The official returns on Russia's plebiscite on constitutional amendments showed a solid block of "yes" votes across the nation for a package of changes that, first and foremost, allow President Vladimir Putin to seek a 12-year extension of his reign.
That is, except for the northwestern Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO) -- the littlest of all of Russia's regions in terms of population -- which stood out on electoral maps as the lone territorial voice of dissent.
The numbers in the sparsely populated, oil-dependent territory -- where there is strong resistance to plans to merge with the Arkhangelsk and Komi regions, two neighboring regions in the Northwestern Federal District -- were not kind to the proposals.
According to preliminary results of the weeklong vote reported on July 2, 55.25 percent of NAO voters checked "no" on their ballots, which gave the option only of approving or rejecting the package of amendments in its entirety.
Turnout was relatively low, with fewer than 22,000 of the autonomous district's just under 37,500 eligible voters casting ballots. Of them, 12,074 voted against the proposed amendments, with 9,567 in favor.
If there was a trend to be found it was that support for the measures was lowest in more remote areas. Second to Nenets Autonomous Okrug was the Far Northern and oil- and natural gas-rich region of Yakutia, where just over 40 percent of voters chose "no." In third place was Kamchatka in the Far East, with just over 37 percent voting against the package. The southern Far East subject of Khaborovsk came in at just under 37 percent opposed, as did the Magadan region.
The Kremlin unofficially brushed off the results, with the Interfax news agency quoting an unnamed source close to Putin's administration as saying that it was not "dramatizing" the situation and noting that majorities in 17 regions voted against Russia's post-Soviet constitution when it was adopted in 1993.
Nationwide, the package of amendments was supported by nearly 78 percent of voters, with turnout of 65 percent, according to the Central Election Commission, though opponents of Putin say the figure is not credible.
Some areas -- such as Chechnya, headed by Kremlin-backed strongman and vocal Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Siberian region of Tyva, where longtime Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu comes from, both around 97 percent "yes" -- were overwhelmingly in favor of the amendments, according to the official results.
In addition to making it possible for Putin to remain in office for another two terms, until 2036, the package included constitutional changes defining marriage as between a man and a woman, describing "belief in God" as a core national value, and calling Russian "the language of the state-forming ethnicity."
Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova declined to comment on why NAO residents might have been against the amendments, but told Interfax on July 2 that the results "speak to the accuracy of the vote count."
Some observers in Russia, such as economics analyst Ivan Tkachyov, wondered if the negative result might be due to public discontent in the energy-dependent region following the recent crash of global oil prices.
No Urge To Merge?
However, to Valery Fedeyev, who is seen as a Putin loyalist and heads the presidential advisory council on civil society and human rights, the reason NAO voted against was "clear."
"Apparently the residents of this district don't want to merge with anyone, so it became a protest vote," he told a meeting of the quasi-government Public Chamber on July 2.
There has been strong resistance to plans to merge the Nenets region with the Arkhangelsk region -- its relatively impoverished neighbor to the north and southwest that has administrative jurisdiction over the NAO -- and Komi, which lies to the south.
The plan was announced by the governors of Arkhangelsk and the NAO in May, and shortly afterward a working group set up to oversee the merger proposed adding Komi, too.
But public outcry in the NAO, which has a wealth of oil and natural gas and is one of Russia's richest regions per capita, put the idea of holding a vote on the issue in September on hold.
The NAO is one of only four autonomous districts -- the others being Chukotka, Yamalo-Nenets, and Khanty-Mansi -- to have survived the government's effort to eliminate them through mergers during Putin's first two terms as president.
Many in the 42,000-strong NAO want to preserve that autonomy, and among their reasons have cited concerns about the timing of the move amid the coronavirus pandemic, the loss of higher status compared to other regions, and fears that it could clear the way for indigenous languages to be watered down.
Ethnic minorities have expressed concern that the new constitutional wording granting the Russian language special status will lead to the further marginalization of indigenous tongues.
An online petition on Change.org had garnered more than 2,500 signatures in opposition to the merger plan as of July 2.
In conceding just two weeks after announcing the merger plan that the idea needed more thought, NAO acting head Yury Bezdudny said in early June that "the general position is this: such a serious issue needs to be worked out, and there is no need to be hasty."