July 10, 2020

Putin’s plebiscite


Russia continues its political theater with the latest sham referendum held on June 25 through July 1, with proposed constitutional amendments that open the possibility for President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule – which began when he was appointed as prime minister in 1999 – until 2036.

Andrew Higgins of The New York Times on July 1 called the vote “an elaborate spectacle of public affirmation” that “was vital to [Mr. Putin’s] legitimacy.” (“The Theatrical Method in Putin’s Vote Madness,” The New York Times, July 1, 2020). Early polling results showed that nearly three-quarters of the votes were in favor of the change.

However, it remained unclear why the referendum needed the public’s stamp of approval, if Russia’s parliamentarians and regional lawmakers had already approved the move months ago. Experts claimed that it was a step that Mr. Putin needed in order to keep up the appearance of legitimacy, to follow the letter of the law as he violates the spirit or the heart of the law (as demonstrated by the role swap between himself and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who assumed the role of president in 2008-2012). Pandering to the public, as if their vote mattered, Mr. Putin appealed to the voters that this step was vital, regardless of the rubber stamp approval by lawmakers.

Golos, the independent election-monitoring organization in Russia, denounced the vote as rigged from the start. There was no opposition campaign prior to the vote, and the move was seen as a continuance of the Soviet legacy credited to Stalin, whereby it is not important who votes, but who counts the votes. Two weeks before the vote, bookstores in Russia offered for sale new copies of the Constitution with the new amendments already included, thus underscoring the foregone conclusion of the vote.

Voters with illegally issued Russian passports in Russia-annexed Crimea and in the Russia-occupied parts of the Donbas were “encouraged” to vote as well. Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has condemned the vote and said that, based on these facts, the vote should be deemed illegitimate by the international community. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine considers statements by the Russian occupying administration about its intentions to ensure the voting of residents of the occupied territories of the Donbas with illegally issued Russian passports in a Russian referendum on amendments to the Constitution as another attempt to violate the state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the ministry said in a comment on June 19, 2020.

The Washington-based Atlantic Council held an online discussion on July 6 titled “Russia’s new czar? The aftermath of the Russian constitutional referendum,” (https://youtu.be/ImQNLNip7UM). Lilia Shevtsova of the Liberal Mission Foundation in Moscow called the vote a “watershed moment” that crowned Mr. Putin’s leadership legacy for another generation, hoped to convince the populace that his removal from power would unravel the state, and was an example of “suicidal statecraft.”

In the same discussion, Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, said the vote was a plebiscite, as called by Mr. Putin and in accordance with Russian law, but it did not qualify as a referendum in the liberal-democratic sense. What made this latest vote different, Mr. Kara-Murza noted, was that in previous elections at least the sentiment of the people was measurable as compared to the official results. This time, there was no way to measure the true sentiment of the people, and outside observers were prevented from discovering anything contradictory. The only European or international observers allowed were from parties, many with right-wing political affiliation, that have received support and approval from the Russian government.

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, said that the election showed Mr. Putin’s weakness. Many of his allies within the state apparatus, as well as Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, were utilized to urge the people to go to the polls.

The move also demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the state under Mr. Putin’s leadership, Mr. McFaul said, adding that there are no new political parties emerging or a new crop of party leaders being groomed to take the reins. The former envoy also cited a collapse in approval ratings as a motivating factor for Mr. Putin, who is nervous about this shift in public opinion.

Despite these events, there aren’t any visible signs of building momentum in Russia for a public uprising to remove Mr. Putin from power, or widespread protests as we saw in 2011 and 2012. Similarly, we are not seeing any statements of condemnation of the vote from President Donald Trump, who has remained largely silent on criticizing Russia’s leader, though his administration has responded to Russia’s escalating military threats with increased actions.

We urge the leaders of the free world not to validate Mr. Putin’s regime based on some false hope of reconciliation or a reset of relations. The strategy for the future, Mr. McFaul underscored, needs to focus on containment, while, to a lesser extent, there should be engagement in areas of common national interest, highlighting that the contention is with the Russian state under Mr. Putin, not the Russian people.