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Allies back Putin as critics denounce 'president for life' plan

A day after voting for a package of Putin-backed constitutional amendments -- including a last-minute addition to "reset" his presidential terms -- the lower house State Duma gave its final approval on Wednesday.

FILE: Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 11, 2019. Picture: AFP

MOSCOW - Supporters celebrated and critics called for protests on Wednesday as the prospect sunk in of Russian President Vladimir Putin staying in power until 2036.

A day after voting for a package of Putin-backed constitutional amendments - including a last-minute addition to "reset" his presidential terms - the lower house State Duma gave its final approval on Wednesday.

The upper house Federation Council quickly followed suit, voting overwhelmingly a few hours later in favour of the reforms.

The votes followed months of speculation about Putin's political future after he shocked the Russian establishment by announcing constitutional reforms in January.

In a speech before the Federation Council vote, its speaker Valentina Matviyenko said Putin "must have the right" to compete for the presidency again after his current term expires in 2024.

"He raised Russia from its knees," she said, and "is considered one of the world's great leaders."

Other Kremlin allies lined up to praise the amendments, saying Putin was the kind of stabilising figure that Russia needs.

"A president who is barred from being elected for another term cannot be a strong figure," said Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a loyal Putin ally.

Limiting his ability to run would be "a destabilising factor" for Russia, he added.

State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said the constitutional changes would "strengthen our country" and pave the way for Russia's future.

The amendments must now be approved by two-thirds of Russian regional parliaments, before being put to a public vote on 22 April.

The package Putin announced in January includes a slew of political and social reforms. On Tuesday, an addition was made to restart the clock on Putin's time in the Kremlin once the amendments are adopted.

'JUST UNTHINKABLE'

Putin (67) backed the addition, though he said it would have to be approved by Russia's Constitutional Court.

"We have had enough of revolutions," Putin said in a rare address to the Duma on Tuesday.

First elected in 2000, Putin is currently serving a second consecutive six-year term so would not have the right to run again.

The reset would let him run again in 2024 and 2030, potentially allowing Putin to rule longer than Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

The proposal sparked a fierce backlash from critics, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who accused Putin of seeking to become "president for life".

Dozens of demonstrators assembled near the Kremlin after Tuesday's vote to voice their frustration.

"The person who brought Russia into chaos and disaster could remain in power for the rest of his life... what could be worse?" activist Alexei Minyailo told AFP at the protest.

"Putin until 2036, it's just unthinkable," said Ilya Azar, a journalist and activist who organised Tuesday's protest.

Russia's opposition has called for mass demonstrations against the proposals, including one in Moscow on Friday, despite a ban by local authorities on gatherings of more than 5,000 people over coronavirus fears.

Political analyst Alexei Makarkin said the proposals could trigger a wave of anti-government action, like in 2011-2012 when tens of thousands took to the streets against Putin's return to the Kremlin following four years as prime minister.

"Resetting Putin's term gives the opposition an additional emotional boost and argument," said Makarkin, an expert with the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technologies.

"We do not know when this trigger will be pulled," he said.