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The Week In Russia: Plebiscites, Parades, And Opinion Polls

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a Victory Day parade in Moscow. This year, he has had to postpone the annual gala event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (file photo)

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Some people say that, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, everything's got to change. Others hope for a return to the way things were before -- or the way they think they were.

In some ways, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to belong to the second group. After delays of several weeks, from spring to early summer, he is pushing ahead with two key events: one that he may be counting on to boost his sagging popularity, and one that seems certain to hand him the option of seeking to stay in the Kremlin until 2036.

One is a parade, the other a plebiscite -- if that word can be used to describe a nationwide vote in a country where the state holds the cards. A referendum it is not, at least not formally, as it is not being held in full compliance with Russian legislation on referendums.

If the constitutional amendments put to a vote are approved, a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms will still apply to anyone else who eventually becomes president of Russia but not to Putin. He will be able to legally run for reelection in 2024 and again in 2030, if he chooses to do so.

On May 26, Putin set the date of the delayed parade -- normally held on May 9, when Russia marks the anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II -- for June 24. He ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that "risks for all its participants should be minimized -- or, better yet, eliminated."

Russian soldiers wearing protective face masks take part in a Victory Day parade rehearsal at a military airfield near Rostov-on-Don on June 4.
Russian soldiers wearing protective face masks take part in a Victory Day parade rehearsal at a military airfield near Rostov-on-Don on June 4.

On June 5, less than 20 days before the new date for the military parade, in which soldiers and cadets normally march shoulder to shoulder in Red Square and tanks, missiles, and other weapons trundle across the cobblestones, Russia reported more than 8,700 new COVID-19 cases. It brought the total number of infections close to 450,000, with more than 5,500 deaths, though there are doubts about the accuracy of the official figures.

Critics of Putin say that his order to Shoigu is also what he hopes to do when it comes to the outcome of the vote on constitutional amendments: minimize risks or eliminate them.

'The Timing's Not Great'

On June 1, Putin scheduled the vote for July 1 -- 10 weeks after the date originally planned, April 22. In the announcement, one can almost see little black shoeprints and arrows on the dance floor: It carried the air of careful choreography that accompanied the series of steps taken to set up the nationwide vote between January 15, when Putin's announced plans for constitutional amendments in an annual address, and March 25, when he postponed the balloting as it became increasingly clear that COVID-19 would not bypass Russia, which now has the third-highest official case count in the world.

While coronavirus cases have been rising, Putin's ratings have been falling.

In a survey conducted by the independent Levada Center in May, 25 percent of respondents named Putin when asked to name politicians they trust -- down by 10 percentage points from January and less than half the 59 percent who named Putin when Levada began asking the question in 2017.

An April poll by Levada showed Putin's job-approval rating at 59 percent, the lowest it has been since his first stint as prime minister in 1999.

"Vladimir Putin announces that the national vote on constitutional changes (that would allow him to run for 2 more terms in office) will take place on July 1st," Steve Rosenberg, a BBC correspondent long based in Moscow, wrote in a tweet after the announcement. "With his approval rating at a 20-year low, the timing isn't great."

The Kremlin, however, may fear it's not going to get much better soon, possibly calculating that the risk that things will only get worse -- things being the coronavirus, the economy, Putin's poll ratings, for the most part -- is too great to put off the vote until autumn or even midsummer.

'Ram It Through Now'

The July 1 date reflects either "reckless impatience" or "an awareness that things will get even worse (cv19, economy, public trust...) so better sooner than later," Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the British-based Royal United Services Institute, wrote in a Twitter thread.

"There is an economic as well as epidemiological cost" to holding the vote as the pandemic persists, and "no practical need to rush," he wrote, adding that "this looks like an interesting mark of a lack of confidence and optimism on the part of the Kremlin. Ram it through now, whatever it costs, whatever the impact, because there's no better time on the horizon."

A man in Barnaul earlier this year protests against Putin's bid to change Russia's constitution, holding a sign that reads: "No usurpation of power."
A man in Barnaul earlier this year protests against Putin's bid to change Russia's constitution, holding a sign that reads: "No usurpation of power."

Another Levada poll suggested that may not be too tall an order, particularly given the Kremlin's control over TV messaging, election commissions, and other levers of power nationwide.

In a May survey, 44 percent of respondents said that, if they voted, they would vote yes to the constitutional changes, while 32 percent said they would vote no.

But of those who said they would definitely or probably vote, the number in favor was 55 percent and the number opposed was 25 percent. And the number of respondents who said they would vote no to the amendments was highest -- 58 percent -- among those who said they would probably not vote or would definitely stay away.

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percent, according to Levada, which polled more than 1,600 adults across Russia on May 22-24.

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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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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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