While we in the West are guessing who will win the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Russia the picture is once again pretty clear. It seems that President Vladimir Putin, who has already been in power for 20 years — including a four-year Putin–Medvedev tandemocracy — is not planning on leaving his post anytime soon. How many more years will the West have to put up with Putin until he leaves office? Four years? Ten? Truth is, despite his desperate attempts to prolong his time as president by changing the Constitution, Putin is losing the support of the Russian people. How could that happen?
Russia’s Constitution of 1993 became obsolete long ago. Two-thirds of the population initially supported Putin’s idea of a growing need to implement drastic constitutional changes. In early January 2020, it was still unclear as to what exactly will be included in this package of amendments: the country’s officials were mostly talking about enlarging the scope of societal guarantees and additional financial programs for families with children. At the end of the month, Putin submitted the draft amendments to the State Duma, which included an article allowing the zeroing out of the incumbent president’s term clock. This revealed the true intentions behind those modifications: Putin is trying to implement nebulous constitutional changes to cement his hold on power in Russia until 2036.
It has always been important for Putin to hide behind a mask of a democracy to maintain control over his population and keep up appearances for the sake of the international community. “If I favored a totalitarian regime, I would have simply changed the constitution,” he said. To preserve a veneer of legitimacy, the president has insisted that the package of amendments be put to an “All-Russian plebiscite.” The deliberate use of this obscure term — lacking any legal support in the constitution or any other federal law — instead of the term “referendum” strips the Russian people of their extensive judicially protected voting rights. While the “referendum” sets a 50 percent-plus turnout threshold and calls for international observers, this ambiguous term “All-Russian plebiscite” does not require meeting any such standards. The voting will begin immediately after the rescheduled 75th-anniversary Victory Day Parade on June 25.
This is not the first time the Russian government has been disingenuous with its citizens this year. Putin is also attempting to manipulate the COVID-19 crisis in his favor to get the desired constitutional changes. The cumbersome response of the country’s officials to the coronavirus pandemic in the midst of this constitutional gymnastics is a fitting example of how Putin’s government could not care less about the well-being of their fellow Russians.
As the government does not have the resources to combat the epidemics or even run the coronavirus tests outside of Moscow, it has become vital for officials to assure the public there is no imminent threat to their lives. There is no better way to assuage the sense of insecurity rightfully growing throughout the nation than to use pleasant-sounding euphemisms. That was Putin’s initial strategy. In the first weeks of the global pandemic, Putin referred to what was known to be a “quarantine” in the Western world as a “non-working period” in Russia, instilling a false sense of security. Consequently, instead of hunkering down, people rushed with their friends and family to have a barbecue on the riverside unknowingly spreading the deadly virus.
In the end of March, however, when the number of cases skyrocketed and the horrors of the real picture started leaking on social media, the Russian government changed its course of action and issued a heavy lockdown. It was all about appearances. A bunch of National Guard soldiers and policemen patrolling the streets and fining everyone who merely walked their dogs perfectly coexisted with huge lines in supermarkets and crowded farmers’ markets. The officials had not bothered to introduce any social distancing practices until it became almost futile to do so.
Nationwide stay-at-home orders have served as a distraction from the substantial constitutional amendments: when people learned the trick with the amendment that will zero out a number of previous presidential terms, Putin’s approval rating quickly dropped from 69 percent in February to 63 percent in March and kept steadily decreasing every subsequent week. Struggling with unprecedented mass layoffs and furloughs — every 10th person in Russia is currently unemployed — people are more focused on survival than worried about obscure constitutional changes. The harsh lockdown, however, is a double-edged sword: in May, it became clear that the Russian government had become extremely concerned with how to minimize the risks of mounting discontent among the Russian populace due to falling living standards caused by the pandemic. Putin’s approval rating hit rock bottom — in the end of May, only 25 percent of respondents approved of his policies. According to a poll carried out by the independent Levada Center in Russia, 28 percent of people consider mass demonstrations possible at the moment. Open Media warns that these are the highest numbers seen in favor of protests in the past year and a half.
The coronavirus interfered with Putin’s initial plan to hold the “All-Russian plebiscite” on April 12 when the situation in the country was still under control. As time went by and the Russian government had fewer and fewer chances to win, despite the number of people infected with the coronavirus at its peak, Putin decided to suddenly lift restrictions ahead of schedule to better his political chances. The officials simply did not have time to wait until the pandemic is over. The vote had to happen either now or never. Right after that, Russia reported an overall decrease in COVID-19 cases. Following the steps of the head of the Russian government, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin called for the end of lockdowns.
The main goal of these measures is to improve the results of the upcoming nationwide plebiscite on constitutional amendments, which could extend Putin’s rule for another decade. To keep a facade of democracy, the Russian government hopes to achieve at least a 55 percent turnout — the 2018 Russian presidential election had a 67.5 percent turnout — due to the coronavirus. “The Kremlin intends to hold a postponed vote in summer before the second wave of COVID-19 that could hit in the fall,” said Russian political scientist and publicist Fyodor Krasheninnikov. “It is impossible for Putin to have a national plebiscite on constitutional amendments scheduled at the same time as regional elections,” suggested Russian politician and member of the Russian opposition Leonid Volkov. “It will not only be excruciatingly hard to run two different campaigns simultaneously but also way more difficult to falsify the final results because regional elections unlike the ‘All-Russian plebiscite’ are to be closely monitored,” he added.
The Russian government is currently in a very difficult position: Putin is losing the support of the Russian people. On one hand, chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation Ella Pamfilova does not hide the fact that an impromptu plebiscite with an unclear legal status is a pure formality: the decision has already been made, and the amendments have de facto entered into force. On March 14, Putin already signed the law of the Russian Federation on amendments to the Constitution. Maxim Kurnikov, a Russian journalist, correspondent, and presenter of Echo of Moscow radio station, tweeted, “It is either Schrödinger’s Constitution or I just do not get it? The Kremlin announced that first we vote and then we adopt our new Constitution. Although we have not voted yet, the President still had made some amendments to a new bill on education citing an article from a new Constitution. Can anyone explain that to me?”
On the other hand, there is still a national vote to be held. Despite no requirement that over half of the electorate has to participate in the voting, there is still a condition that over half of the voters who came to the polls supported it. That could be a tad difficult when in some regions up to 80 percent of people do not support constitutional amendments. This time it is not only a network of Russia’s most prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s supporters but also people with different ideologies who want the same thing – for these constitutional amendments to never be adopted. Each political party finds its own way to reach out to their audience: “Say NO for Stalin, say NO for the Russian people, say NO for the sake of liberty and democracy.”
We are now witnessing an interesting development in Russian society: Putin is slowly losing his grip on power. People are getting fed up with the lies the Russian government has been feeding them for as long as they remember. Grass-root activists are calling for boycotts, and fearless volunteers are ready to expose themselves to the epicenters of COVID-19 at the polling stations to ask people if they voted in favor or against the amendments. There is no definite answer to what the Kremlin will do if the majority does not support the changes. It will be most certainly difficult not only to falsify the results but also to go against the frenzied crowd that took control over the voting procedure in their hands.