From June 25th to July 1st, Russia underwent President Putin’s latest referendum, which called the population to vote for or against the approval of a series of constitutional amendments. With an overbearing majority of 77%, President Putin marked yet another questionable milestone in his political career: the ability to overrule Russia’s constitutional term limits established in 1993 and remain in power for another 16 years at least. However, many were astounded to see that President Putin even bothered to run a general vote, which only served to somehow publicly legitimise what the Russian Parliament had already ruled in his favour months before. This does nothing other than confirm that the referendum was a carefully staged play, where the government pulled all the strings.
While the result looks like a victory from afar, what the Kremlin has done to achieve this is another story. With a series of campaign advertisements on state-controlled television news channels and recognised figures like Alexey Navalny, a prominent Kremlin opponent, calling the vote a “huge lie”, the referendum has been nothing but tainted with fraud from the very beginning. But what exactly does the vote entail for the Russian people? And what does it tell us about Russia´s seemingly anti-democratic political systems?
Aside from the obvious goal of keeping President Putin in power indefinitely, the amendments come as an attempt from the government to return to old-fashioned family values and views of cultural identity, which also emphasize the right to defend Russian history. For instance, the recently approved amendments would allow the government to ban same-sex marriage, which the Russian parliament has already started setting in motion just two weeks ago. With the approval of the amendments, the Constitution would now describe marriage as “the union between a man and a woman.” The prohibition would also reportedly extend to other members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This is why it comes as no shock that Putin’s campaign leading up to the voting days seemed to adopt a “divide and conquer” approach by appealing to more conservative voters. For example, in a now deleted video posted by the Federal News Agency, it’s clear how the campaign inspired homophobic views. The video featured a gay couple meeting their adoptive son for the first time. One of them introduces his partner to the child as his “new mother”, who at the same time presents the child with a dress, much to the shock of the orphanage staff. The video then poses the question: “Will you choose such a Russia?”andfinally urging voters to choose in favour of the amendments. The video is clearly one that appeals not only to the voters’ personal feelings on “traditional family values” but also to a sense of patriotism. Moreover, just a day before the election, Putin addressed the country in front of a monument that honors soviet soldiers lost in WWII, compelling voters to believe that voting yes is a matter of national pride.
The referendum has also been widely criticized for its suspicious procedures and lack of non-controlled state agencies to monitor the election. To give an example, the results released by the Central Election Commission (CEC), believed to be controlled by the Kremlin, published the results hours before the polls closed in Moscow. This strategy even draws similarities to President Putin’s 2018 re-election, where he won with only three quarters of the votes counted. So, what does this tell us about the President’s intentions? Whether it is the amendments alone or the manipulative propaganda that has taken over broadcast stations, this fundamental change to the Russian constitution is sending a clear message to the world of Russia’s plans to distance itself even further from Western values and democratic practices.
The pandemic has also posed unprecedented opportunities for undemocratic methods. With still more than 7,000 Covid-19 cases reported every day, the current health and economic crisis that affects the country has placed many voters in vulnerable positions, making it easy for the government to approach prominent figures in the media or enterprises who went on to extort employees to vote. A New York Times article describes how Golos, an independent election-monitoring organisation, obtained a recording of Ludmyla Savinkina, editor-in-chief of the Russian television station Yegoryevsk Today, in which she is not only heard ordering her staff to vote but emphasized that those who didn’t faced severe consequences: “I’m just warning you… Everyone can lose jobs, bonuses -and this amid a pandemic, when many people have already lost their jobs.”
Moreover, with the pandemic setting challenges for both Russians and the international community, Putin has seen an opportunity to stretch his dominance without much resistance. An article published by UCL´s student newspaper, Pi Media, shows how the pandemic has seen a rise in world leaders trying to gain more power by passing emergency laws. In the same article, the Economist’s editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, raises an important question: “What does this mean for proponents of limited government and individual liberty?” For the Russian people it could mean a severe loss in fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and opinion. It only takes a glimpse at Putin’s campaign to see that the government has grabbed hold of the media, businesses and public institutions by the horns. In such circumstances, to what extent can we still call this a legitimate vote?
While Putin could perhaps denominate this a victory, the referendum has certainly not passed unnoticed. Many Russians took to social media to protest posting NYET (No), on their platforms. Marina Litvinovich, a supporter of the movement even told CNN that the polls in Moscow and St Petersburg showed that around half of the voters did not approve the reforms.
Overall, the referendum seems to have had all the elements of a Broadway play: the stage, the actors, well thought out monologues to convey messages to the audience, and finally a swarm of applause at the very end. However, it’s safe to conclude that while achieving his desired outcome, President Putin is probably facing a severe loss in legitimacy in the eyes of both the Russian people and the international community. Whether Russians will find the strength to demand a new vote after the crisis, only time will tell.
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