Putin's plebiscite: another victory or a sign of trouble?
Photo: Billboards across Russia advertise the 2020 constitutional referendum initiated by Vladimir Putin. Kirill Zykov / Moskva News Agency
On July, 1, the ultimate “popular vote” on the amendments to the Russian constitution is set to take place. Proposed in two distinct “bundles” in January and March this year, these amendments instigated a highly polarized reaction within the Russian society as their major impact will be to entitle President Putin to get elected for two further presidential terms after 2024. This change, which is technically not even an amendment but rather a commentary to one of the constitutional sentences to be amended, was dubbed “Tereshkova’s amendment”: the fact that the world’s first woman cosmonaut who has been long holding a parliamentary seat, first in the USSR’s Supreme Council and then in Russian Duma, was the one to propose a legally dubious and unpopular amendment has come to symbolize the increasing sense of absurdity the country has found itself into by the late 2010s. The term used to describe this dramatic U-turn, “annulation" (or in Russian, “obnulenie”) of the previous presidential terms' count and hypothetical recount from zero in 2024, only strengthened this gloomy impression.
The gist of the other amendments fits well within the pattern of “sovereign democracy” coined by Moscow’s once chief ideologue Surkov and widely used by the Russian elites ever since. For example, they contain the clause confirming primacy of the Russian law over international one, and would require the decisions of the international courts to be approved by the Russian Constitutional Court in order to be implemented. There are also rather vague references to the status of the Russian language, “multinational state-founding people of Russia”, the special clause that limits the concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman (to exclude a possibility of legalising homosexual marriages), as well as some populist pledges about ensuring economic development and welfare as core functions of the state. On the other hand, the amendments include a number of “technical” changes which reshuffle some of the powers both of the President and legislature, without any singular pattern. These ones, given the strong personalization of the Russian politics in the recent years, can hardly be given a strictly political assessment: there is no guarantee that ascribing the power of approving the Prime Minister and all federal ministers to the State Duma will de-facto enhance its political weight in contemporary Russia.
However objectionable and divisive the “annulation project” seemed from the very beginning, the subsequent events made the whole campaign even more farcical. Amid the rapid spread of coronavirus throughout Russia, Moscow in a belated move had to introduce a quarantine regime since the late March which of course precluded conducting any kind of mass gatherings, including electoral campaigning and vote itself. Despite the tone of contrived optimism taken by Russian officials as regards the epidemiological situation, it eventually became quite harsh, while the officially reported death rate (1.3%, as against 10% or even higher in the worst-affected European countries) has been regularly questioned as not particularly trustworthy. At the same time, contrary to his carefully-built image of a “guardian of the people” who provides socio-economic security in exchange of political loyalty, President Putin seemed to be unusually passive. In fact, public policy in the time of pandemic was all of a sudden thrown onto the shoulders of the regional administrations, while the President reduced communications with both his government and the people to a bare minimum. Most importantly, the Russian government turned out to be surprisingly parsimonious when it comes to helping citizens and business to cope with the adverse economic effects of the lockdown. The initial economic support package amounted to a meager 0.3% of the GDP (though by June the total volume of support measures amounted to 3-4% of the GDP). Still, this lagged behind not only the governments of the wealthy countries but some CIS countries as well. Lack of proper assistance to millions of people who lost their incomes in the wake of the lockdown, produced a lot of discontent among the audience traditionally loyal to the government, not to say opposition and precipitated a singular decline in President Putin’s popularity to their lowest. While Levada Center estimated his rating at 55-56% (to put it in context, this figure reached 89% immediately after the annexation of Crimea in 2014), independent opinion research centers argued that unequivocally “positive” assessment of his current policies fell below 20%. So, as the pandemic seemed to slow down, the government rather hastily lifted most lockdown restrictions, and the timing of the vote was confirmed as July 1. President Putin also insisted on conducting the Victory Day parade on June 24, instead of traditional May 9, hoping to restore some enthusiasm among significant swaths of the Russian people for whom the victory in the Patriotic War remains the single central element to their national and emotional identity. But however hard the government has tried in the recent weeks to create the image of normality and “business as usual”, the recent months have thrown light on the deep cracks within the foundations of Putin’s Russia and its very legitimacy.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…
The decision to amend the Constitution, as well as a number of steps made by the Russian government since the beginning of this year, have emphasized a whopping degradation of the Russian political institutions since 2014. It is now clear that the “Crimean turn”, annexation of the part of the sovereign Ukraine which, being purely illegal from the point of view of international law (and, strictly speaking, Russian constitutional law itself), but a temporary booster of Putin’s personal popularity, was a watershed which made a degradation of the institutionalized Russian state inevitable. Crimea heralded the triumph of political expediency over legality, something which characterized the Soviet state in its heyday. However, it turned out to be a rupture in the structure of “developed Putinism”, the model which secured political stability and improvement of economic well-being at the cost of political freedoms. The subsequent years saw the brazen murder of Boris Nemtsov, the renowned opposition politician, literally next to the Kremlin walls, a growing hostility towards the West, the sanction regime that stifled the economic growth to near zero and caused falling living standards, widening gap between Moscow and the vast Russian hinterland, disturbing intensification of political repression and widespread violation of legal procedures dealing with opposition activists etc. The most worrying outcome of these years was Putin’s growing inability – or unwillingness – to inspire monolithic unity to the political elite, which has visibly self-organized into several groups, each with its own agenda and often conflicting interests. The arrest and trial of the Minister of Economy Alexey Ulyukaev, without any doubt orchestrated by the notorious Rosneft President Igor Sechin, was probably the most gruesome example of this intra-elite struggle.
