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also proposed holding early parliamentary elections but Putin said that was not necessary and the amendment was withdrawn.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.


India urged to provide refuge to Rohingya plucked from sea

Updated 27 February 2021

India urged to provide refuge to Rohingya plucked from sea

  • Abide by international laws to deal with refugees rescued near Andaman Islands, Human Rights Watch says
  • New Delhi-based Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) demanded that the Indian government “grant a status of refugees to the stranded people”

NEW DELHI: Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Saturday called on India to abide by international laws in protecting refugees a day after New Delhi said it had rescued 81 Rohingya stranded in Indian waters.
“India should abide by its international obligations to offer all protection and access to the UN refugee agency,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Arab News.
On Feb. 11, nearly 90 Rohingya from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in Bangladesh boarded a small boat for Malaysia, Anurag Srivastava, India’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a statement.
Four days later, on Feb. 15, “the boat’s engine broke down, and the boat drifted toward the southern Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar.”
Eight people lost their lives, and one drowned.
Two days later, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed to “all governments to deploy their search and rescue capacities and promptly disembark those in distress.”
On Friday, New Delhi announced that it had rescued the stranded refugees.
“When we learned of the boat in distress, we immediately dispatched two coast guard ships to provide food, water and medical assistance to the occupants of the boat. Seven of them were administered IV fluids,” the statement said.
It added that since most of “the occupants of the boat have ID cards issued to them by the UNHCR office in Bangladesh,” New Delhi was in talks with Dhaka “to ensure their safe and secure repatriation.”
The HRW, however, said that India needed to do more to abide by its “international obligations” and should not “pass the buck.”
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which mandates refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them. Nor does it have any domestic law to protect the more than 200,000 refugees it currently hosts, including some Rohingya from Myanmar.
“Whether it is India, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh or other countries in the region, governments need to protect the Rohingya refugees instead of trying to pass the buck,” Ganguly told Arab News.
She added that the “primary responsibility” for the plight of the Rohingya lay with Myanmar and that “these governments should join the international community to ensure that the Rohingya can return to their homes voluntarily, with safety and dignity.”
Meanwhile, the New Delhi-based Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) demanded that the Indian government “grant a status of refugees to the stranded people.”
“Rohingya stranded in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are not Bangladeshi; they are hapless refugees. India, being a big country, should shelter these stranded people till the situation normalizes in Myanmar,” RHRI founder Sabber Kyaw Min said.
Min was referring in part to a coup d’etat by the Myanmar military on Feb. 1, which has led to the declaration of a state of emergency by the ruling regime and widespread, nationwide protests.
He called on the Indian government to disclose the refugees’ whereabouts.
“I was in touch with some of the refugees and their relatives till Wednesday, but since then their phones have been off. Rohingya are suffering. New Delhi should demonstrate large-heartedness in accommodating the refugees in the same way Bangladesh has demonstrated,” Min added.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a federally administered archipelago lying between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Both Myanmar and Thailand have coastlines along the eastern edge of the sea.
In 2012, some Rohingya refugees were rescued from near the islands and provided medical care and attention, before being sent back to Myanmar.
However, ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led regime assumed office in New Delhi, India has taken a harder line over providing admission and shelter to any Rohingya refugees.
Denis Giles of the Andaman Chronicle, an English newspaper based in Andaman’s capital Port Blair, was the first to break the story about the stranded refugees and alert the world about the crisis.
Giles, who covered the Rohingya rescue operations in 2012, said that this time “there is a big difference.”
“They were properly treated, and the administration used to ask social organizations to help them out, but now no one wants to talk about that. There is a hush now,” Giles told Arab News.
“Earlier, we would know where they are being kept, which hospitals they are being treated at but this time, we are completely in the dark.”
Bangladesh is hosting more than 1.1 million Rohingya who fled from persecution at the Myanmar military’s hands in the Buddhist-majority country.
The Rohingya endured decades of abuse in Myanmar, beginning in the 1970s when hundreds of thousands sought refuge in Bangladesh.
Between 1989 and 1991, an additional 250,000 fled when a military crackdown followed a popular uprising and Burma was renamed Myanmar. In 1992, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on a repatriation deal under which thousands of Rohingya returning to Rakhine.
The Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh resumed in August 2017 following a military crackdown on the ethnic minority group.
According to the UN, by the end of 2020, 866,457 Rohingya refugees had been registered at 34 camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh due to a joint initiative by Dhaka and the UNHCR.


Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies

Updated 27 February 2021

Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies

  • Move part of efforts to speed up inoculation, achieve herd immunity

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government on Friday said it would allow private companies to run coronavirus vaccination programs for workers and families alongside a nationwide drive to expedite efforts in achieving herd immunity.

The country is aiming to inoculate 181.5 million people out of the total 270 million population by year-end.

“The companies will provide the vaccines for free for workers,” Siti Nadia Tarmizi, health ministry spokesperson for the vaccination program, said during a press conference.

