MOSCOW -- The office of the NO campaign is on the fifth floor of a building on Petrovka Street, up the road from Moscow’s police headquarters and across from the Prosecutor-General’s Office. A guard manning a turnstile in the lobby notes down the passport details of each visitor.
On the morning of July 1, volunteers milled around its sunlit rooms preparing to inspect Moscow’s polling stations on the final day of a weeklong vote on constitutional changes that will give President Vladimir Putin a chance to rule until 2036, resetting the term limits that previously obliged him to step down in 2024.
Along one wall were piles of posters and stickers calling on Russian voters to deprive Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, of that opportunity. “Eternal Putin?” one read. “No. Don’t let yourself be deceived.”
Putin’s government seemingly pulled out all the stops to get out the vote, revving its vast bureaucracy into high gear to boost turnout and ensure a veneer of legitimacy for a quasi-referendum few saw as free and fair. In Moscow, against a bureaucratic machine with unlimited resources, the small group manning the Petrovka office represents almost the extent of the opposition campaign.
The group is affiliated with Open Russia, an organization founded by exiled Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose prosecution, and decade in prison on financial-crimes charges he denies, are among the hallmarks of Putin’s long rule. Russian authorities blacklisted it as an “undesirable organization” in 2017. On June 25, when voting began, its branches in St. Petersburg and Moscow began handing out the campaign paraphernalia to like-minded visitors, who plastered it around town.
Other members of the group have travelled across both cities interviewing people at polling stations and working to compile accurate statistics on turnout and voter preference, distrusting official results in a plebiscite shorn of many of the rules that would normally govern such a vote.
“There’s an aggressive campaign for the changes, and an unofficial clampdown on any campaign against them,” Sergei Vlasov, a campaign coordinator and a legislator for Moscow’s Pechatniki district.
But Vlasov and his fellow activists cannot claim to represent all of Russia’s opposition, which for years has been divided over key issues, squabbling sometimes bitterly over strategy, tactics, and other matters as the government it seeks to replace works relentlessly to discredit it.
Yabloko, a small liberal party, has urged its supporters to vote against Putin’s constitutional changes, and the Communist Party, which usually toes the Kremlin line, has staged an anodyne campaign against them. But opposition forces that have organized anti-government protests in the past have sent out mixed messages. And the main point of contention is whether people should take part in the vote, or whether it’s best to dismiss the whole thing as a farce.
Aleksei Navalny, Putin’s most vocal and influential critic in Russia, voiced preference for a boycott of the vote but did not come down hard on either side. In a Twitter post on June 13, he said a messy public discussion of the opposition’s strategy ahead of the vote is exactly “what the Kremlin wants.”
Navalny’s message was simple. The constitutional changes would pass regardless, and the opposition’s main task was to enlighten others about what he and other critics contend was Putin’s only real goal: adoption of the amendment allowing him to run for two more six-year terms.
“Explain patiently to everyone around you that the changes have already been approved and their aim is to reset Putin’s term limits. That destroys the [approval] rating of the usurper and undermines the foundations of his rule,” he wrote.
Many in the opposition have been unimpressed by Navalny’s stance, not least members of the NO campaign, who sought to ensure the highest possible turnout among Russians who are opposed to the changes.
“It’s a question of tactics,” said Tatyana Usmanova, a NO campaign coordinator who is employed by Open Russia. “I’m disappointed that Aleksei [Navalny] has chosen the boycott, because he has a major support base and if they all went and voted “no,” then that vote would score even higher.”
Vlasov agrees. He cast it as a moral choice between speaking out by voting against and making a stand by ignoring all political initiatives endorsed by Putin. But he lamented the fact that his opponents had not united around a single course of action.
“Everyone’s against the changes, the constitutional overhaul, and most certainly against Putin’s eternal rule. But there’s no consensus over how to act,” he said.
By the afternoon of July 1, as the vote was drawing to a close, the NO campaign said it had recorded clear majorities among the people it interviewed in Russia’s two biggest cities against the constitutional overhaul: 51.3 percent in Moscow and 61.3 percent in St. Petersburg. That suggested a stark contrast with partial, preliminary official results pointing to a resounding victory for Putin’s political project.
But many of those volunteers had been emphatically urged by police to vacate the vicinity of polling stations, Vlasov said, and others met indifference or even hostility from voters they approached.
NO campaign activists also gathered on Moscow’s central Pushkin Square in the evening, pressing their case as the hours and minutes ticked toward the end of a vote that has been marred by multiple claims of fraud.
In the end, with no illusions about the vote’s ultimate official outcome, Vlasov said the NO campaign is gearing up to fight another day -- and gradually gathering new supporters disenchanted with Putin’s rule.
“I think we win every time we’re joined by new people who have made conclusions about this system. The size of the political force capable of uniting and working together is constantly growing,” he said. “A defeat now may well be victory in the long run.”