Russia senators give final nod to longer presidency

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The upper house of parliament unanimously approved extending Russian presidential terms on Monday, a constitutional amendment which has fueled speculation Vladimir Putin will return as head of state.

The Federation Council endorsed a decision by regional assemblies to support a six-year term for future presidents versus four years now. President Dmitry Medvedev, who proposed the changes, now will sign the bill into law.

Authors of the Russian constitution, adopted in 1993, say the four-year presidential term was copied from U.S. law -- a then model for the Kremlin. Public debates over how long the term for the Russian president should be have never ceased.

Prime Minister Putin, president for eight years until May, has said he favors a longer term so a leader has more time to carry out his plans. He rejected amending the constitution during his rule so as not to destabilize Russia.

Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor, proposed the amendment in November in a package of reforms intended to make Russia’s political system more flexible and sustainable.

But the constitutional amendment overshadowed other reforms, including extending the parliamentary term to five years from four and allowing small parties to be represented in parliament.

Kremlin officials said the changes were needed to offer political stability and increase the time between parliamentary and presidential polls, now separated by three months.

But critics say the longer presidential term, which means that many leaders could rule for 12 years, will encourage authoritarian behavior and may lead to further erosion of law.

Medvedev has said life could dictate further constitutional changes, but ruled out changing basic provisions concerning human rights and strong presidential powers.

Russia’s media, which refrained under Putin from discussing Kremlin decisions, has published many scenarios as to what impact the constitutional amendment could have.

The Kremlin was quick to deny a suggestion that Medvedev could extend his current term, the first out of two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution, to six years.

But a suggestion that changes in the constitution could prompt him to step down early and pave the way for Putin’s return has not been confirmed or denied.

Medvedev, who has no powerbase of his own, has vowed to rule in tandem with Putin fuelling speculations that he was not an independent political figure.

“Life is changing and I cannot give you any guarantees for anything, including myself,” he told journalists last month when asked whether he would indeed serve a full four-year term.

Writing by Oleg Shchedrov; editing by Elizabeth Piper