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Putin’s Referendum: an assertion of strength, or the symptom of a vulnerable president?10 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Russia
In the Channel 4 documentary Putin: A Russian Spy Story, Sanctions Coordinator at the US State Department, Dan Fried, notes at the end of the final episode that “once you have been king and done the things you have done in order to stay king, you can’t retire”. Freid’s description of the Russian president is particularly poignant when considered in the context of the constitutional referendum, which took place between 25 June and 1 July this year.

Vladimir Putin may have set the stage for an era of monolithic governance, having secured the role of Russia’s principal decision maker for years to come. Such constitutional amendments beg the question; is the president further demonstrating his seemingly boundless power, or is he conceding to a realisation that he lacks a retirement plan?

Should Putin step down, he could be made to answer for the decisions taken during his presidency, and held responsible for multiple stains on recent Russian history. The leader’s track record is punctuated by a number of contentious decisions; from the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, to alleged war crimes in Chechnya (1999-2009), from the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, to the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, 2018. In 2020, the president now faces an unusually complex, and unprecedented situation.

The disastrous impact of Covid-19 may well have been a driving force behind his decision to push through the constitutional referendum in July, despite strong criticism due to the health risks of in-person voting. According to Apurva Sanghi, the lead economist for the Russian Federation, imminent repercussions of the recession include a “steep rise in unemployment, the drop in real wages, reduced fiscal revenues, and a weakened banking sector”. With this in mind, it would seem that Putin’s decision to opt for constitutional change is not necessarily an assertion of strength, but the inevitable maneuver of an authoritarian leader, aware of his vulnerability as president.

Lesson learnt

The president’s current position is somewhat similar to that faced by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, at the turn of the century. Amid accusations of high-level bribery and financial malfeasance, Yeltsin was forced to broker a deal with the then acting president, Putin, for immunity. It is widely believed that immunity was one of Yeltsin’s primary conditions for agreeing to resign before the end of his term. Had the Russian leader not obtained this security through his favourable relationship with Putin, he may well have faced serious charges for corruption. The current president’s awareness of Yeltsin’s predicament may have been a motivating factor behind his decision to amend the constitution, and in doing so, safeguard his own position.

If someone external to the Putin circle were to take leadership, it is very likely that they would criticise the former president with the strongest fervour, and possibly even subject him to redress. The 2015 shooting of fierce Putin-critic, Boris Nemtsov, although denied by the Kremlin, appeared to demonstrate the president’s resolute intolerance of vocal opposition figures. Five years later, anti-corruption activist and major oppositionist, Alexei Navalny, also poses some threat to Putin, having been described as a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. The recent poisoning of Navalny, which the Russian government also denies, could reveal a certain vulnerability about the president, through a desire to continually eradicate the influence of his domestic critics.

Therefore, in what seems like a way to avoid future reprehension by a successor, Putin presented his people with the constitutional referendum, which would ensure his long-term stability as leader. The Kremlin designated 1 July a national holiday, Constitution Vote Public Day, thus ensuring everyone would be available to participate. On this date, Russia voted 77.9% in favour of the proposed changes to their constitution. The result has been subject to scattered reports of outright fraud and labelled a “shameful farce” by Alexei Navalny. In addition to claims of a rigged result, it was reported that some employers ordered their employees to vote. Voting is not a legal requirement in Russia, and so putting pressure on the electorate to turn out for this referendum could be deemed coercive and undemocratic.

The constitutional changes, documented in a book made available in Russian bookshops before the vote had even come to a close, further demonstrate the country’s slide away from democracy. The president has systematically quelled genuine dissent through a range of pervasive measures, including a law enacted in March 2019 which imposes fines for insulting officials and state symbols. In addition to suppressing civic freedoms, Putin has worked relentlessly to concentrate decision-making capabilities in Moscow, and to neuter federal institutions. For example, in spite of the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in 2013, the municipal filter ensures that non-Kremlin approved candidates stand little chance.

The Russian leader has been on a long road to consolidate power since 2000. Constitutional adjustment however, is a more significant event than a series of policies such as these. Amendments made to Russia’s constitution embed the changes into the country’s political system, consequently making them far more difficult for successors to alter. In the context of his approval ratings hitting an historic low in May 2020 at just 59%, maintaining a tight grip on power through the reset to zero amendment could be more important than ever in terms of Putin’s presidential future.

President for life

The reset to zero amendment was initially put forward by MP Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space in 1963 and long-time Putin supporter. Tereshkova is a Hero of the Soviet Union, recognised for her role in solidifying the prestige of the Soviet space programme. As a notable figure in Russian culture, and a respected lawmaker in the State Duma, her influence may have been hugely beneficial to the Putin administration, in terms of how the referendum package was received by voters. Prior to Tereshkova’s proposed amendment, a Russian president could only serve two consecutive six-year terms.

