Russians vote to keep Putin in power until 2036

Voters in Russia have approved changes to the country's constitution that would allow President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe tragedy of Trump's foreign policy Steele's dossier: 'Clown show' or the greatest Russian coup? US 'deeply troubled' by escalating conflict in Libya MORE to remain in power for two more terms, a widely expected result in a nation whose elections are the subject of unending international criticism.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the changes, which Russian election officials said were approved by 74 percent of voters with 30 percent of precincts counted, came following a weeklong voting period that was extended due to concerns about crowd size amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin has yet to officially declare if he will run for reelection again when his term ends in 2024, but he campaigned in support of the constitutional changes for months after first proposing them in January. He could remain in office until 2036 under the new law.

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Advocates say the referendum was tainted by voter intimidation and other misconduct.

“There is a big question about the results of this vote,” Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the election monitoring group Golos, told the AP, adding that it “can’t really bear any legal standing.”

Some regions across the country reported wildly different levels of turnout, from 73 percent to 22 percent.

“These differences can be explained only by forcing people to vote in certain areas or by rigging,” Golos said in a statement.

A former Kremlin political consultant added in an interview with the AP that the vote showed Putin's own insecurity in his base of support.

“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Gleb Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”

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The Russian president, a former KGB agent, has been in power since the late 1990s, first serving as Russia's president, then as prime minister, before being reelected president in 2012.

A month ago, Putin announced that the vote, originally set to be held in April before the coronavirus pandemic hit, would be held at the end of June. At the time, he pledged that concerns about the virus spreading at polling sites had been addressed.

“On the whole, we have managed to resolve the biggest problem, preventing the explosive nature of the situation from developing into a worst-case scenario,” he said. “This is allowing us to return to normal life.”

“I’m very much counting on the citizens of Russia participating as actively as possible in the voting on determining the parameters of the basic law,” Putin added.

The country emerged as a hot spot for the pandemic earlier this year but has since seen its rate of reported infections drop after peaking in May.