Term Extension Put on Fast Track

A senior United Russia deputy called Wednesday for a bill extending the presidential term to six years to be fast-tracked through the State Duma, and fellow deputies promised to approve it this week.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who some believe wants to return to the Kremlin, gave his backing to the constitutional amendment Wednesday in his first public comments about the proposal since President Dmitry Medvedev announced it last week.

The head of the Duma's Committee for Constitutional Legislation and State Building, Vladimir Pligin, recommended that the Duma pass the legislation in all three required readings Friday. The committee unanimously supported the recommendation.

Pligin declined to comment about his recommendation through his secretary Wednesday.

First Deputy Duma Speaker Oleg Morozov denied that any laws were being violated in the rush to approve the bill. "Yesterday at 2:30 p.m. I sent the bill to the Duma committees. Thus, we satisfied the requirement that a bill be sent out three days before it is discussed," he told Interfax.

The legislation has to be approved by two-thirds of the Duma and then by three-quarters of the Federation Council. After that, it must be passed by two-thirds of the regional legislatures before going to the president for his signature.

The regional legislatures "could approve it in a couple of weeks or a month," said Mikhail Krasnov, head of the department of constitutional and municipal law at the Higher School of Economics.

He said he did not know the exact procedure, noting that it had never been tried before. The Constitution has never been amended since it went into force in 1993.

The Duma has occasionally approved bills in all three readings in a single day in the past. "It's a political signal about its readiness to accept the law straight away," Krasnov said. "They are not breaking any laws." In examining legislation in three readings, the Duma first passes the concept, then suggests corrections and finally puts it through.

"I think we will work quickly and the amendments will go through in the near future," said Vladimir Pekhtin, the first deputy chairman of the Putin-led United Russia, which has a two-thirds majority in the Duma.

The Constitution is a "living document that can and should be corrected as society develops," Pekhtin said in an e-mailed statement.

Medvedev submitted the bill to extend the current four-year presidential term to the Duma on Tuesday. The bill also envisions five-year terms for Duma deputies instead of the current four. The new rules would only be implemented after the next elections.

"I support Dmitry Medvedev's proposal," Putin said at a news conference after meeting Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen. "As far as who can run for the next term and when, it is premature to talk about this."

It was unclear why Putin used the word "when," considering that the constitutional changes will not affect Medvedev's current term, which ends in 2012. A faxed question to the government's press service asking for clarification went unanswered Wednesday.

"President Medvedev's proposals regarding the changes to the Constitution have no personal dimension," Putin said. "We are looking for instruments which would allow us to guarantee sovereignty, to implement our long-term plans … and assist the development of democratic processes in the country."

The Constitution does not require a referendum in this case, since the changes do not affect the section on citizens' rights, Krasnov said.

The Communist Party will decide how to vote on the changes Thursday, although its decision is unlikely to affect the outcome, said Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin. "United Russia is capable of solving this question alone," he said. "I think they can be sure of getting enough votes."

Communist deputy leader Ivan Melnikov said he suspected that the Kremlin wanted to pass the bill "before the intensification in the financial crisis that is predicted by experts," Interfax reported.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, said the measures were justified because politicians need more than four years to implement reforms.

"The modernization of the regions, which are developed to varying degrees, requires a long-term course of action that goes beyond the strict limits of a four-year term," he said by e-mail. "Time will tell whether or not the addition of two years is significant."

United Russia Deputy Sergei Markov, who said he did not support the changes, suggested that the Kremlin was rushing them through because it believes that they will increase stability. He said he saw the changes as an "asymmetrical reaction" to "Western aggression" in South Ossetia. The extension won't make any difference to the population at large, but "is a big difference for the leadership," he said.