Flight of aviation on the day of the 75th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War in Moscow

Inevitability in the Time of Coronavirus: Russia’s 2020 Constitutional Referendum

In the second piece in his examination of the Russian Constitutional Referendum, Eamon Driscoll examines the impact of the vote, its likely outcome, and the future of Putin’s rule.

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As discussed in my previous piece on the matter, in January 2020, the Russian government resigned following the announcement by President Vladimir Putin that there would be a referendum on changes to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. That referendum was originally scheduled for April 22nd, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday, but due to the coronavirus pandemic the date was pushed back to mid-summer. It will now be held between June 25th and July 1st, with voting taking place in a regimented fashion to limit the number of people at the polling booths at any one time. Online voting is also available for residents of Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, though no one is quite sure why Nizhny met the criteria and larger cities did not.

Up-to-date opinion polling is scarce, but all indications are that the referendum will pass, and Putin will be cleared to remain in power until 2036, when he will be eighty-four years old. Predicting the future that far out is an impossible task, but the house money supports the theory that Putin will stop at nothing to retain his iron grip on power in Russia. The most recent poll, conducted by the independent Levada Center, indicates that a majority of those polled who either will definitely vote or are considering voting will vote in favour of the referendum. But among those who say that it is unlikely they will vote, support dwindles considerably, with a majority opposing the changes. Moreover, Russians do not have the ability to vote on the amendments individually, and must pass or reject all forty-six amendments together in one bulk vote.

These amendments are wide-ranging, but the crux of the matter is enabling the expansion of Vladimir Putin’s personal power and some ominous indication of how Russia’s future will develop. For example, article 67(1) combines protection of historical truth and the creation of conditions for the development of children together with enshrining the Russian Federation as the successor state of the Soviet Union and all its international organs. Taken individually, these may be innocuous, but together carry a more sinister connotation. It is difficult to discern the direction that the Russian state may take from this particular article, but it may be an indication that Russian sovereign democracy is now expanding to include a sovereign education. It is natural that a state seek to tell its history its own way, but alongside other changes, it appears that Putin is preparing Russia for a future distinct from its European neighbours.

The most important change from this referendum will be the nullification of the previous presidential terms of both Putin and Medvedev. The latter is no threat to power, with a dismal popularity rating in the 20s, but the door is open for Putin to remain in power in one form or another for a long time to come, and an entire generation of Russians will know no leader besides Vladimir Vladimirovich. In contrast to the messy American federal republic, or Britain’s entertaining ministerial quarrels in the Commons, this hierarchical stability offers some appeal, but without the electoral impetus to be better than one’s opponent, Russian political life and its forward development will stagnate under this one-party rule.

Generally speaking, those who oppose the changes are unlikely to vote to express their opinions, meaning that the referendum will pass and Putin will have his democratic justification to overhaul the system of government in his favour. But because under Russian law the referendum (or “nationwide voting”, to be precise) requires 50% turnout to be legitimate, opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny have called for a boycott of the referendum. It remains to be seen how successful this boycott will be, given how some opposition voices are instead calling for a resounding “No” vote, but based on Russian electoral history, the authorities will make sure that the turnout is sufficiently high.

Also critical to consider in context is the slipping popularity of Putin as president. The Levada Center has Putin’s approval rating at 59% as of May 2020, the lowest since 2010, and even lower than the protests against his rule prior to the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent dramatic increase in support. It is unlikely that a similar event will be able to restore Putin’s popularity, and it may even be that this referendum, though securing Putin’s political future on paper, may lead to support plummeting even further. Yet the government polling agency WCIOM shows that the percentage of Russians who trust Putin either mostly or unconditionally at 67.7% – lower than it has been in recent years, but only slightly and hardly enough to be considered threatening. In response to his low polling numbers, Putin has been touting Russia’s success in developing hypersonic weapons, increasing the risk of Russia becoming even more militarised as Putin attempts to maintain his authority.

Therefore, it was hardly much of a surprise when a criminal case was opened against Navalny on June 15th for allegedly libelling a World War II veteran who participated in an advertisement supporting the changes. But the opposition to the referendum extends beyond the usual suspects like Navalny. Even the Communist Party, still an electoral force not to be dismissed and generally supportive of the Kremlin, is now opposing these changes. But whether it makes a difference or not remains to be seen. Opposition opinions get no air time on state television, the referendum website itself is full of positive news, and billboards around the country make it seem like these amendments are all positive things – like defending animal rights, reforming the pension system, and expanding access to healthcare. Generally, these are good changes, but they have been thrown in with the changes to the government to make the bitter pill just a bit easier to swallow. Nevertheless, there is hardly any doubt: despite being ostensibly a referendum on constitutional amendments, this is very much a referendum on Putin himself.

He will do everything in his power to ensure a successful result. And so, after postponing 2020’s Victory Day parade–the first time since 1945 that it was not held on May 9th–Putin rescheduled it. The parade, symbolising the greatest military achievement of the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazi regime, will now be held on June 24th, one day before voting begins. The media will be overflowing with heroic stories of the Soviet people, and Putin will be at the centre of it all. No attention will be paid to the economic and personal difficulties caused by the government pretending that coronavirus was pneumonia, or the extreme strain in April on the economy based heavily on exporting oil.

And that is one of the major problems in Russian government which is not being addressed by this referendum: it is widely accepted that Putin is the government. These changes just further enforce that fact. Activists like Navalny and opposition leaders like Zyuganov (Communist) and Zhirinovksy (LDPR) are simply not taken seriously as actual candidates for high office, and they all know it. Their purpose is to provide the appearance of opposition. This façade is the terrible truth about democracy in Russia: that those who don’t like Putin simply have no better option. Even a global pandemic, which threw so much into chaos that we have long taken for granted, can do little more than delay the inevitable outcome.

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Illinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Aleksey Ivanov