Thousands rallied in the Russian capital to commemorate a slain opposition leader and offer a rebuke to what they see as Vladimir Putin’s plan to stay in power once his final term expires
Thousands Rally in Moscow Against Putin’s Plans to Revamp Political Power in Russia
Protesters commemorated a slain opposition leader in a rebuke to what they see as Vladimir Putin’s formula for staying in power once his final term expires
Demonstrators hold a placard saying “Russia Without Putin” at a rally in Moscow Saturday.
PHOTO: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/REUTERS
Ann M. Simmons
Feb. 29, 2020 10:05 am ET
Saturday’s march was the biggest opposition gathering since Mr. Putin’s announced proposals to dilute the power of the president and boost the role of the State Council, a supervisory body that he already heads. If he succeeds in getting the council listed as an arm of the executive branch, then it is potentially a way for Mr. Putin to retain control and guide policy was his term as president expires in 2024.
Mr. Putin, 67, has held power in Russia since 1999, as either president or prime minister, though his popularity has begun to flag in recent months after U.S. sanctions over Russia’s conflict with Ukraine bruised the economy and living standards for ordinary Russians.
Saturdays’ demonstration, while ostensibly a rally to mark the murder in 2015 of Boris Nemtsov, one of Mr. Putin’s most vocal critics, was a sign that the Russian president is facing at least some opposition against his latest maneuver. More than 48,700 people have so far signed an online petition against “a constitutional coup and usurpation of power.”
A national referendum on the constitutional changes is scheduled for April 22. The amendments will include proposals to improve social policy and public administration. Voters will be asked to approve the revised constitution as a whole, rather than endorsing individual amendments, meaning they would only see the new social policy if they vote for all the other changes, including those altering the power and the structure of the government.
Protesters commemorated the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov five years ago.
PHOTO: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/REUTERS
A survey in early February by the independent Levada Center polling agency found that 25% of Russians would vote to amend the constitution, while 10% said they would vote against such changes. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they don’t have a clear understanding of what was being proposed.
Daniil Korpusov, 22, a political science student in Moscow who attended Saturday’s rally carrying a Russian flag, said he would vote against the constitutional changes because he did not favor Mr. Putin remaining in power.
“Those amendments that relate to the State Council, the status of the president, they serve to maintain the present status quo,” Mr. Korpusov said. “All this leads to stagnation of the existing political system. I would really like [Putin] to leave.”
Rallies, varying in size, were also held Saturday in other cities across the country, including Russia’s second city St. Petersburg, and reflected in part the stature of Mr. Nemtsov in the country’s opposition movement. He was gunned down at the age of 55 on a bridge near the Kremlin on Feb. 27, 2015. The Russian government at the time said the shooting bore the hallmarks of a contract killing, and suggested it was aimed at discrediting the authorities and destabilizing the country.
But Mr. Nemtsov’s allies believe Russian authorities ordered the assassination to silence the outspoken opposition leader.
Mr. Putin has acknowledging knowing Mr. Nemtsov but has said and the two men didn’t always have “bad relations,” as he put it after Mr. Nemtsov’s death. He called for the crime to be investigated and for those responsible to be punished.
In 2017, a court sentenced a former security force officer from Chechnya to 20 years in prison for Mr. Nemtsov’s murder and four other men were also found guilty of involvement in his death. The opposition leader’s family and supporters believe those may have ordered the killing should also be prosecuted.
“We will continue to march until the case is investigated,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny told the Rain TV channel as people gathered for Saturday’s rally. He has assumed the role of Mr. Putin’s most prominent critic since Mr. Nemtsov’s death.
Participants hoisted placards and banners with slogans such as, “The mastermind of the murder must be brought to justice.”
The internal affairs ministry estimated the crowd in Moscow at around 10,500 people. Some participants took the opportunity to bring attention to other causes, such as ecological concerns or the release of political prisoners.
Lawyer Irina Tretyakova, 42, said she came to Saturday’s rally in support of justice.
“People are tired of lawlessness, injustice,” she said. “People care about what happens [in our country].”
—Valentina Ochirova in Moscow contributed to this article.