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The Week In Russia: COVID-19, The Constitution, And A Bitter Anniversary For Crimean Tatars

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks next to a Russian coat of arms at the Kalanchyovskaya railway station in Moscow on March 19.
A woman wearing a protective face mask walks next to a Russian coat of arms at the Kalanchyovskaya railway station in Moscow on March 19.

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The Constitutional Court jumped through hoops to give an amendment that could keep President Vladimir Putin in power until 2036 a clean bill of health, while the coronavirus could hand a real-life test to a Kremlin often focused on imagery and optics. And the anniversary of Russia's takeover of their homeland shone a grim spotlight on Moscow's treatment of Crimean Tatars.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

The Constitution And The Coronavirus

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes.

In Russia this season, the same could probably be said of the coronavirus and the constitution – two things that, maybe more than any others, have been at the forefront of the news and seem certain to stay there for weeks at least, possibly months or more.

Often, they seem to go hand in hand, mentioned in almost the same breath: "Neither goes anywhere without the other," the newspaper Kommersant quipped the other day.

That's in part because they could influence each other. Well, not exactly. It's unlikely that the Russian Constitution, or the amendments that President Vladimir Putin is pushing through, could change the situation with COVID-19, which by March 20 had sickened more than 250 people in Russia

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But the coronavirus could complicate Putin's plans for the constitutional changes, one of which would allow him to seek a fifth presidential term in 2024, if he chooses, and a sixth in 2030.

With the number of Russian cases rising, along with suspicions that the official statistics do not correspond with reality, as they say, the prospect of holding a nationwide vote to seal Putin's new deal with the country could be causing jitters in the Kremlin.

To Vote Or Not To Vote

So far, Putin is doing what he normally does: moving forward as far he can, while leaving in place the option of retreat or a halt -- a pause to await the next opening. (For an example of how that can work, look at the front lines in eastern Ukraine: Russia-backed forces did not push westward beyond the Donbas a few years ago, when it seemed like they might, but they still hold a sizable chunk of Ukrainian land and two regional capitals.)

On March 17, Putin decreed that the nationwide vote will go ahead on April 22 -- unless it doesn't. He left that possibility open, saying that it could be postponed "if the situation requires."

Authorities are also making arrangements to allow people to vote from home, a method that Kremlin critics say increases the opportunities for the authorities to engage in ballot-stuffing and other falsifications. There is little doubt about the result, but a low turnout would undermine Putin's mandate to rule for years to come.

The vote will be the final step in a process that began just two months ago, when Putin submitted some of what ended up being about 390 proposed changes in the wording of the 1993 constitution. The amendment that now seems most important -- and that some suspect was the whole point of all the others -- was not added until former cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova proposed it in a closely choreographed appeal in the State Duma, the lower parliament house, on March 10.

Putin swiftly gave his consent to the change, speeding to the Duma for a kind of acceptance speech in which he said that the "annulment" amendment -- which would allow him to run again by resetting his term count at zero, instead of the four he has in fact served -- must only be added if the Constitutional Court ruled that it did not violate the existing constitution.

There's Democracy And Then There's Democracy

There was never any doubt that the court would give the "annulment" amendment a clean bill of constitutional health, of course, so the formal reasoning behind its ruling is beside the point. But it's worth reading -- as a source of black humor, perhaps, and a yet another window into the ways of the ruling class in a country where the head of the lower house of parliament said the other day that Putin -- not Russia's abundant reserves of oil and gas -- is the country's "advantage," its greatest asset.

Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Vyacheslav Volodin also seemed to offer his own opinion -- or a hint -- about whether Putin will take advantage of the opportunity he is giving himself to run for president again and again, saying that the former KGB officer had "grabbed Russia from the point of no return and assumed a responsibility that would remain with him for life."

In its ruling, the Constitutional Court said something pretty similar to that, in some ways. Setting presidential term limits is a question of seeking a "balance between different constitutional values," it said -- and went on to contrast one of those values, democracy, with another, narodovlastiye, which can be translated as democracy.

Dropping the Greek roots and perhaps the gravity they convey, though, it can also be translated as people power, and the court seemed to imply, somehow, that democracy is worth little or nothing compared to people power.

"On one hand, the constitutional characteristics of a democratic, law-based state suggest…quite firm restrictions" on presidential terms, it said. "On the other hand, the constitutional principle of narodovlastiye implies the realization of the people's right to elect…the individual they consider most worthy of the office of the head of state."

In other words, if the people want Putin to stay, sure -- it's totally fine.

But do they?

In the midst of the push for constitutional change, but before the amendment allowing him to run again was proposed, a poll by the independent Levada Center showed that Russians' trust in President Vladimir Putin has fallen sharply in the past two years, dropping to its lowest level since 2013.

