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The Putin Constitution: How Will It Change Russia?

A Russian woman votes during early voting in a referendum on amendments to the Russian Constitution in Moscow on June 29.
A Russian woman votes during early voting in a referendum on amendments to the Russian Constitution in Moscow on June 29.

MOSCOW -- On the penultimate day of a weeklong vote on one of the biggest projects of his 20-year rule, a constitutional overhaul that comes with the option of seeking two more Kremlin terms, President Vladimir Putin went on Russian TV screens with a direct appeal to viewers.

"We are voting not only for constitutional changes," he said, backdropped by a newly unveiled monument to Soviet soldiers who died fighting in World War II. "We are voting for the country we want to live in."

In a three-minute speech, Putin twice reiterated that the changes would only be valid if a majority of those casting ballots voted for them. He neglected to mention the clause that allows him to dodge term limits and potentially remain president until 2036.

The June 30 speech was the first of Putin's many recent TV overtures to focus entirely on the constitutional changes, and perhaps his final chance to boost turnout ahead of the final day of balloting on July 1. The vote has been slammed by critics as a shameless power grab and boycotted by much of the opposition, and the changes criticized by constitutional scholars as contradictory.

"The constitutional amendments serve Putin's short-term political goals while enabling him to avoid any lame-duck status," William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian law and deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, told RFE/RL. "The retention of power, as opposed to any far-off historical legacy, appears to be the driving force."

In advancing his own version of the constitution, Putin -- who has been in power as Russian president or prime minister since 1999 -- follows a long tradition. Russia and the U.S.S.R. went through seven constitutions in the 20th century, with changes to the basic law made under Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Leonid Brezhnev, and again under Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russia that emerged from the Soviet collapse of 1991.

"Creating an essentially new constitution will make him a kind of founding father," Moscow-based political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann said of Putin, who as recently as 2018 proudly emphasized that he had never altered the constitution.

Putin's Constitutional Flip-Flop That Could Extend His Rule Until 2036
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But the ideas enshrined in Putin’s overhaul represent a conservative pivot from Russia's first post-Soviet constitution, adopted in 1993. Since the start of his third presidential term in 2012, Putin has styled himself as a staunch defender of what he terms Russia's "traditional values," including opposition to gay marriage, a championing of Russian Orthodox beliefs, and a denunciation of Western-style liberalism as both political model and blueprint for society.

'Preserving Uncertainty'

Those stances are reflected in the package of amendments that features over 200 changes -- ranging from clauses essentially precluding legalization of same-sex marriage to text obliging Russia to counter all attempts at "falsifying" its history. They enshrine faith in God as a core value bequeathed to Russians today by their ancestors, and elevate the ethnic Russian majority by designating Russian as "the language of the state-forming ethnicity" in what Putin himself has in the past stressed is a vast, multiethnic country with many tongues.

These and other proposed changes have featured in a relentless campaign by state TV and pro-Kremlin social-media channels to promote the plebiscite, from a slickly produced and overtly homophobic clip to street billboards featuring smiling Slavic couples with children and slogans about the defense of "family values."

"Quite a lot of ideas that seemed marginal and even extremist in the late '90s and early 2000s are now officially quite mainstream," Schulmann said.

Beyond signaling a conservative course for Russia, the amendments offer Putin an opportunity to keep people guessing about his political plans while giving him a very straightforward path to an extension of power that was blocked under the existing constitution. The changes hand him the option of running for two more terms, but circumscribe the powers of his eventual successor.

They make Putin immune from prosecution once he steps down and leave open other pathways to a continued grip on power, including a potential role on a reconstituted State Council -- a body that is now largely ceremonial but gets a boost from the amendments and may be further empowered by future legislation.

"The idea was not to create certainty, but to preserve uncertainty," Schulmann said.

How It Came Together

The Kremlin put the process in motion early. Putin made an announcement about proposed constitutional changes in a state-of-the-nation speech on January 15. On March 10, as the amendments were sailing through parliament, lawmaker Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, proposed what's called the "annulment" -- setting the number of terms Putin has served at zero, instead of four, and thus letting him seek two more.

The Constitutional Court swiftly upheld the legitimacy of that amendment and the rest, leaving no space for debate about their legality.

There was also plenty of evidence that the vote is a mere formality. At least two weeks before voting even began, bookshops across Moscow were selling copies of the Russian Constitution with the new amendments included. And since balloting commenced on June 25, Russian social media has been full of images showing ad hoc voting stations that had sprung up in car trunks and parked buses, on tree stumps and park benches, on soccer pitches and inside tents. Daily raffles have offered prizes to all who cast their ballot.

Tales of incompetence and chaos, all emerging since the process got under way, have exposed mounting evidence of what critics say are blatant loopholes in the voting process.

The shaky legal basis of the vote points to one such loophole. By calling it a "nationwide vote," the Kremlin was able to avoid the stringent requirements that Russian law places on referendums, including a minimum turnout and other conditions aimed at safeguarding against fraud and manipulation. With no legal precedent to follow, the government could avoid such restrictions and organize balloting as it saw fit.

"The option of a 'nationwide vote' was picked for the few strings attached to it," said Ben Noble, a lecturer on Russian politics at University College London. "This type of vote is not mentioned in the 1993 constitution, nor is it grounded solidly in Russian legislation."

Clouded Future?

But the absence of clear rules, while allowing the Kremlin to shape the process and possibly control the outcome, may make it harder down the line for Putin to portray the results of voting as an expression of the people's will.

Putin’s approval ratings have been steadily declining since his election to a fourth term in March 2018, pushed down by a deeply unpopular pension reform and falling real wages. Unlike the leaders of other countries hit hard by the coronavirus, Putin didn’t see a rally-round-the-flag effect after the pandemic began spreading across the country in March.

Instead, the public gave much of the credit to the regional leaders to whom Putin delegated the job of controlling the outbreak's spread, as he weathered criticism for first signalling that Russia would escape severe effects from COVID-19 and then retreating to his official residence outside Moscow and, for long stretches, out of public view.

A victory for Putin in the vote may ultimately prove pyrrhic, Schulmann said, predicting that it could accelerate the decline in his popularity. Even if many saw its conclusion, from the outset, as foregone.

By the morning of June 28, after four days of balloting and with Putin's speech and the main voting day still to come, the Central Election Commission reported turnout of 37.2 percent. A Russian woman living in Israel reported that she'd been able to vote three times, in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, and again online. At one Moscow polling station, a man was told that he and his entire family had already cast their votes -- despite insisting none of them had. A supervisor then seized the voter record, snapped it shut and told the man, "Prove it!"

"People think that de facto it's already over, that everything's been decided," Schulmann said. "And this is one of the most effective tools of governing -- to make people believe they can't change anything."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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