Russia’s Highest Court Opens Way for Putin to Rule Until 2036

he ruling, slammed by Kremlin critics as a sham, approves constitutional changes to free the Russian president from term limits.

Dutifully performing its role in a highly-choreographed display of political theater, Russia’s highest court on Monday approved constitutional changes that opened the way for President Vladimir V. Putin to crash through term limits and stay in power through 2036.

With a dense 52-page ruling clogged with legalese, the Constitutional Court removed one of the last, albeit very flimsy potential obstacles to Mr. Putin effectively becoming president for life.

A final hurdle to be crossed is a nationwide referendum on constitutional changes that is scheduled for April 22. That exercise, too, is little more than a formality because of the Kremlin’s tight grip on the news media and bodies responsible for organizing the vote, not to speak of a ban on public protests.

The steady march of the coronavirus pandemic, however, could delay the final act of what the Kremlin and state-controlled news media have presented as a nail-biting drama of democracy at work but which critics denounce as a risible sham.

Russia has so far reported only 93 confirmed cases of the virus but the official count has been met with widespread skepticism in a country long accustomed to official dishonesty and cover-ups. Cynicism about officialdom has been strengthened in recent days by the Kremlin’s insistence that it was surprised by a proposal approved by legislators last week to let Mr. Putin stay in office for another 16 years.

Most independent observers believe the Kremlin orchestrated the maneuver from start to finish. Mr. Putin has not yet confirmed he will run again in 2024, but few doubt he will.

Ekaterina Schulmann, a political commentator and former member of Mr. Putin’s human rights council, mocked the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Monday as evidence of how cravenly pliant Russia’s nominally independent judicial system had become.

“It is rare that the spirit of slavery and intellectual cowardice express themselves with such fullness in a written text,” she said in a commentary posted on Facebook.

The Constitutional Court is headed by Valery D. Zorkin, a Soviet-trained legal scholar who has chaired the tribunal since it was formed after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

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