Tarmizi added that the ministry’s revised regulation, which serves as the main reference for the vaccination program, was issued on Wednesday to include articles regulating the private sector’s involvement in the vaccination drive.

“The number of vaccines distributed in the private-run program will match the number that the companies requested, and the inoculations will be conducted at private healthcare facilities or the companies’ own facilities,” Tarmizi said.

Additionally, the vaccines used in the program will be different from the free CoronaVac, AstraZeneca, Novavax and Pfizer vaccines that the government has distributed since mid-January.

While initial population targets included health workers, senior citizens, frontline public workers, teachers and lecturers, athletes, journalists, and lawmakers, the general population or those in their productive age will receive their first vaccine jab in April.

The private scheme, which the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) proposed, will require companies to purchase the vaccine from Bio Farma, a state-owned vaccine manufacturer appointed as the sole importer for all jabs that Indonesia procures.

Bio Farma spokesperson Bambang Heriyanto said the company is in discussions with Moderna and Sinopharm to procure vaccines for the private scheme, which has been dubbed “Gotong Royong,” an Indonesian term for mutual cooperation.

“In accordance with its name, this is a mutual cooperation initiative. The government will provide a space for any members of society that will want to assist the government in the vaccination program,” Arya Sinulingga, a spokesperson for the State-Owned Enterprises Ministry, said on Friday.

He added that the private drive will run in parallel with the government’s program and will not alter the existing schedule or priority groups being targeted.

Kadin said that about 7,000 companies had already registered for the vaccination drive as of Saturday.

“The enthusiasm is really high to take part in this program because it is quite costly for the companies to swab test regularly. It is better for the companies to allocate the cost to vaccinate their workers,” Shinta Kamdani Widjaja, Kadin deputy chairwoman, said at a press conference earlier this week.

She dismissed concerns that the program will commercialize vaccines, saying the government would closely monitor the program to avoid any violations of terms and conditions.

“There are also companies that are willing to vaccinate not only their workers, but also their families. It would be difficult for the economy to recover if we don’t achieve the herd immunity target. The business community is ready to support the government in the vaccination drive and economic recovery program,” Widjaja said.

However, opponents of the scheme said the private vaccination drive will “only enable queue jumpers who don’t really need the vaccine compared with the more vulnerable groups, and disregard the principle of equity for all citizens in a vaccination program.”

Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist, said in an online discussion: “There is also no guarantee that we will achieve herd immunity by inoculating 181.5 million people. This could be misleading the public and making them have the wrong expectation.

“This is also prone to make the government, the companies, and the public relax its compliance to the health protocols, testing, tracing and treatment,” Budiman added.

He said that achieving herd immunity is a long-term goal and that the vaccination drive could not stand alone in battling the pandemic without a comprehensive public health approach.

Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, agreed and said that the private vaccination program focused mainly on economic recovery targets instead of controlling the pandemic.

“It is clear from the start that the government does not view the vaccine as one of the ways to handle the pandemic, but it has been more about economic recovery,” Riono said.


Russia reports 11,534 new COVID-19 cases, 439 deaths

Updated 27 February 2021

Russia reports 11,534 new COVID-19 cases, 439 deaths

  • The government coronavirus taskforce also reported 439 deaths in the last 24 hours
MOSCOW: Russia on Saturday reported 11,534 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, including 1,825 in Moscow, taking the national tally to 4,234,720 since the pandemic began.
The government coronavirus taskforce also reported 439 deaths in the last 24 hours, pushing the official death toll to 85,743.

UN urges warring parties to halt fighting for vaccinations

Updated 27 February 2021

UN urges warring parties to halt fighting for vaccinations

UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday demanding that all warring parties immediately institute a “sustained humanitarian pause” to enable the unhindered delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and the vaccination of millions of people in conflict areas.
The British-drafted resolution, cosponsored by 112 countries, reiterated the council’s demand last July 1 for “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities” in major conflicts on the Security Council agenda, from Syria and Yemen to Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan and Somalia.
It expressed concern that an appeal for cease-fires in all conflicts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, which was first made by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 23, 2020, “was not fully heeded.”
Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward, the current council president, announced the result of the email vote because the council has been meeting virtually, saying the resolution “will help bring vaccines to 160 million people in conflict areas or displaced by conflict.”
“This is a first step,” she stressed, and it will require further international efforts.
But Woodward said the large number of cosponsors and unanimous council approval are “a strong testament to the international commitment to seeing this happen.”
“Obviously each of these situations will require further negotiations at country and even at field and local level,” she said. “and we’ve asked the secretary-general to report back where they encounter barriers in this.”
The resolution adopted Friday recognizes “that armed conflicts can exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic, and that inversely the pandemic can exacerbate the adverse humanitarian impact of armed conflicts, as well as exacerbating inequalities.”
It also recognizes “the role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good for health in preventing, containing, and stopping transmission, of COVID-19 and its variant strains, in order to bring the pandemic to an end.”
The Security Council stressed that “equitable access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines” authorized by the World Health Organization or regulatory authorities “is essential to end the pandemic.”
It also stressed “the need for solidarity, equity, and efficacy” in vaccinations.
And it called for donations of vaccines from richer developed nations to low- and middle-income countries and other countries in need, including through the COVAX Facility, the ambitious WHO program to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.


