Putin’s Way

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 7.7.2020 09:13

President Putin rejoiced as he won a resounding victory following a week-long referendum on amendments to the constitution based on an agenda of conservative values and the protection of Russia’s sovereignty. The intense government campaign and the voting process, heavily marked by coercion and irregularities, made little mention of the real purpose of the nationwide vote and will most probably go down in the country’s history as the most blatant disregard for Russian people’s sovereignty.

Over the course of an entire week, 78 percent of Russian voters endorsed new changes to the constitution - a package of over 200 constitutional amendments - which will now pave the way for the 67 year-old leader to run for two more six-year terms in office. Russians, and the whole world, are now left with the prospect of having Putin remaining in power until 2036.

The results came after Moscow opted for a flawed and rather peculiar voting procedure whereby the Central Election Commission would allow simple voting procedures over the course of seven days with ballots being cast outside of polling stations including online, at home, at open-air sites, and at work.

In the biggest Russian government shake-up and proposed constitutional change since its adoption in 1993, opposition figures denounced the Kremlin’s aim to invest a “president for life”.

At the same time, the government hailed the results as a “triumphant referendum about trust in the president” and that the Russian people had, through this vote, allowed the government to begin efforts towards “improving the political system, firming up social guarantees, strengthening sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

 

A Needless yet Momentus Vote

Constitutional amendments had already been ratified by the State Duma, Russia’s Federation Council and a majority of regional parliaments across the country months ago while newly printed copies of the modified Constitution were already being distributed in libraries so that people could “familiarise” themselves with amendments made to a Constitution they had not even voted for or against yet.

The vote was also legally unnecessary as such a referendum would be required only if changes were related to chapters 1, 2 and 9, article 136 of the Russian Constitution. None of Putin’s proposals were related to these chapters.

Instead, this constitutional referendum was nothing more than an elaborate and formidable exercise of popular endorsement which would confer legitimacy upon an already made decision, a PR campaign to fabricate a perception of popular support for a package of over two hundred constitutional amendments including a straightforward path to an extension of power previously blocked under the constitution.

In other words, President Putin has used the nationwide plebiscite to turn the Russian people into his accomplices, allowing him to extend his rule over Russia as well as his ultraconservative vision. From now on, whatever the future holds for Russia, its people will be reminded that they, along with Putin, “made these important decisions together, as a country”.

More importantly, organising a week-long vote allowed Putin to distance himself from the image of a constitutional coup by consolidating his authoritarian control over the country. Thus, he acted under the cover of an apparent democratic vote to obtain legitimacy and the people’s trust.

 

“From now on, whatever the future holds for Russia, its people will be reminded that they, along with Putin, 'made these important decisions together, as a country'.”

 

An Attempt at Ensuring Stability

Putin’s constitutional victory came as the president’s approval ratings reached a historical low of 59 percent in March as a result of the government’s handling of the coronavirus and its economic fallout, the Russia-Saudi oil price war, unpopular pension reforms made in 2018, and growing distrust in the Kremlin from a population demanding more liberties and democratic rights.

The objective of Russia’s nationwide plebiscite had nothing to do with getting public approval for amendments which had already been ratified. Instead, Putin was seeking a “jolt of legitimacy” as his approval rates were being tested by an economic and social crisis.

Crucially, this victory grants the Russian population, still marked by the political chaos and the unknown after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a sense of stability in light of the absence of an appropriate political successor among Russia’s political elite. Furthermore, the referendum results provide a sense of stability for regime leadership as they might be tempted to start planning a post-Putin Russia, and Putin is all too aware of becoming vulnerable to his successor and of loyalty changes.

The approaching end of his term in 2024 and the upcoming local and regional elections, which in recent years have seen a growing rejection of Putin’s regime, could seriously weaken the former KGB officer and push people around him to look for a successor. 

 

“The referendum results provide a sense of stability for regime leadership as they might be tempted to start planning a post-Putin Russia, and Putin is all too aware of becoming vulnerable to his successor and of loyalty changes.”

 

However through these amendments, Putin is sending a clear message to the population and to oligarchs: for the time being, he will be remaining at the heart of Russian politics. While he has not publicly committed to running for the presidency in 2024, he is able to run again and lead the country henceforth, based on amendments made to the constitution which guarantee some level of maneuverability in the future.

 

Where does this Leave Putin’s Opponents?

Countless opposition leaders and western analysts had been forecasting, over the past months, inevitable social and political upheavals as a result of the crisis and of growing popular fatigue with Putin’s 20 year-long reign as both president and prime minister. Yet, these claims remain more than ever pipe dreams. President Putin still maintains the upper hand.

Putin, with a Stalinist verisimilitude to the length of his leadership, still remains popular for millions of Russians who have yet to learn that they have been deceived with lies and rendered numb to political matters. This is especially due to their patriotism, desire for stability and an obvious lack of leadership alternatives, all of which have been used by the Kremlin to maintain its grip on the population.

 

“Putin still remains popular for millions of Russians who have yet to learn that they have been deceived with lies and rendered numb to political matters.”

 

However, it is worth noting that over 20 percent of voters were against amendments made to the constitution, a number which in reality could be significantly higher, yet unverifiable due to the obvious lack of transparency. 

Some of Putin’s domestic and foreign policies have impacted the wellbeing of a population which has already heavily criticised Moscow’s late, inconsistent and decentralised response to the Covid-19 health crisis, and for whom presidential and regime performances are crucial in their evaluation. Moreover, young people are increasingly losing confidence in a leadership figure who has been a constant  presence during their entire lifetime.

Therefore, upcoming regional elections in 2020 and legislative polls in 2021 could be the opportunities for the opposition to gain momentum and ensure that they do not have to wait until after another two terms of Putin before democracy can be established.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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