Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin Image Credit: Reuters

Moscow: Russians are casting their ballots this week in a vote on constitutional reforms that could prolong President Vladimir Putin's hold on power.

Putin proposed the changes in January and they were quickly approved by Russia's two houses of parliament and regional lawmakers.

A nationwide vote to approve the reforms planned for April was postponed as Russia registered a surge of coronavirus infections.

Polling stations opened last week and close on Wednesday to minimise overcrowding.

On the last day of the ballot, here is an overview of the proposed changes, the first reforms to the country's basic law since 1993.

New presidential terms

The most discussed amendment would reset Putin's constitutional term-limit clock to zero.

Putin first came to power as prime minister in 1999 under Boris Yeltsin before being elected president in 2000. He served the maximum two consecutive terms between 2000 and 2008 before a four-year stint as prime minister.

He returned to the Kremlin in 2012 for a newly expanded six-year mandate and was re-elected in 2018.

Other constitutional changes expand the role of parliament, but they also strengthen the already-powerful role of the president.

The president will have the right to dissolve parliament if it refuses to support the candidacy of a minister proposed by the head of state three times in a row.

They will also have a greater say over the work of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts and prosecutors.

The reform also strengthens the role of the State Council, currently an advisory body.

Conservative values

In line with Putin's conservative views, the reforms enshrine a mention of Russians' "faith in God" despite Russia's long history as a secular country.

The reform also stipulates that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, effectively banning gay marriages.

The changes designate Russian as "the language of the people who form the state," and senior officials are barred from holding dual citizenship or residence permits in other countries.

The new amendments ban giving away Russian territory and outlaw calls promoting such a move. This amendment would ensure that Russia keeps Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the Kuril Islands - disputed with Japan for decades.

The amendments also seek to protect the "historic truth" about the country's role in the Second World War and honour the memory of "the defenders of the fatherland".

The Russian leader has repeatedly railed against attempts to "rewrite" history and complained that the West does not fully appreciate the huge losses suffered by the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

The reforms also place the constitution above international law, giving priority to Russian legislation in the case of a contradiction with international statutes.

Social guarantees

The constitutional reforms guarantee a minimum wage that should not be below the subsistence level and state pensions regularly adjusted to inflation.

The amendments spell out principles of "justice and solidarity between generations" to ensure the proper functioning of the pension system.

Environmental stipulations include "reducing the impact of economic activities" on nature and enshrine "a responsible attitude towards animals".

Five decisive moments in Putin's two-decade rule

The Kursk tragedy 

In August 2000 - just four months after Putin was first elected president - the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Arctic, trapping all 118 crew on board.

Putin drew ire for failing to interrupt his holiday on the Black Sea, and when he appeared in public four days after the incident he claimed the crisis was under control.

When the authorities finally met families of the victims, video footage showed the mother of one crew member shouting in frustration and being anaesthetised against her will.

Moscow finally accepted foreign help to retrieve the submarine a week after the accident, but by then the entire crew had died, in what was a huge early blow to Putin's image.

Beslan school siege 

On September 1, 2004, at the beginning of the school year in Russia, extremists stormed a school in the town of Beslan in the North Caucasus.

Hundreds of students, parents and teachers were held for more than 50 hours in an ordeal that ended in a bloodbath and the deaths of over 330 people - including 186 children - after security forces stormed the school.

The Kremlin was criticised for its handling of the crisis, especially after an extremist takeover two years earlier of the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow that ended in some 170 deaths, mostly civilians killed by gas used by security services.

Putin's ruthless war against insurgents in Chechnya in 1999 had helped fuel his initial popularity, but at the end of 2019 he described Beslan as a "personal pain" that would remain with him for life.

Kremlin swap 

In 2008 when Putin reached the end of his presidential term limit, he temporarily handed the Kremlin to ally Dmitry Medvedev.

Demonstrations and clashes with police erupted in central Moscow in late 2011 to protest the results of parliamentary elections and Putin's announcement that he would run for the presidency again.

The demonstrations were harshly put down and many protesters handed long jail terms.

Putin began his second stint in the Kremlin in 2012 with a crackdown on the opposition, branding some NGOs and media outlets "foreign agents" and reinforcing conservative values with a law prohibiting "homosexual propaganda".

Sochi, Crimea 

In 2014, Russia hosted the Sochi Winter Games - the most expensive Olympics yet - in a project that won the Kremlin short-lived international praise.

One month after the closing ceremony, Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, sparking patriotic fervour at home and a surge in popularity for Putin but sharp condemnation and sanctions from the West.

Ukraine's ongoing war with pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country has cost some 13,000 lives and made Putin a key player in the resolution of the conflict.

He cemented his standing on the international stage in 2015 by rallying to the aid of President Bashar Al Assad with an air campaign that helped turn the tide in Syria's civil war.

Term reset 

In January this year - two years into his final term as president - Putin proposed reforms to the Russian constitution enshrining conservative values and guaranteeing better pensions and wages.

In a last-minute twist, in March he agreed to a clause allowing his previous terms not to be counted under the new constitution.

After the parliament approved the changes, a nationwide vote on the reforms announced for April was postponed over the coronavirus pandemic. Despite concerns it could fuel an increase in virus cases, Putin rescheduled the vote to conclude on July 1.

There is no doubt the vote will be in favour of the reforms - with an exit poll this week showing 76 per cent voting "yes" - paving the way for Putin to potentially remain in the Kremlin until 2036, the year of his 84th birthday.