Photo)
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Updated 11 March 2020

Putin lays out path to staying in power

  • In a surprise address to the lower house State Duma, Putin said there could be a presidential reset allowing him to run after his current term expires
  • This would allow 67-year-old Putin, who was first elected in 2000, to run again after his current six-year term expires, and potentially stay in power until 2036

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out a path Tuesday to staying in power beyond 2024, as lawmakers approved sweeping reforms to the constitution.
In a surprise address to the lower house State Duma, Putin said there could be a presidential “reset” allowing him to run after his current term expires.
“This would be possible... if the constitutional court rules such an amendment would not go against (the constitution),” he said.
Putin appeared before the Duma after lawmakers proposed a series of amendments to a package of constitutional reforms he announced in January.
Among them was an amendment put forward by Valentina Tereshkova, an MP and Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space, that would annul previous presidential terms.
This would allow 67-year-old Putin, who was first elected in 2000, to run again after his current six-year term expires, and potentially stay in power until 2036.
“These amendments are long overdue, they are needed, and I am sure they will be useful for society, for our citizens,” he told lawmakers.
He said Russia needed evolutionary change, “because we have had enough of revolutions” while suggesting that the country may not yet be ready for a new leader.
Shortly after his address, Moscow’s mayor banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people through to April 10, justifying the move with the need to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Lawmakers also proposed holding early parliamentary elections but Putin said that was not necessary and the amendment was withdrawn. He also rejected a call for a lifting of the overall two-term presidential limit.
Deputies then voted to approve the reforms in the key second reading, with 382 in favor, 44 abstentions and none against.
Opposition came outside the chamber, however, in the form of a protest by some 100 people in central Moscow while opposition groups called for rallies on Friday.
A third and final reading is due in the Duma on Wednesday, followed by approval in the upper house Federation Council and a public vote on the reforms planned for April 22.
Putin shocked Russia’s political establishment by announcing the package of reforms in January, the first major changes to the country’s basic law since 1993.
The political changes will also give parliament the power to choose the government and increase the role of the State Council, an advisory body.
Other proposals aim at boosting living standards, including a guaranteed minimum wage and state pensions adjusted to inflation.
And — in line with Putin’s strongly conservative views — the reforms would enshrine a mention of Russians’ “faith in God” and spell out that marriage is a heterosexual union.
Russia’s opposition, including Putin’s most prominent critic Alexei Navalny, has denounced the proposals as an effort to make him “president for life.”
“Interesting how things turn out,” Navalny said in a tweet after Putin’s speech.
“Putin has been in power for 20 years but he’s going to run for the first time.”
More than 20,000 protesters took part in a rally on February 29 calling on Putin not to hold on to power and opposition groups on Tuesday quickly put in requests for permission for more demonstrations.
But so far there has not been an upswell of opposition to the reforms, with polls showing many Russian are confused about what the constitutional proposals entail.
Observers had previously suggested that Putin could be looking to stay on in a behind-the-scenes role after 2024 as head of another state body.
But Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Tuesday’s events made it clear Putin wanted to remain in charge.
“It looks that after playing with ideas of State Council and Security Council Putin has finally decided in favor of running again in 2024,” Trenin said on Twitter.
“Putin intends to to govern us for at least two (more) terms ... Putin until 2036, it’s unthinkable,” said Ilia Azar, an opposition journalist.
Putin was re-elected to a fifth term in 2018 but his approval ratings have been slipping as Russia’s economy struggles under the weight of Western sanctions and living standards fall.
The economy is set for more turbulence after oil prices crashed following the collapse of an output limits deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The value of the ruble and Russian stock exchanges have since tumbled.
But in presenting the amendment that would annul previous presidential terms, cosmonaut-turned-politician Tereshkova said the possibility of Putin staying on would be reassuring.
“The very existence of such an opportunity for the incumbent president — given his great authority — is a stabilising factor for our society,” she said.

Afghanistan says long-awaited Intra-Afghan talks expected in two weeks 

Updated 01 June 2020

Afghanistan says long-awaited Intra-Afghan talks expected in two weeks 

KABUL: Afghan government and Taliban delegates are expected to begin online talks in mid-June in a bid to end a decades-old conflict in the country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

While past meetings have been held in person, the latest round of negotiations will take place online because of the threat of coronavirus in the war-ravaged country.

“We see no challenges, the atmosphere and preparations are all set for the talks,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, newly appointed chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation, told Arab News.

Negotiations could begin in “the next 10 or 15 days,” he said.

“The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners were all requirements for the start of the talks, and we have had progress on them recently,” Khawzoon said.

On Wednesday the Afghan government released a list of 20 delegates due to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

The team will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a former spy chief who has held indirect negotiations with the militants in the past outside Afghanistan, he added.

In the lead-up to the talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government will release 3,000 more Taliban prisoners, an official close to the Afghan leader told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 Taliban inmates have already been freed as part of a historic peace deal in February.

In return, the Taliban released hundreds of government troops and, in a surprise move, announced a three-day cease-fire last week for Eid Al-Fitr.

The peace moves follow a buildup in fighting between the two sides despite the pandemic. Taliban attacks killed at least 146 people and injured 430 during Ramadan. 

Fears had been growing that the peace deal signed on Feb. 29 between the Taliban and the US would collapse.

The joint cease-fire followed talks in Qatar last week between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan.

Khalilzad later traveled to Kabul for meetings with Afghan political leaders over a reduction in violence and an exchange of prisoners. 

“We welcome the Taliban’s decision to observe a cease-fire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government reciprocating and announcing its own,” Khalilzad said last Sunday.

Increasing Taliban attacks on government troops, and political infighting between Ghani and Abdullah over who would assume office as president, have delayed the talks.

After Washington failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah, both leaders agreed two weeks ago to share power, with Ghani leading the country for another five years and Abdullah appointed as chief of the peace talks.

Khalilzad described the cease-fire agreement as a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed,” and pressed both sides to agree on a new date to start negotiations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the two sides to start peace talks, with the release of prisoners as a first step. 

Pompeo said that he expected the Taliban “to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield.”

Ghani said the release of Taliban inmates would be “expedited” and that his government’s negotiating team was ready to begin talks “as soon as possible.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not be reached for comment on the Taliban’s stance.

In the past, the group has insisted it will take part in talks with Kabul only after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are freed.

Experts hope the latest developments are a step in the right direction.

“The Taliban do not seem to have any reservations about the structure of the government team, so the hope is high that the talks will take place by June 15,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News.

“Some of Taliban’s field commanders seem to be divided on the talks, hoping to capture power again after the departure of US forces (by next spring), while the political leaders are pushing for a political settlement,” he said.