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The Week In Russia: Landslide Leaves Putin And The People On Shaky Ground

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his vote at a polling station at the Russian Academy of Sciences on July 1.
Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his vote at a polling station at the Russian Academy of Sciences on July 1.

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The Kremlin has claimed victory after a landslide vote for constitutional changes that could enable Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain president until 2036. But the process leaves him on shakier ground than before, in terms of perceived legitimacy, and exposes the Russian people to the whims of the state and its security apparatus under a constitution one analyst said is now “meaningless.”

On the surface, a “yes” vote of nearly 78 percent sounds like a ringing endorsement of Putin and the constitutional amendments he advocated.

But for millions of Russians who voted “no,” something rings wrong. And observers say the landslide leaves Putin standing on shaky ground, at least in terms of his perceived legitimacy, and leaves the Russian people stranded on a more barren and brutal landscape than ever, exposed to the whims of the state and its security apparatus by a constitution one analyst said is now so contradictory it has “ceased to exist.”

Putin can claim victory, of course, and did so shortly after the full results were announced by the Central Electoral Commission on July 2, thanking voters for their “support and trust” – two things opinion polls show have declined during his current term – at a meeting of a Kremlin agency that handles veterans and the “patriotic upbringing of citizens” and happens to be called Victory.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was less subtle, saying that “what took place was in essence a de facto triumphal referendum on trust in President Putin.”

And to hammer that narrative home, the Twitter account of state news agency RIA Novosti’s Kremlin pool reporters, which often acts as more of a cheerleader for Putin than a source of unbiased reporting on his doings – posted a list showing that the proportion of “yes” votes in the weeklong balloting was higher than Putin received in any of his four presidential elections -- in 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2018.

The state news agency’s tweet ended with “2024 - ?” – a mischievous wink presumably meant to suggest that those close to Putin know that he will in fact do what he now has the legal right to do -- run for reelection when his current term runs out -- even though he insists he has not yet decided.

Win Or Lose

Amid the Kremlin celebrations of a triumph for Putin, after weeks during which state officials had studiously avoided casting the nationwide vote as being about the president or the amendment allowing him to seek two more six-year terms, critics – citing evidence of fraud, among other things, called it a hollow victory or no victory at all.

A result above 70 percent is a triumph “in an election, even a manipulated or unfair one, or in a referendum, even if it is forced upon voters,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst who advised Putin for years and left the Kremlin in 2011, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

“But in a plebiscite on trust, one in which everything that could be faked was faked, it is a flop – a deafening failure,” Pavlovsky said.

Delayed by the coronavirus, the vote still came less than six months after Putin proposed the constitutional amendments – some of them, that is – in a national address on January 15. It was not until March 10 that the amendment erasing Putin’s four presidential terms and thus allowing him to seek two more without violating terms limits was added, in a closely choreographed parliament session.

While there had been hints for a few months, the move came as a surprise for some of those who had looked on and listened as Putin had suggested repeatedly, over the years, that he would not alter the constitution to extend his time in the Kremlin.

A woman holds a poster reading "July 1. Boycott Of Putin's Amendments!" during a protest in St. Petersburg on July 1.
A woman holds a poster reading "July 1. Boycott Of Putin's Amendments!" during a protest in St. Petersburg on July 1.

Once that proposal was out there, though, it because impossible to unsee it or to see much of anything else around it: the Cheshire cat’s mocking grin against a background of empty air. Many observers maintain that the amendment allowing Putin to seek two more terms was the main -- if not the sole -- purpose of the constitutional changes, with the other 200-plus alterations serving as mere window-dressing.

Peskov’s remarks about the “referendum on trust” seemed to strengthen that argument, and so did Putin’s first public comments after the vote.

Time After Time

"Thank you very much for your support and trust," Putin said, abruptly casting the vote as a sign of backing for him personally. Then he added what sounded like an argument – after the fact -- for giving him a chance to seek six more years as president – or 12.

“We must not forget…in historical terms, very little time has passed since the downfall and collapse of the Soviet Union, and modern Russia is doubtless still in the formative stage. This applies to all aspects of our lives: the political system, the economy, and so forth,” he said, adding: “We need internal stability and time to strengthen the country and all of its institutions.”

To critics, it sounded like an awfully strange argument, coming from someone who has held so much power for so long.

“Putin demanded Russians give him ‘time to strengthen the country’!” Kira Yarmysh, the spokeswoman for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, wrote on Twitter.

