ALMATY/BISHKEK -- Russia's constitutional changes amid the coronavirus pandemic are fueling speculation in Central Asia that President Vladimir Putin is using the crisis to extend his rule.
Russia's Constitutional Court on March 16 approved a package of amendments including a "reset" of Putin's previous terms, giving him the possibility to rule into 2036, AFP reported.
Putin's term was set to end in 2024 under the constitution. He began his first presidential term in 2000 and also ruled as prime minister from 1999 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2012.
The approval came just two days after Putin signed the reform bill, which has faced fierce criticism from opposition figures who say it will allow the long-time Russian leader to become "president for life".
Putin repeatedly denied he had any intention of staying on, but then on March 10, he suddenly backed a last-minute amendment by the first woman in space, lawmaker Valentina Tereshkova, restarting the clock on previous presidential terms.
His participation in future elections is possible "if citizens support such a proposal, such an amendment" and "if the Constitutional Court ... hands down an official opinion that such an amendment will not contradict the principles and basic provisions of the Basic Law, the Constitution", said Putin March 10.
A referendum to approve the changes is scheduled for April 22.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Levada Centre, an independent pollster in Moscow, "47% of Russians believe that the presidential amendments to the Constitution are being made in the interests of Vladimir Putin himself to expand his powers and allow him to stay in power even after 2024".
"The public has long seen that all manoeuvres associated with changing the constitutional order are aimed at keeping Putin in power," Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Centre, told the independent business newspaper Vedomosti.
In the countries of Central Asia, which the Kremlin disparagingly calls its "backyard", there is no doubt that Putin's campaign is aimed at retaining presidential power.
The system of checks and balances supposedly provided by the proposed reform is untenable, said Taalai Nasirdinov, managing director of the Kyrgyz Concept travel agency in Bishkek.
"The Constitutional Court is appointed and dismissed by Putin. It's funny and sad at the same time," Nasirdinov said.
Some in Kyrgyzstan are convinced that the Kremlin is using the coronavirus panic and subsequent economic chill to implement constitutional reform.
Russia so far has reported 438 infections, the majority of them in Moscow, its largest city with more than 12 million inhabitants, AFP reported on Monday (March 23).
Amid the worsening global economic situation, Moscow on March 6 also refused to support an OPEC initiative to reduce oil production, causing a collapse in oil prices and the subsequent devaluation of the ruble.
"Putin is using the public's state of shock to push through amendments to the Basic Law and to reset the term limits on his presidency," said Shavkat Ismailbekov, a resident of Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
He said he is confident that authorities are hiding more cases of the illness in Russia.
"Considering that a referendum is just around the corner, can the declared figures on the number of coronavirus patients be believed?" he mused.
The health authorities are hiding cases by recording them as pneumonia or severe respiratory infections, said Anastasia Vasilyeva, president of an independent Russian trade union called the Doctors' Alliance, earlier in March.
The move to keep Putin in power all started with the suppression of the press and civil society, said Janar Jandosova of Nur-Sultan, director of the Sange Research Centre.
"This time, it's resetting the presidential term limits. The Constitutional Court, like all the Russian authorities, has no conscience. This is total degeneration," said Jandosova.
"Pity the Russian people," she said.