A series of constitutional changes that critics allege are meant to consolidate one-party rule and perhaps pave the way for Vladimir Putin's early return to the presidency are set to pass the Kremlin-dominated State Duma early this week.
In a stunning demonstration of the Kremlin's control over Russia's political process, the first-ever amendments to the country's 1993 constitution were suggested by President Dmitry Medvedev in a Nov. 5 speech, then crammed through their first reading in the Duma on Friday.
The measures, which passed by 86 percent of the votes in the lower house of parliament, will extend a president's term in office from four years to six, prolong terms of Duma deputies from four years to five, and require the government – for the first time – to report on its work annually to parliament. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said the final two readings are set for Tuesday.
Following that, the bill will be sent to the Kremlin-controlled upper house for the needed three-quarters approval. Since the vast majority of Russia's 81 regional legislatures are dominated by the United Russia party led by Mr. Putin, the required endorsement of two-thirds of them also seems likely.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, warning of Kremlin power greater than that of "any czar," said Friday his party will challenge the legality of the amendments in the Constitutional Court.
Even some deputies who say longer presidential terms could be a stabilizing move at a time of economic uncertainty, worry about the use of the Duma's pro-Kremlin majority to make hasty innovations to fundamental law.
"It's a very troubling precedent," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a deputy with the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia party. "The Constitution envisages a long and complex procedure, with plenty of discussion, before changes are made. But here it's being rewritten in a few days, virtually without debate."
Mr. Medvedev argued that the current four-year presidential term is too brief for one man to master the complexities of leading a huge country like Russia. In an interview last week he insisted that the new rules will apply starting with his successor, who is due to be elected in 2012.
Putin, speaking to journalists last week, said the amendments had "no personal dimension" and were intended to "foster the development of democracy."
But critics say the muscular haste with which the changes are being pushed through belies routine explanation. Some recall the stage-managed Kremlin operation that vaulted Putin's handpicked successor, Medvedev, into the presidency with himself as prime minister last year. They warn that a similar power play may be in motion.
"I think Putin will return next year," perhaps through emergency presidential elections, says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy. "A classic authoritarian regime prolongs itself endlessly, using imitation democratic methods."
Some critics argue that the Kremlin's urgency is tied to the galloping economic crisis, which threatens to ignite social discontent for the first time since Putin came to power almost nine years ago. Amid signs of economic distress, Medvedev's popularity rating slipped from 83 percent in September to 76 percent the next month.
"The power of Putin and Medvedev is based on a social contract: The Kremlin delivers economic prosperity and the population forgets about political freedoms," says Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister and leading liberal oppositionist. "Now, because of the crisis, that contract is in question. That's why they're trying to close the deal immediately."
The economic crisis is certainly on Russian leaders' minds. Speaking to a group of police chiefs last week, Medvedev urged them to stamp out any protests. "We have a stable state," he said. "We do not need a return to the 1990s when everything was boiling and seething."
But Yevgeny Yasin, a former Kremlin official, says the public political awareness that characterized the 1990s is missed in today's "ho-hum" acceptance of the Kremlin's ability to rewrite the Constitution. "I am astonished that there is so little coverage of this process," says Mr. Yasin, head of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "Not so long ago we were discussing the question of whether Putin will run for a third term. Now we've received our answer. Here we are watching it happen, but we can do nothing about it."