Russian Lawmakers Give Rapid First Approval To Putin Reforms

Russian lawmakers have unanimously approved in its first reading a sweeping constitutional reform bill put forward by President Vladimir Putin.

All 432 lawmakers present in the State Duma voted in favor of the bill on January 23, just three days after the amendments were presented to parliament.

"This was a powerful show of unity," Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said after the vote. Volodin said the second reading was expected on February 11.

The bill will then face a third reading, but with parliament dominated by Kremlin-loyal lawmakers it is unlikely to face much pushback.

Once approved in three readings in the Duma, the bill will go to the Federation Council -- the upper house of parliament -- before being signed into law by Putin.

Putin's announcement of the reforms during his state-of-the-nation address on January 15 was quickly followed by the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government and the appointment of a new premier and cabinet.

The rapid sequence of changes has prompted observers to say that Putin may be laying the groundwork to hold on to power after his current term expires in 2024.

The Russian leader says that under the plan, more responsibilities will be given to parliament and other state bodies, while also maintaining a strong presidency.

The president has promised a referendum on the reforms, with some officials suggesting it could take place within weeks.

Putin suggested altering the constitution because "things have changed dramatically" since it was adopted in 1993.

He outlined some proposals, including strengthening the State Council, currently an advisory body and giving more authority to parliament.

Some analysts have suggested Putin could head the Council after 2024 to maintain his grip on power.

The text of the bill on the parliament's website provides for lawmakers confirming the prime minister rather than the president, although the president can still reject any candidate.

Putin formed a "working group" of 75 people that includes athletes and celebrities to work on the amendments.

Based on reporting by AFP, Interfax, and TASS