Having governed Russia since 2000, with a brief interlude in 2008-2012 when he and the Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, swapped roles, Putin has served a total of 16 years as president. This amendment nullifies all his terms served hitherto, meaning he could legally hold office until 2036; possibly a life-long presidency for someone who is 67. Of all the constitutional changes proposed, Tereshkova’s reset to zero amendment may prove invaluable in helping to launch the president’s solo mission in quest of a lifelong presidency. By way of mobilising voters and encouraging a higher turnout to secure this amendment, other controversial articles were also included in the package, such as issues of minimum wage and gay marriage.

As a package deal, the referendum compiled multiple amendments and additional articles summed up into one question:”Do you approve changes to the Russian constitution?” to which the voter could simply answer yes or no. This single answer stood to legitimise a variety of policies, from the reset to zero amendment, to the agreement that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. Furthermore, these sweeping reforms included the choice whether to vote for minimum wage being fixed at no less than subsistence minimum income. Russia’s economy has seen deeper troughs than peaks in annual GDP growth since 2010. With further economic troubles expected due to the pandemic and subsequent decline in oil prices, this amendment may have been the most significant for voters, regardless of what it would mean for democratic processes.

Historical revisionism

In addition to issues of minimum wage and social values, the electorate was also presented with the opportunity to ban any belittling of the feats of those who fought in the Great Patriotic War, a sentiment few Russians would want to vote against. This referendum came fewer than two weeks after the president released his 9,000-word article: “The Real Lessons of the 75th anniversary of World War II“. On 19 June, it was published by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a Kremlin-owned daily newspaper. Putin’s historical rethink, and revisionist take on the events of WWII, may evoke a recollection of George Orwell’s 1984, particularly the Ministry of Truth. Incidentally, Rossiyskaya Gazeta has its headquarters on a street called Pravda, meaning true in Russian.

The piece received mixed reviews from abroad, with one British journalist claiming: “the Russian leader’s revisionist take on his country’s wartime past is self-serving and partisan”. However, the domestic reception of the article appears less critical. In Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s comment section, one reader praises Putin’s piece, writing that “it is necessary to remind everyone, where the world would be, if it weren’t for our victory”. Another reader also expressed support, simply commenting; “strong”.

The president’s article attempts to change global perceptions of the USSR’s role in the Great Patriotic War; the title given to WWII in Russia. It notably condemns “the resolution … approved by the European Parliament [which] directly accused the USSR together with Nazi Germany of unleashing the Second World War”. He describes the exclusion of the USSR when mentioning all participants in the anti-Hitler coalition on the 75th anniversary, as a “meanness” against the Russian people, arguing that it fails to recognise the sacrifices made by the Soviet Union during WWII. Furthermore, his use of divisive language through an us and them dichotomy throughout the essay, seems to be a deliberate attempt to intensify Russian patriotism and opposition to European influence.

In addition to the content of his article, the timing of its publication appears significant as it coincided with the date of the annual Victory Parade on Red Square. The essay appearing in Rossiyskaya Gazeta shortly before the event, may have further instilled patriotic feelings among the thousands who attended. Nationalistic sentiment has proven especially useful to Putin throughout his presidency, for example in mobilising Russian volunteers to fight in eastern Ukraine. Patriotism, particularly nostalgic patriotism in this case, is a highly effective tool in commanding support, and by compelling citizens to unite under some shared national identity, he bolsters support. Therefore, the constitutional amendment to protect the historical truth of the Great Patriotic War may have been pivotal in securing the result of the referendum package in the president’s favour, thus ensuring the reset to zero proposal.

Damage control

An effective rewrite of a country’s constitution may appear an extreme measure, simply in order to continue his presidency, however when considered in an historical context, and the current state of affairs in Russia, it may be the inevitable outcome of Putin’s uncompromising grip on power. After all, when Yeltsin narrowly dodged reprehension for the corruption which permeated his government, this showed any future Russian president that they could be made to answer for actions taken during their leadership.

Moreover, the pandemic has created a chaotic environment which threatens to further depress Putin’s approval ratings. A poll conducted in January this year by Levada Centre, revealed that public trust in the president fell from 59% in 2017, to just 35% in 2020. The number of Covid-19 cases in Russia are not showing any signs of retreat, and it has been speculated that Putin rushed the voting process with this in mind. Holding the referendum before the economy further deteriorated, and before the inevitable decline in his approval ratings, may have enabled him to secure the result in his favour, making Tereshkova’s reset to zero proposal a reality.

Dan Fried’s comment; “once you have been king and done the things you have done in order to stay king, you can’t retire”, was apt when the documentary was first released in March this year. However, six months later, it could now be construed as even more accurate. On the surface, constitutional change appears a further assertion of Putin’s seemingly unyielding strength. However, the urgency with which the referendum was pushed through, an awareness of the consequences faced by Yeltsin, and the ever present influence of his unrelenting critic, Alexei Navalny, would indicate otherwise. These elements may suggest that Putin is in actual fact, a vulnerable president. Beneath the facade of this “king”, is there a disquieted politician, who is scrambling for his crown?

Featured image: Drawing of President Putin by illustrator Masha Katarsis, adapted for this article by Amanda Sonesson
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