Putin's Constitutional Referendum, Round 2

On July 1, 2020, citizens of the Russian federation cast their final vote regarding the constitutional changes initiated by President Putin and it was quite unthinkable to assume that they would pledge anything less than their full and unconditional support for the big man himself.

The referendum was initially scheduled for April 22, 2020, yet was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much to the Kremlin’s chagrin, as Putin’s Russia aimed to give the occasion a symbolic layer as well: the birth of the new Russia would coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lenin. Could anything that’s symbolically linked to Lenin be expected to provide any modernizing impetus? Hardly so. These changes aren’t designed to change anything, and aim to ensure one thing only: to keep the reins of power in Putin’s trusty hands for an indefinite amount of time. As in, the only change is designed to prevent any change whatsoever.

The symbolic gesture was not to be, as, due to the pandemic, Lenin’s birthday had to be celebrated in a rather auspicious manner, but this hardly changes anything. If the Kremlin’s intent was that in two weeks the COVID-19 situation would improve, then it has seemingly backfired. With over 620,000 confirmed cases and about 9000 deaths, the situation in Russia has hardly changed for the better. And this considering the widespread belief that Moscow might be hiding the real statistics and that the situation might be far direr than what official data suggests. This is further amplified by the eerie trend of Russian doctors who openly discuss the collapse of the Russian health sector to suddenly end their lives with suicide, usually by jumping out of the hospital windows.

Apparently, postponing the referendum even further was a major no-no for President Putin, who seemingly wants to be done with it as soon as possible. And if this requires hiding the COVID-19 data and throwing a few doctors out of the window, it’s a bargain from the Kremlin viewpoint.

One should also remember that Putin tried his best to prepare the grounds for the referendum and lift the collective spirits with two grandiose occasions: on May 9, construction of the Grand Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was finished, June 14 saw the church being consecrated, and it was officially opened on June 22. Much has been written about it already: 95 meters in height and a 10,000 sq m area, and with capacity to accommodate more than 6000 parishioners, it is indeed an impressive building. So much so that many an author has opined that it’s more a monument to Russian military might than a canonical example of Christian architecture. Especially considering its interior sports frescos of such sainted figures as President Putin himself and the Defense Minister Shoigu, while one can also enjoy a mural depicting the annexation of Crimea and many similar “biblical scenes”. The opening ceremony was held with much fanfare.

Another major occasion was the “Victory Parade”, which was held on June 24 instead of the customary May 9. The 75th anniversary of the victory in the Second World War was celebrated with traditional pomposity, with armed forces marching alongside heavy military vehicles. The occasion was traditionally well-attended: together with the Kremlin officials and war veterans, one could observe a great number of other people, dressed as veterans but not actually being them. For example, there was particularly colorful character, who proudly displayed the Order of the Hero of the Soviet Union alongside the “Georgievsky Cross”, which, considering that it was awarded to veterans of First World War back in 1914-1918, would have made this person at least 125-years-old, which he most distinctly was not.

Alongside other world leaders of great renown, the parade was also attended by the head of the Occupied South Ossetia’s puppet regime, Anatoly Bibilov. A similar parade was held in Tskhinvali, administered by Russian General Victor Fiodorov, the “Deputy Defense Minister” of so-called South Ossetia.

With these two events, Putin tried to create the impression that everything is alright in Russia, and that ordinary citizens of the Russian Federation are getting back to their ordinary lives. A suitable background for holding a nation-wide referendum, then.

The referendum envisages 12 changes to the Russian Constitution. Some deal with the power structure between the President and the legislative power and is of a completely formal nature. One of the changes provides the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, while another deals with the indexation of pensions, and yet another aims to bring the minimum wage equal to the subsistence minimum.

The important ones, however, are the changes that deal directly with the presidential power. An eligible presidential candidate should have lived in Russia for 25 years, with the last ten being continuous. At first sight, this should be hardly relevant to Putin, although it gives him yet further leverage to prevent the emergence of a hitherto unknown political opponent from the Russian elite.

The most important change, however, would allow Putin to run for at least two more six-year terms after the end of his second presidential term in 2024. Interestingly, it resets the terms for Putin, but would not apply to future presidents. Initially, many thought this change amounted to Putin leaving the presidential seat and ruling the country from some other position; however, these “fears” were soon allayed, as it became known shortly after that the new change would “annul” the presidential terms of the incumbent President. The next presidential elections in Russia are scheduled for March 24, which means that the citizens of the Russian Federation will cast their votes for the President that nominally they have never voted for before, i.e. Putin.

All this clarifies that the only goal of the proposed changes is to ensure the continued status of the country, keeping Putin in power for as long as possible. The new formula would enable Putin to be “elected” again in 2024 and 2030. In 2036, when the next annulment terms would theoretically occur, Putin will already be 83. Were he still to cling to power as he does today and enjoy the same kind of influence, there’s little reason to doubt that yet another annulment would happen.

Vladimir Putin first announced the possible constitutional changes on December 19, 2020. The results of the Levada Center’s first survey on the matter would soon follow. The data looked encouraging: 73% for and only 13 against. Come March, the amount of supporters had drastically decreased: only 45% in support, with a staggeringly high 41% against. Fast-forward to May, which saw the support decrease by a mere percentage point, while those against reached a high, but somewhat realistic, 32. Other surveys were soon to follow: for example, according to the data published by the Russian Political Culture Research Center, the changes were supported by 35%, while 37% was against.

Looking at the statistics, some might doubt that the results of the referendum might be a foregone conclusion. But things work differently in Russia. Putin himself went on record saying that they could have passed these changes on their own, but wanted to make it subject to the “will of the people”. Obviously this gives the whole thing an air of legitimacy, duping the Russian population into thinking that they actually matter and participate in country’s political life. And exactly for this reason, the referendum was supported by exactly the percentage that Putin and his system deemed necessary.

And if you needed yet more proof the changes would be supported, you might have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the new edition of the Russian Constitution is already in print.

By David Bragvadze, GISP

Russian President Vladimir Putin. By Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

02 July 2020 18:53