And to put in a rather paradoxical manner, the time bomb under Putin’s “power vertical” was his politicization itself. In the pre-2014 Russia Putin was a figure to a certain extent above politics- an arbiter balancing various interests, always choosing the middle line and garnering unquestionable support as a symbol of the reinvigorated Russian state. However, building this image was possible exactly because Putin wielded enough power to keep all the political forces at bay and make them abide by “the rules of the game”. In contrast, after 2014 Putin seems to have gradually lost this capacity, while governance in Russia has increasingly acquired the features of manual management, where the issues are resolved ad hoc rather than based on long-term strategic considerations and institutional consistency. Bringing Russia under sanctions, stripped of the G-8 membership and something close to a pariah state (though not exactly that), he threw himself into the embrace of “patriots”, conservative anti-Western strain of the Russian power camp. But what instigated Putin to take this move while he had been always wary of avoiding exactly this in order to preserve his equidistant position at the top? Most probably, the special symbolic status of Crimea for most Russians, even those not on the chauvinistic end, and temporary unification effect that it produced for the Russian society, gave Putin a false impression that he could be even more efficient and popular as the patriotic leader rather than stabilizer. Little did he calculate that while undermining the stability of the system he built, in the long term, he also raised the threshold of popular expectation exactly in the era where low oil prices and economic slowdown made them much harder to fulfill. Putin’s further foreign campaigns, in Syria and Libya, made it painfully clear that “superpowerism”, while satisfying his personal ambition, is not a universal key to domestic popularity, as these interventions caused incomparably less enthusiasm than the Crimean blietzkrieg.
At the same time, changing political agenda and erosion of the so-called “Putin’s majority” (75-80% of the population positively loyal to the President) triggered Kremlin into a number of cadre decisions which further deteriorated its public image. Moscow’s relative success in shifting the global agenda and building up an alternative discourse of global politics that challenged Western domination and unipolarity per se that it had achieved in between 2006 and 2016, was a result of singularly talented ideologists centered around the figure of Vladislav Surkov, who has held different positions in the Presidential Administration since 1999. He envisioned the concept of information war as a perfect tool Russia can use to project its global power and undermine that of the Western liberal order, and was behind the creation of a number of efficient propaganda tools, primarily the global network of Russia Today, Russian response to CNN or BBC. The focus of his message was that Moscow does not pretend to become the global policeman instead of America, but rather pursues a multipolar world order where all the voices would be heard. He is also believed to be the ideologue of the Russian hybrid war with Ukraine in 2014, which exploited the notion of romantic nationalism of “Novorossiya” and for a time being attracted a lot of “passionaries” both from Russia and abroad, to its cause. However, as the initial enthusiasm waned and the separatist “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk got ill-reputed as hotbeds of lawlessness and crime, it became a mere tool of Moscow’s cynical game against the pro-Western government in Kyiv. De facto elimination of the separatists’ initial leadership and their substitution with Moscow’s puppets only confirmed the utter failure of this project. Hence, Surkov’s influence on the Russian politics began to decline, and he was finally dismissed as the Advisor to the President in February this year. The ideological vacuum was filled with a very protective and uninspiring version of arch-conservatism, focused around vague banalities called “traditional values” and also inherently contradictive as it tries to blend the nostalgia for the golden age of the Russian Empire, the enormous material and ideological support to the Orthodox Church (whereas in fact no more than 20% of Russian are its devout followers) and the nation-building myth of the WWII victory. The cadres most welcome in today’s Russia are mostly faceless technocrats, with little appetite for speaking out and taking own decisions. While making it easier to enforce unpopular policies, such as the last year’s pension reform which was an open violation of the unwritten social contract between Putin and his electorate, it also stripped the regime of its flexibility and ability to produce creative solutions. Most worryingly, this purposeful shift towards a model based on