“20 years! This person has been in power 20 years. All these years he has been telling us how great things will be sometime later. In reality, everything has gone to ruin over this time, from roads to hospitals. People have become impoverished. The world is turning away from us,” Yarmysh tweeted. “But Putin needs TIME.”

'The Saddest Day'

Other critics, meanwhile, maintain that the amendments Putin has pushed through gravely damage one of the bulwarks of post-Soviet Russia – the constitution adopted in 1993, two years after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. -- rather than strengthening it.

“The saddest day in modern Russian history,” Irina Borogan, an investigative journalist and co-author of a book on the rise of the Russian security services under former KGB officer Putin, wrote on Twitter on July 1.

“After the vote for the Constitution amendments Russia became China politically, and we lost all the legacy of the new democracy that had emerged in 1991.”

Georgy Satarov, a political analyst who helped create Russia’s constitution, told Current Time that the amended version contains numerous contradictions that make it “a meaningless document.”

The contradictions stem in part from the fact that in order to avoid a far more onerous process, Putin’s proposal left the fundamental first two sections of the constitution intact while making more than 200 changes in the subsequent chapters – some of which seem to undermine, at the very least, the basic principles closer to the top.

The first two sections of the constitution, for example, say that Russia is a secular state and guarantee freedom of religion, equality among faiths, and the right “to profess no religion at all.” Wording in a new amendment describes “belief in God” as a core national value bequeathed to Russians today by their ancestors.

And while the second section says that the state must guarantee equal rights and freedoms “regardless of sex, race, nationality, language” and other categories, the new version – among other things -- seems to elevate ethnic Russians by stating that Russian is “the language of the state-forming” group and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The constitution “is losing its logical force, and thus its legal force. And this means that the constitution in the normal sense simply no longer exists,” said Satarov, director of the Moscow think tank INDEM. “And when the constitution ceases to exist, one thing remains: power.”

The “main result” of the vote securing adoption of the constitutional amendments is that proizvol – a word that can be translated as lawlessness, excess, or arbitrary rule by those who hold power -- “will become limitless,” Satarov said. “Proizvol will become the new main rule of existence of this regime.”

Soldiering On

Other commentators also warned that there will be fewer protections for the people, whether opposed to Putin or politically neutral, and enhanced power for the “siloviki” – the hard-liners in law enforcement, security, and intelligence whose clout has grown substantially under Putin.

Before the weeklong vote, U.S.-based political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra wrote that while major protests may not erupt, “growing doubts about the acquiescence of public servants and civil leaders in Russia will almost certainly lead to a growing clout of the security elite.”

“The role of the super-loyal people around Putin and in the Kremlin, people who call themselves ‘loyal soldiers,’ will increase,” Kirill Martynov, political editor at the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, told Current Time.

Martynov said that far from a triumph, the result was a “terrible blow” for the authorities.

“Milllions of people spoke out decisively against the current political situation, against the course set by the current Russian authorities. And nobody will be able to say that this is a marginal group of enemies, agents of the West, and so forth,” he said.

But those surrounding Putin will be able to tell him that he scored an unprecedented win, Martynov said, predicting that “the rift between the president and the country will only grow wider.”

Red Lines

Putin went with a nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments because he wanted legitimacy for a move that crossed “a red line that he has been reluctant to cross before,” Aleksandr Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of its website, tweeted on July 1.

“It is clear that he is violating both the letter and the spirit of the existing law” by pushing for the right to run for two more six-year terms,” Baunov wrote. “Beyond this red line is a vacuum of legitimacy.”

In a July 2 article in The Spectator headlined “Putin’s Referendum Rigging Is A Sign Of Weakness,” analyst and author Mark Galeotti wrote that “Putin has his result” – but that he damaged his legitimacy in obtaining it, and that he might come to regret the whole thing.

Putin sought to secure the right to seek reelection because “he has become increasingly concerned that the idea he would leave office in 2024 generates an unwanted – and to him, dangerous – search for a successor, while making him a lame duck.”

“The constitutional changes give him options, as he can stay or go as he pleases, but all is intended to stop this obsession with 2024,” Galeotti wrote.

“Here’s the other irony, though. To consolidate his position and stifle talk of succession, Putin has undermined his own legitimacy and alienated his own elite,” Galeotti added. “Someday he may feel this was too big a price to pay.”

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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