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NATIONAL VIEW: Putin’s president-for-life plan - Odessa American: Guest Columns

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NATIONAL VIEW: Putin’s president-for-life plan

THE POINT: The Russian dictator is preparing to remain in power well into his 80s.

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Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2020 2:30 am

“It would be very disturbing to return to the situation of the mid-1980s,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in January. “With the leaders of the state, one by one, staying in power until the end of their days.” He was right at the time, but this week Mr. Putin nonetheless cleared the way to rule Russia past his 83rd birthday. No one anywhere is surprised.

On Tuesday the rubber-stamp Duma approved a constitutional amendment that would allow the 67-year-old to run for two more six-year terms. The measure must be approved by a Russian court, but woe to the judge who finds it illegal. Then Russian voters will get their say in a referendum, but the Kremlin controls nearly all Russian media. This all but ensures that Mr. Putin, who has been Prime Minister or President for two decades, won’t have to step down in 2024 as he had promised.

The strongman has a reputation in some quarters as a master political tactician. It’s true that Russia punches above its weight internationally, from Venezuela to Syria and increasingly across Africa. Yet these costly interventions are often driven by a need to find foreign villains in order to shore up domestic political support as much as any grand geopolitical vision.

Russia remains an economic backwater overly reliant on energy exports. Life expectancy is comparable to the U.S. in the 1970s. The average Hungarian or Pole is now wealthier, and millions of Russians know it. Mr. Putin’s high approval ratings obscure that surveys show only about a third of Russians say they trust their leader.

That’s largely because of the corruption that has flourished at every level of the Russian state under Mr. Putin. The country ranks 137 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index. That’s a regression from 82 when he took office.

Mr. Putin conceded during the Duma debate that “in the long term” it’s good to prevent leaders from clinging on. It’s possible he’s keeping his options open as he plans a safe way out. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev showed how this could be done last year, after he stepped down from the presidency but retained some powers to protect himself. But like most authoritarians, Mr. Putin can’t afford to leave office lest he lose protection against the enemies he’s made and the power to keep his many business and political retainers rich.

Mr. Putin has been lucky in his 20-year reign, not least with a long run of high oil and gas prices. But that era has been challenged by the rise of American shale drilling, which is why he is now hoping to use slumping global oil demand to break the U.S. industry. He is unlikely to succeed even if there is a U.S. recession since American producers that survive will get more efficient. In a country without the rule of law, even seemingly secure leaders can never sleep well.

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