ultra-loyalism and conservatism has boosted the ambitions of the so-called siloviki, circles connected to the force agencies of Putin’s Russia (Security Service, Armed Forces, National Guard, etc.) who have previously been one of the Kremlin groups, along with “liberals” and “left patriots”, but have come to exert disproportional influence lately. Several days ago, Nikolay Patrushev, the notorious hardliner who played a murky role in the start of the Second Chechen campaign which triggered Putin’s popularity, gave an interview where he in a rather hysterical tone accused the West of “undermining stability in Russia”, indiscriminately naming all the non-governmental sector as culprits in this conspiracy. The elevated role of such people as Patrushev, Shoigu or Zolotov is a sign that the president does not seem to rely on his “soft power” and the ability to produce a social consensus any more. The unscrupulous attitude towards legality typical for the siloviki is reflected in the growing arbitrariness of the state acts: quite often, authorities do not bother to respect legal formalities any more. The way the amendments were put down and promoted- in fact, the “plebiscite” organized personally by Putin is a legal fiction that has no status in the Russian constitutional law, attest to this tendency. In its legal opinion, the Constitutional Court, doing its best to justify the process, had to resort to extra-legal terms and in fact failed to substantiate the amendments and the vote itself with positive legislative norms. The state, however, does not want to be bound by formal restrictions any more.
Russia’s domestic deadlock
Coupled with a constantly growing assault against the real and imaginary “internal enemies” and dissidents, including even politically neutral figures such as renowned cinema director Kirill Serebrennikov or many other less famous but similarly haphazard victims (sometimes these purges have even compared to the Stalinist years, not in intensity but in the apparent lack of a predictable pattern), the atmosphere of Russia today is even more strongly reminiscent of the “grim 7 years” under the reign of Nicolas I (1848-1855) when the assault on free thought and liberalism took Kafqaesque proportions. Hardly anyone now believes this conservatism to have any other motivation rather than power preservation. Cynicism towards patriotic statements hailing “the Russian cultural code” and “spiritual bonds” has become common even among most loyalists, akin to the depressive late Soviet years of the 1980s. In this regard, the government’s response to the pandemic has painfully emphasized this growing gap between citizens and the state and the erosion of Putin’s role as the ultimate connector. His undisguised willingness to shun responsibility for the crisis response and deafness to popular demands and worries have exerted a very disheartening impact on the great majority, undermining the image of an efficient and bold decision-maker he has carefully built ever since the Chechen campaign. The widespread feeling of being left alone strengthened skepticism among Russians towards the vote: a poll conducted by the Levada Center found out that slightly more than half of the population is willing to participate, while 46% have expressed distrust in an honest procedure. The propaganda machine, stressing their efforts on the protection of traditional values and Russian heritage, is surprisingly silent on the figure of president, as if sensing the dominant mood. Rather comical attempts to ensure “voters’ safety” amid the epidemic by designing makeshift voting booths outdoors (often old buses or just empty boxes) increase the visible surrealism of the process. However, widespread absenteeism will also make it easier to obtain the “result” wanted in the Kremlin- it can be approximated from the results of the “official poll” which predict the turnout of 70% and a support level of around 75%.
Most probably, the dominant state of passivity and socio-political depression will make it easy for the authorities to fabricate the voting outcomes. However, widespread accounts of falsification are bound to circulate online and receive fierce critique from Navalny and other popular oppositional bloggers. Anyway, it is clear that the mission to boost Putin’s legitimacy – if it has ever been in place – has failed, and the vote will probably have a contrary effect, underlining the president’s sense of insecurity and the crisis of the state's foundations. Most importantly, it woefully proved that Kremlin has finally got lost in the past, desperately rejecting to produce a positive image of future, which now seems to be absent from the official rhetoric. Against the background of Russians’ growing weariness of their government’s global ambitions and increasing demands for a more open, socially oriented state, this negative effect can further add to the protest potential that one day may explode in full.