Vladimir Putin Wants to Stay in Power Until He Dies, Leading Pro-Democracy Campaigner Says

Lyubov Sobol knows the dangers of pro-democracy work in Russia. The 32-year-old lawyer is a veteran of the opposition movement, having worked for several years with prominent pro-democracy politician Alexei Navalny, a constant thorn in President Vladimir Putin's side.

Sobol found her way into international headlines as one of the most prominent figures in last year's demonstrations against a ban on independent candidates running in Moscow's city elections. Sobol was among them. She was arrested by police and footage of her being dragged away in front of dozens of reporters became one of the most enduring images of the unrest.

Sobol also undertook a month-long hunger strike in protest, but suspended the strike over health concerns for a detained campaign aide who had joined the protest.

Her family has been followed by unknown stalkers—including her six-year-old son—and her husband was poisoned by an unidentified man near their home in 2016, an attack she says was organized by Putin aide Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also accused of involvement in Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Speaking to Newsweek from the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Sobol said she and her fellow campaigners would continue their fight to frustrate Putin's plan to rule Russia for life, regardless of the danger.

Lyubov Sobol, Russia, Vladimir Putin, democracy, elections
Russian policemen detain opposition candidate and lawyer Lyubov Sobol during a protest in Moscow, Russia, on August 3, 2019. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images/Getty

"Most people in Russia want to fight for their rights," Sobol said. "People go to the streets, go to the courts—anywhere to fight for their rights... that's why thousands of people went to the streets last summer."

"They just want to choose their leaders, but they can't do it," she added. "They don't want to sit in their homes and just let Putin do what he wants."

Putin is positioning himself to retain power long after his presidential term ends in 2024. The constitution does not allow for three consecutive terms, so Putin will use constitutional amendments to extend his time as the nation's leader, perhaps by establishing a new role that will sit at the top of the Russian hierarchy.

Sobol suggested that "even Putin doesn't know" exactly what he will do, but that the goal remains a simple one: lifelong control. "Putin doesn't want to leave the office," she said. "I think he wants to be in power and be the head of state until his end of life."

Putin has enjoyed high approval ratings, whether as president or prime minister, since he came to power in 1999. The 67 year old has sought to retain an image crafted to ensure widespread popularity, bolstered by near-total control of mass media and, in recent years, social media and the internet.

Putin's rule has not been without its issues. The four-time president and two-time prime minister has weathered public discontent more than once, whether over his handling of the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, anti-corruption protests in 2011, or widespread anger at proposals to raise the pension age in 2018.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, shows a spike in disapproval for Putin in 2018 while his government was grappling with the pensions protests.

Vladimir Putin, Approval, rating, support, election, Statista
This infographic shows support for President Vladimir Putin throughout his time in power. Statista

Since the pension protests, Putin's approval rating has struggled. Though buoyed by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the successful FIFA World Cup in 2018, Russia has long struggled with sluggish economic performance, slow wage growth and abysmal quality of life.

Opposition parties are allowed, but Russian democracy is electoral theater in which citizens can cast protest votes only for vetted "opponents" and never in enough numbers to threaten Putin's grip on power.

True opposition is suppressed, whether through the courts or more nefarious methods. Multiple journalists, activists and politicians have been assassinated. The political critic Boris Nemtsov was one of the most prominent opposition figures in the country when he was shot dead on a bridge within sight of the Kremlin in 2015.

"It is dangerous to be engaged in democratic opposition in Russia," Sobol said. "It's the price which we pay for fighting for our rights."

This article has been updated to include an infographic.