Putin's constitutional proposals OK'd in first Duma reading

Putin's constitutional proposals OK'd in first Duma reading
Pavel Krasheninnikov, lawmaker and co-chair of the constitutional reform working group speaks during a session at the Russian State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliamentin Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. The Russian lower house of parliament, the State Duma, holds the first of three readings and a vote on a draft bill on constitutional proposals put forward by the Kremlin. The package of constitutional amendments is widely seen as an attempt to secure President Vladimir Putin's grip on power well after his current term ends in 2024. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s parliament has approved a package of constitutional amendments in a first reading Thursday, in a move widely seen as an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to stay in on power past the end of his term in 2024.

Putin submitted the amendments to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, on Monday, just several days after presenting them in the annual state-of-the-nation address last week.

He suggested that lawmakers could name prime ministers and Cabinet members, proposed a greater role for the State Council, an obscure consultative body of regional governors and federal officials, and sought to prioritize the primacy of Russian laws over international law.

The proposed changes, he argued, would bolster democracy.

The Kremlin-controlled Duma unanimously voted for the amendments on Thursday, after discussing them for two hours.

Putin, a 67-year-old former KGB office, has led Russia for more than 20 years — the longest since the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. According to the Russian Constitution, he will have to step down in 2024, having served two consecutive terms.

The bill submitted to parliament empowers the State Council to “determine the main directions of home and foreign policy,” its specific authority yet to be spelled in a separate law.

It gives the parliament more say over Cabinet ministers’ appointment, but emphasizes that the president should retain the power to dismiss the prime minister and Cabinet ministers and remain in charge of the Russian military and law enforcement agencies.

Commentators see these proposals as a strategy for Putin to stay in charge by becoming the head of the State Council.

The draft also modifies the constitution to limit a president to two terms altogether, unlike the current version containing a limit of two consecutive terms.

The second reading of the bill is scheduled for Feb. 11. Lawmakers and the working group created by Putin have already come up with a variety of proposals in addition to what the draft law outlines.

Putin said that the constitutional changes need to be approved by the entire nation, but it remains unclear how such a vote would be organized.

Russian opposition members condemned the reform as a “constitutional coup” and called for a rally against it on Feb. 29.