Myanmar’s UN envoy dramatically opposes coup in his country

Updated 27 February 2021

Myanmar’s UN envoy dramatically opposes coup in his country

  • Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun urged all countries to pressure the Myanmar military regime to restore democracy
  • His surprise statement not only drew applause but commendations from speaker after speaker at the assembly meeting

UNITED NATIONS: Myanmar’s UN ambassador strongly opposed the military coup in his country and appealed for the “strongest possible action from the international community” to immediately restore democracy, in a dramatic speech to the UN General Assembly Friday that drew loud applause from many diplomats in the 193-nation global body.
Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun began his statement saying he represented Aung San Suu Kyi’s “civilian government elected by the people” in November, and supported their fight for the end of military rule.
He urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the Feb. 1 coup, and to refuse to recognize the military regime and ask its leaders to respect the free and fair elections in November won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. He also urged stronger international measures to stop violence by security forces against peaceful demonstrators.
“It is time for the military to immediately relinquish power and release those detained,” Tun said, agreeing with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that military coup “is not acceptable in this modern world and the coup must cease.”
“We will continue to fight for a government which is of the people, by the people, for the people,” he vowed.
Tun’s surprise statement not only drew applause but commendations from speaker after speaker at the assembly meeting including ambassadors representing the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the new US ambassador, Linda Thomas Greenfield. She joined others in describing the speech as “courageous,” “powerful” and “brave.”
In her first appearance at the assembly since presenting her credentials to Guterres in Thursday, Thomas-Greenfield said the United States “stands in solidarity” with the people of Myanmar who are in the streets protesting the coup. And she reiterated President Joe Biden’s warning that “we will show the military that their actions have consequences” and demand to the military “to immediately relinquish power.”
In a tweet later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to Myanmar by its former name Burma and said “the United States commends the courageous and clear statement” of Ambassador Tun, “and by those in Burma who are making their voices heard. We must all heed their call to restore democracy in Burma.”
The assembly meeting was called to hear a briefing from the UN special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who said it is time to “sound the alarm” about the coup and the military pushing democratic processes aside, violating the constitution, reversing reforms instituted by Suu Kyi, and arresting peaceful protesters, civil society representatives and members of the media.
She pointed to restrictions on the Internet and communication services and the detention of about 700 people according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Myanmar, and she called “the use of lethal force and rising deaths unacceptable.”
The huge protests in the country are not about a fight between Suu Kyi’s party and the military, she said, “it is a fight without arms.”
Addressing diplomats in the General Assembly chamber by video link, Schraner Burgener urged “all of you to collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar.”
The military takeover in Myanmar shocked the international community and reversed years of slow progress toward democracy. Suu Kyi’s party would have been installed for a second five-year term that day, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her, President Win Myint and other top members of her government.
Myanmar’s military says it took power because November’s election was marked by widespread voting irregularities, an assertion that was refuted by the election commission, whose members have since been replaced by the ruling junta. The junta has said it will rule for a year under a state of emergency and then hold new polls.
Schraner Burgener told the General Assembly that democratically elected representatives were able to be sworn in according to the constitution on Feb. 4 and have formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungu Hluttaw (National Assembly), known as CRPH, and are seeking “to uphold their obligations to serve the people who voted for them.”
Tun began his remarks by reading a statement from CRPH stressing the legitimacy of the election results and declaring that the military overthrew the democratically elected government. He cited the massive opposition by the people, saying “now is not the time for the international community to tolerate the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar military.”
The CRPH, saying it represented some 80 parliamentarians, asked the UN, the Security Council and the international community “that aspires to build a peaceful and civilized global society to use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military and to provide safety and security for the people of Myanmar.”
China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun, whose neighboring country has invested billions of dollars in Myanmar and is its biggest trading partner, called on all parties to handle differences through dialogue “under the constitutional and legal framework,” avoid violence, “and continue to promote the domestic democratic transformation process in an orderly manner.”
Never mentioning the military or a coup and describing what happened in Myanmar as “in essence Myanmar’s internal affairs,” he said the international community should help the parties “bridge their differences and solve problems.”
Zhang backed efforts by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Myanmar belongs to, “in playing an active role in easing the current state of affairs.”
ASEAN countries are discussing holding an informal foreign ministers meeting and “we look forward to its early convening on the basis of consensus, thus providing a useful platform and opportunity for promoting problem solving,” he said.