President Or Pensioner?

A survey by the same pollster in late January found that 27 percent of Russians wanted Putin to remain president past 2024, while 32 percent responded that he should be a pensioner, a private individual, or out of the public sphere -- a proportion that Levada director Lev Gudkov said "came as a surprise."

"The increase in fatigue among people is visible," Gudkov was quoted as saying.

The Constitutional Court went on to say that with the balance between democracy and, um, democracy as a backdrop, legislators addressing the issue of term limits can also take into account "concrete historical factors" including "the degree of threats to the state and society" as well as "the state of the political and economic system" and more.

Translation, perhaps: Rules are made to be broken, and new ones can be made up when times are tough.

Of course, Kremlin critics argue that the idea that Putin must remain in power to protect Russia from threats, or because the difficult economic or political situation makes change too risky, are evidence not of the need to keep him in power but of the opposite: that he has failed, over 20 years as president or prime minister, to make the country safe stable, and successful.

Many analysts reject the idea -- put forward by pundits and others in the Kremlin's orbit -- that concerns about external factors and uncertainty in global affairs pushed Putin to give himself the option of staying on as president far into the future.

Such rejections are far from guesswork: During two decades at the helm, Putin has repeatedly pointed to alleged threats from abroad when taking action that is widely seen as aimed at consolidating power, weakening opponents at home, and addressing perceived threats from within. Case in point: Moves that critics said curtailed democracy in Russia following terror attacks blamed largely on foreigners in 2004.


The coronavirus pandemic, however, could potentially shape up as a real-life test like none Putin has faced before. He is armed with a massive arsenal for optics and image-making, but COVID-19 could test the limits of opinion-shaping tools such as state TV.

In fact, fast-changing circumstances over the past several days have already revealed signs that the authorities are struggling not just with already strained health-care facilities and emergency responses but with how -- or whether -- to release information about the impact of the coronavirus on Russia.

On March 19, Russia reported its first death from COVID-19 -- and then unreported it. The Moscow health department at first said that a 79-year-old woman who had tested died from pneumonia related to the virus, and city Mayor Sergei Sobyanin confirmed "the first loss from the coronavirus infection." Later the same day, though, health officials said an autopsy showed that she died from a blood clot.

As for propaganda, one prominent victim of the coronavirus is 20 Questions For Vladimir Putin, a series of interviews -- meant to be Internet-friendly and appealing to young people -- that have enabled him to air his stated views, positions, and musings in the highly controlled format of interviews with TASS, one of Russia's two major state news agencies.

TASS said on March 20 that the serial release of the interviews, which began in late February, would be halted and the rest of the episodes shown in full, all together, at a later date.

The decision was made due to "cardinal changes in the news agenda, which goes against the idea of the project -- an attempt to evaluate together with Putin the changes in the country over the last 20 years -- and not current events," TASS said. Possible translation: There's no point sitting around making jibes at foreign countries and reshaping Russia's past if you want to look like a leader working hard for the people in the present.

Benjamin Franklin made his remark about the certainty of death, taxes, and nothing else in the world in a 1789 letter to a Frenchman about the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, which he said "has an appearance that promises permanency."

Meanwhile, In Crimea

The Kommersant quip about the Russian Constitution and the coronavirus being fellow travelers of a kind came in an article about Putin's visit to Crimea on March 18, the date the Kremlin counts as the day the Black Sea peninsula became part of Russia -- a claim rejected by most of the world -- in 2014.

For many Crimean Tatars, the seizure of their homeland marked the second time in 70 years that their fate and future had been wrenched out of their own hands by Moscow, and the start of a kind of isolation that contains none of the potential tranquility of self-quarantine.

Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries. Since then, rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Moscow's takeover of the peninsula.

In a 2018 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said that "[in] Russian-occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will."

'This Will Not Be Over In A Day, A Week, Or A Month'

One Crimean Tatar behind bars is Seiran Saliyev, who was arrested in October 2017 and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted of terrorism and attempting to violently overthrow the government, charges he says are groundless. His trial is being held in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Russian authorities "are charging people who have lived and practiced their religion in Crimea for more than 20 years -- it is completely illegal," Saliyev's wife, activist Mumine Saliyeva, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview.

Saliyeva said that, in her eyes, the campaign against opponents of Russian rule came in February 2014, shortly before the takeover.

"But the first blow aimed specifically at the Crimean Tatars came on March 3, when Reshat Ametov held a one-person protest. Later he was found mutilated. A person who did nothing but express his opinion was found dead, brutally murdered," she said. "Of course, that frightened everyone, and they understood that this would not be over in a day, a week, or a month."

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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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About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, 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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