Vladimir Putin’s Referendum Today Is Just Papering Over the Cracks of His Rule

Today, Russians vote in a constitutional referendum designed to give Vladimir Putin a fresh burst of legitimacy. His feeble response to the coronavirus pandemic has ruined his “strongman” reputation — and it’s feeding a growing mood of popular discontent.

Putin and his administration are seeking — at all costs — to secure at least a semblance of legitimacy. (Photo by Hannah Peters / Getty Images)

Russia, 2035. A middle-aged woman in a drab nurse’s uniform takes a photo. Today, a five-year-old boy is being adopted.

“Are you happy that you’ll have a mom and dad now?” the woman asks the little boy, as the man now to be his father approaches them. The boy grins as he walks out of the decrepit building with his new father. They step out into the driveway.

“Where is my mom?” the boy asks. The camera turns to a man wearing a dress, waiting for the pair near an expensive car. His behavior is affected, exaggerated — and he’s holding a little dress. The nurses scowl. “Poor boy,” they think, “they’re going to dress him as a woman!” One of the women spits on the driveway and goes back inside.

This was a campaign video in support of Vladimir Putin’s proposed “popular vote” on constitutional reform, scheduled for July 1. The video tells us a lot about the future that his regime envisions for its people. In this future there are still orphanages — with children sharing rooms in drab, grey, post-Soviet apartment blocks, apparently untouched by the next fifteen years of progress.

Children, the video tells us, will not be a priority of social policy. Neither will health care and social workers — the women in the video are poorly dressed. There will be no new buildings for the kids of Russia’s tomorrow. Nothing new at all, in fact. But we do see one looming threat if we don’t vote for Putin’s “reform”: gay couples adopting “our” Russian orphans, as indignant locals spit in impotent rage.

“Is this the Russia that you’ll choose?” the stern voice-over asks. “Shape the future of the country! Vote in favor of the constitutional amendments!” The proposed amendments — among other things — would pave the way to lifelong rule for Putin.

The Lame Duck’s Revenge

Already, Putin has become something of a lame-duck president. After his highly unpopular pension reforms in 2018, which increased the retirement age, his ratings began to decline — his 59 percent support, in fact, marking a historic low, down almost 20 percent in two years.

Increasing numbers of Russians don’t want to see him remain in office beyond 2024, when his second consecutive term (his fourth overall) comes to an end. The media has already started to discuss Putin’s succession; the ruling class, facing a power vacuum, has begun to fracture into rival clans.

Yet no one has enough sway — or perhaps, enough bravery — to begin to conceive of a Russia beyond Putin. No one except Putin himself, that is. In January, addressing the Duma (parliament) he unexpectedly put forward a series of proposals for constitutional reform.

In many ways, the mishmash of social, economic, and governance proposals seemed absurd. Putin suggested providing schoolchildren with free breakfast, prohibiting members of parliament from having dual citizenship or foreign residence permits, and introducing a new government body, the State Council, into the constitution.

There seemed to be no logical or conceptual thread to the proposals. On one hand, Putin talked about expanding the Duma’s mandate. Yet he also proposed creating a presidential power to unilaterally terminate the powers of the Constitutional, Supreme, Cassation, and Appeals Courts. This would mean the total subversion of judicial power to the executive.

Several more proposals were later added. One would introduce a constitutional definition of marriage as being a “union of man and woman” — the subject of the deeply homophobic video described earlier. Another would enshrine the Russian language and religion in the constitution.

Strangest of all, Putin demanded that his amendments be submitted to a “popular vote.” It seemed that for the first time in twenty-seven years, a referendum would be held in a country where the people had been systematically alienated from political processes for decades.

From the beginning, it was clear that the constitutional reforms were a veiled scheme for the transfer of power — an attempt to create the political architecture that would ensure continuity beyond 2024. But what exactly would that future hold? Would Putin step down from his presidency to lead the Duma or the new State Council? Or would he simply retire and make way for a successor?

The intrigue was resolved in March, when the amendments were formally approved in the Duma. Valentina Tereshkova — in 1963, the first woman in outer space and today a politician in Putin’s United Russia party — took the floor. She made a series of odd interventions, before proposing that Putin’s first presidential terms simply be “erased,” to give the long-standing president a fresh start and an opportunity to run in elections again. It became clear that the reforms were a sleight of hand to safeguard Putin’s eternal return as president.

Popular Approval and the Quarantine

The “popular vote” on the proposed constitutional amendments — initially scheduled for April 22 — was always going to be a sham. The Duma and the Constitutional Court had already approved all the changes, and Putin himself had signed them. The Central Election Commission itself admitted that the “popular vote” would have no legal effect.

But it still remained a key element of Putin’s strategy. After twenty years in power, the Russian president needed popular approval to boost the regime’s moral and political legitimacy, which had begun to wane as a result of economic woes and social tensions that had engulfed the country.

But then the coronavirus came, interrupting a seemingly well-thought-out political strategy.

The pandemic struck Russia later than many other countries. The authorities should have had the time to prepare, but they did nothing for most of March in the hope that by stalling, they could rush the constitutional changes through. By the time the country went into lockdown, it was too late.

The virus had spread all over the country and today Russia places third globally in terms of the number of people infected — behind only the United States and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. These, of course, are the official statistics, and there is plenty of evidence that the state has underestimated and underreported the numbers of infected and dead around the country.

The epidemic dealt a crushing blow to the Russian regime, which saw a sharp decline in public support. It became obvious that the country’s social security system (and in many ways, the Russian state in general) was broken. When the oil prices were high, Putin’s neoliberal reforms went through largely without opposition. Rising incomes and a well-oiled propaganda machine made sure of that.

