New challenges ahead for Putin as he cements his indefinite rule
The outcome of the national vote that ended on July 1st on whether Vladimir Putin should be allowed to rule over Russia for another 16 years was preordained. More than 77% of voters supported constitutional amendments that open the legal way for him to be elected for two more terms in 2024 and 2030.
The result by itself was not important. Ever since he got into the Kremlin in 1999, Putin gradually put all levers of power under his own personal control. After two decades of his unchecked rule, Putin can obtain any result at any election or other form of plebiscite. He controls the central electoral commission that organizes the vote and can fix results. He spends more $1.3 billion a year on state propaganda to make sure voters get his desired picture of what is happening. He controls the police apparatus and courts that can quickly stifle any dissent in case a handful of brave outsiders decide to protest.
In this context, the Kremlin’s statement that the referendum was “triumphant” for Putin sounded bleak. That victory could not have happened without doping. Moreover, as Putin and his rule get older, they need more of it to achieve the desired result. That makes his government look increasingly illegitimate even in the eyes of people who would normally support many of his policies.
What was important, however, was Putin’s clear urge to rush the process. He made sure the changes were approved in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, four years before he will face another re-election. With the public trust in him declining over the past two years, Putin seemed compelled to hurry up and lay groundwork for his future rule before his approval ratings fall even further under the weight of economic pain, inflicted by the coronavirus and his own mismanagement of the economy. The referendum had to be done in haste, indicating that the Kremlin is only getting ready to face more serious challenges in the future.
The voting itself was a PR-stunt designed to fill pro-Kremlin television reports and give the process an aura of legitimacy. Putin wanted to show the public and most importantly his elites that he has the mandate to rule over Russia indefinitely. He wanted to set in stone his role as the absolute protagonist of the modern Russian state.
That message was wrapped in a number of populist amendments. Many of them were already part of Russia’s legislation. The amendments were largely declarative, and people voted in favor or against all of them together in one package. Many voters did not even know that they were voting in favor of Putin’s extended rule in the Kremlin. According to a recent poll, only 26% would have voted “yes” if that question had been asked separately.
From the legal point of view, there was no need for these amendments to be approved by the people. All amendments were already passed by the parliament in Moscow and legislatures in the regions. Despite this, Putin still decided to organize a national vote – a new form of a plebiscite that was never organized in Russia before and had no legal precedent.
The legal limbo of the new procedure gave the Russian authorities a free hand to improvise. Thus, the voting was conducted over seven days instead of one. The opportunity to observe it was limited. The first results and exit polls were published even before polling stations were closed. The central electoral commission blessed ads that openly urged people to vote in favor of the amendments instead of just informing them about the upcoming vote. People were lured to polling stations by the promise of various gifts and lotteries. Many public workers were forced to vote. Some had to bring at least ten people to the polling stations or face the threat of being deprived of their bonuses.
Putin seemed willing to accept such tricks in order to push the vote through. He, himself, explained that four years before the next presidential election he does not want to be a lame duck and that the system he built would just stop working in case that there would not be any clarity about him staying in the Kremlin. That speaks volumes about the nature of the system he built over the past 20 years: rigid, unchecked and corrupt.
Putin is doing everything he can to make sure Russia is stuck in its past. Despite the coronavirus concerns, he organized a massive Victory Day parade on June 24th. Even during Soviet times, such parades were only held four times since the war ended in 1995. No parades were held for 20 years after the war. For Putin and his generation, Russia’s victory against Nazi Germany has been the defining event, the ultimate proof of the innate moral superiority of Russia’s character. But time moves on and for a new generation of Russians the Great Patriotic War is as distant as Russia’s victory over Napoleon.
For a long time, Russian society has turned a blind eye to the restriction of democratic freedoms that were earned during a very difficult period of the Soviet collapse. Russians did this in exchange for a gradual improvement in the standard of living. In 2013, Russia’s economic development has stalled, and this deal became invalid.
The following year it was replaced by the patriotic fervor of the Crimea annexation which lasted until 2018. Putin’s hold over Russia has begun to erode since then and it will continue doing so. Now, with people realizing that there is no prospect in sight of Putin leaving the Kremlin, the political struggle for Russia’s future will intensify and the opposition will likely turn more radical.