For the Kremlin, it was a “triumphant referendum about trust in the president.” Yet for some local analysts, Russia’s June 25-July 1 vote on constitutional amendments that could extend President Vladimir Putin’s time in power was all about the fundamental changes that could come and the minority that is still saying “No.”
Roughly 78 percent of participating voters approved these 206 amendments, and just 21.27 percent were opposed, the Central Election Committee (CEC) reported on July 2. Despite the challenges of voting during the coronavirus pandemic, the official turnout was 65 percent of Russia’s nearly 144 million voters.
In a televised speech on July 2, President Putin thanked voters for their support. Claiming that “contemporary Russia” is still developing and taking shape, he underlined the need for
“domestic stability and time to strengthen the country, all of its institutions.”
Yet although the numbers appeared to give the government a clear victory at the polls,
former Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky contends the results amount to “a deafening failure” for the Kremlin.
The volume of negative votes in a national plebiscite on constitutional amendments already approved by President Putin, the legislature, and Constitutional Court is “serious,” far surpassing a Moscow street protest in terms of potential political heft, he said.
Kirill Martynov, an associate professor of philosophy at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, agreed. “Millions of people spoke out decisively against the current political situation, against the current Russian authorities’ course [of action],” said Martynov, who specializes in media and the social sciences. “And already, no one will be able to say this is a marginal group of enemies, envoys of the West, and so on.”
Kremlin critics dispute the accuracy of the official vote tallies, sometimes citing exit polls by opposition and independent groups that reportedly indicated a much larger “No” vote in the country’s two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as other major metropolitan areas. The independent election watchdog Golos (Vote) has reported widespread instances of forcing state employees to vote, carousel voting, ballot-box stuffing, a lack of secret voting, and obstruction and non-registration of independent vote observers.
As yet, no sign of a coordinated, national protest movement against the vote’s official results has emerged. The Nyet! (No!) campaign against the amendments has requested permission from Moscow City Hall, however, to stage a protest on the Russian capital’s downtown Pushkin Square on July 15. It organized a gathering of a few hundred amendment opponents at the same location on July 1.
Anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, arguably the country’s most prominent opposition leader, has urged Facebook supporters to prepare for the long haul. “Propaganda, observation, voting, lawyers’ work, protests, propaganda, again propaganda, protests, protests, protests,” Navalny wrote on July 2. “There’s enough work for everyone.”
CEC Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova has stated that no known cases of election-regulation violations could influence the constitutional vote’s results.
The European Union on July 2 urged Moscow to investigate all allegations of election wrongdoing and issued a reminder about Russia’s international treaty responsibilities.
“We expect Russia, regardless of any amendments to its constitution, to live up to its international obligations, including its obligation to execute European Court of Human Rights judgements,” wrote EU spokesman Peter Stano.
For Georgy Satarov, one of the authors of the 1993 constitution, the amendment to Article 79 that asserts the primacy of Russian law over international law means that international law “will stop being a restriction on what the authorities in Russia do inside the country.”
“Precisely that is the scariest thing,” Satarov commented, ”and not the endless rule of Putin, which we’ve all gotten used to.”
Some Russian analysts believe the vote could serve as a model for future elections in Russia, although not for the best reasons.
Valentina Matvienko, chairwoman of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, already has proposed conducting future elections as well over several days. The format is convenient for voters, she stated on June 29, and facilitates sanitary measures to ward off disease.
Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, an international think-tank, only sees dangers in this approach. The week-long constitutional vote, with polling stations set up at building entrances, portable ballot containers, pandemic precautions, alleged ballot-box-stuffing, and interference with election observers amounted to “some kind of voting carnival” that defies evaluation, he fumed
Baunov anticipates the “creation of a new procedure for elections in Russia,” but one that is “much less legally exact, much more of a popular [vote], much more chaotic.”
These changes could be in place in time for nationwide elections on September 13, ventured Martynov. “Like this time, there’ll be early voting over a week, there’ll be electronic voting, and, overall, there’ll be the minimum quantity of alternative candidates,” he said.
The Central Election Commission has not yet announced plans for the September elections, which, apart from State Duma by-elections, include votes on governorships, regional assemblies, and municipal councils. The region of Kuban, however, is considering adapting the constitutional-vote format for its own gubernatorial election.
Inadequate public information for voters was one shortcoming of the constitutional vote that does not yet appear to have been addressed. Details about the 206 amendments at polling stations visited by Current Time often appeared, at best, rudimentary.
“The majority of Russians know the amendments based on what they say in mass media,” commented Anastasia Nikolskaya, an assistant professor of psychology at Moscow’s state-run Kosygin University, who worked on an exit poll for the vote.
Topics such as the proposal to stop the clock on Putin’s presidential terms so that he can run for two more terms in 2024 and 2030 were omitted, she objected.
“That is, unfortunately, people don’t really understand that the state is playing with loaded dice,” Nikolskaya said.
The government emphasized “social amendments, conservative amendments, nationalist amendments” on topics ranging from indexing pensions to defining marriage as heterosexual and promoting Russian law to deflect attention from the key question of keeping Putin in power past 2024, reasoned Baunov.
Like customers in a state-run, Soviet grocery store, voters ultimately have been given “two items in short supply and five that nobody needs …” he added.
As yet, however, no clear agenda has been released for the government’s first post-vote move. When asked about “reforms” on July 2, presidential spokesman Peskov did not elaborate.
“Without a doubt, this requires legislative initiatives as well,” he said. “Therefore, work remains to be done.”
-This story also contains reporting from Izvestia, Kommersant, News.ru, and TASS.