But years of cuts and the increasing commercialization of the public sphere have had a catastrophic impact on public services — especially health care. The number of hospitals decreased by half in the past decade alone. The number of hospital beds has fallen by 40 percent.

And the number of medical staff has fallen by nearly a third. In the span of ten years, health care was transformed from a freely available public service to a privilege for the wealthy. When the epidemic hit, the health care system was immediately overwhelmed.

But this was not the only weakness the pandemic revealed. For when Russia went into lockdown, millions lost their jobs and earnings. The authorities insisted that the measures were a “regime of self-isolation” — a euphemism that off-loaded responsibility for an enforced quarantine onto individuals, allowing the state to avoid liability for the unemployed and the sick. At the same time, additional restrictions were implemented, including fines for leaving your home without a permit.

Unlike many Western states, the Russian government refused to provide cash assistance to its citizens or enterprises. People found themselves without any support, and their movement was severely restricted. With a collapsing social security system and an increasingly repressive regime of control, the state was stripped to its core security functions.

At the same time, a string of corruption scandals rocked Russia. Officials were caught buying medical equipment above cost and siphoning the profits to private companies. In Moscow and other cities, residents were required to buy medical masks and gloves, which were produced by an entity owned by Moscow City Hall. They cost twenty times more than they did before the pandemic. Russia’s oligarchs grew richer by the day. According to Forbes, Russia’s 101 richest people made $62 billion in the first two months of the pandemic.

Concealed by decades of geopolitical rivalry, there are in fact striking similarities in the American and Russian social orders. Much like in Russia, millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic. And, like their Russian counterparts, American billionaires have gotten obscenely rich — increasing their wealth by $565 billion. “You’ve got a combustible concoction of lost income and inequality,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM International. This same “concoction” made up part of the powder kegs in Minneapolis, Washington, and Seattle. Now, it looks like Russia’s not far behind.

At the same time, much like Trump, Putin has seen his image as a “strong leader” suffer during the crisis; he delegated authority to local governors and, like his US counterpart, hid in a bunker below his residence. Though Putin has long posed as a savior who could pull Russia out of the depths of crisis, his approval ratings have now fallen to a historic low, eroding the promise of order, backed by strong leadership, that historically grounded his support.

The aftershocks of the global financial crisis produced a wave of mass protests from Cairo to New York, from Madrid to Moscow. Just a few months after the Occupy Wall Street movement began in the United States, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow to protest election fraud in what became known as the Bolotnaya movement.

Today, the social discontent is both fiercer and deeper. Watching news about the American rebellion, Russians are eager for an opportunity to take to the streets. Sociologists are now anticipating the biggest explosion in social unrest since 2011 and 2012. But the backlash could be fiercer still.

Plebiscite, Legitimacy, and Resistance

It is amid this chaos that Putin and his administration are seeking — at all costs — to secure at least a semblance of legitimacy. The pandemic is over, Putin recently insisted, despite the fact that Russia is still seeing eight to nine thousand new infections each day. The authorities are in a hurry. With people going on holiday in mid-July, it will be almost impossible to ensure the necessary turnout for the plebiscite. And if the vote were moved to the fall — likely to be an occasion for protest — then the government faces the prospect of outright defeat. The local elections happening at that time will make it hard to rig the vote — election monitors will be on watch. So, the authorities have timed the vote for July 1, at the peak of a deadly pandemic.

Even now, the authorities fear defeat. So, they rushed through a number of last-minute changes that dramatically expand the possibilities for electoral fraud. Early voting will be allowed for a week, starting on June 24, and the Central Election Commission has authorized voting online. In Russia, this makes the job of electoral fraud easy. Supposedly for medical reasons, the physical vote will take place outdoors, making it impossible to follow even rudimentary precautions. No independent observers will be allowed; the vote will be overseen by the Public Chamber, a body loyal to the Kremlin. Adding insult to injury, the government made it illegal to campaign against the amendments, while the state has been agitating for the “yes” vote on all major TV stations and billboards across Russia.

This is a tremendous challenge for the Russian opposition. Anyone campaigning against the amendments can expect the state on their doorstep, like the socialist Nikolai Platoshkin who has been under house arrest since June 5 simply because he told his 500,000 YouTube supporters to vote against the reforms. Regardless of the prescription, there is no guarantee that any of the votes will ever be counted — the state is equally likely to pull the numbers out of thin air.

Putin can sleep easily for now. The opposition is tragically split. The Communist Party, the country’s biggest opposition force, is campaigning against the reforms — a moderate tactic that still recognizes the legitimacy of the vote. But most other opposition groups, from the Left Front to Alexei Navalny on the right, are calling for a wholesale boycott.

But the vote may very well not achieve its real goal — for it is unlikely that it can secure Putin the legitimacy he seeks. On the contrary, as the curtain is gradually lifted, social unrest is brewing ever closer to a tipping point. Even if this energy fails to produce protests today, with a country facing both a pandemic and a divided opposition, Russian cities could soon be shaken by massive protests like those we’ve seen in New York, Washington, and Denver.

Putin has assembled the ingredients of political crisis — one that adds to and amplifies the economic and social crises that already plagued Russia. In doing so, he may have unleashed forces that will lead to his unravelling.

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Alexey Sakhnin is a Russian activist who was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin protest movement from 2011 to 2013. He is a member of the Progressive International Council and Socialists Against War.

Per Leander is a Swedish journalist and the author of two books about the Soviet Union and Russia.

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