By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
On 3 July 2020, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the decree allowing the publication of the new Constitution including modifications approved by the popular referendum. The vote had lasted a week, ending with what the Kremlin called a huge victory: 77,92% of voters approved those modifications. Vladimir Putin concluded “Russian citizens made their choice”. The peculiarity of this referendum is that it was not needed. Already in March, Parliament has voted all the surprise constitutional amendments proposed by the president in January.
Putin had announced it would be ratified by popular vote in April. The Covid19 crisis obliged the Kremlin to postpone the referendum, providing an opportunity to cancel it. Instead it was postponed to the last week of June, exposing Putin’s will – or his need – to feel backed by his people, at this moment of his career: before the vote, his approval rating at 59% was its lowest in 20 years, still very comfortable support after 20 years in power through difficult times, but a source of concern.
The issue of the vote on constitutional reforms was never in question. Vladimir Putin would not have launched a popular consultation if he had the slightest risk to lose, or to face results that would require too much “intervention” to be declared a victory. What mattered was the level of participation, still not definitive at this date due to verifications, but above 65%.
These are the figures that matter, because, in Russia, like in many post-Soviet republics, a high level of participation is seen as a sign of popular interest in political life and an adhesion to the regime. But it is also part of the “illiberal democracy” developed under Putin that consists in using democratic tools and institutions to give credence and credibility to a personal autocratic regime.
What Putin wanted, too, is proof that his vision of Russia is shared by most of his compatriots. The pre-referendum campaign gave him a special opportunity to emphasise the importance of national unity, the Russian “specific civilisation”, the option in favour of “traditional way of life” different from Western chaotic societies, the need to inscribe today Russia as a link in the long chain of a 1.000-year old history. The official media and the billboards spread through Russia focused on participation as a way to act as members of a large national group, a community of citizens wanting to prepare a better Russia to transfer to their children and grandchildren.
Participation is all
This is why irregularities were directed to attract people to go to the polls more than just voting “yes”. For the more sophisticated part of the population, it was time to adjust the 1993 Constitution to the evolution of the country, even if they regret many aspects of that evolution. For the others, constitutional subtilities are not prime interest.
But for Putin, the victory consist in the demonstration of a large participation supporting amendments ratified by parliament, written by Russian lawyers without foreign interference, offering a de facto contrast with the 1993 Constitution. The first Russian post-soviet Constitution was written by the shock therapists of the time, who wanted to show to the West that a new Russia really took off, turning its back to communism and statist economy. In 1993, hostile Parliament was disbanded by force, and the relation of the presidency with parliament never recovered.
In short, the motivations of Putin were more complex and explains largely the extreme discretion of official media and the Kremlin machine surrounding the changes allowing the present president to be reelected up to 2036. They all followed the line of the president’s personal interventions, that emphasided the social advances provided by Constitutional amendments.
By contrast, the Russian opposition continues to play on its anti-Putin logic and to denounce the danger to social diversity and freedom of conscience. Foreign media went on the same path, with titles and comments reducing the referendum to a green light to “Putin for ever”.
As has been written in an earlier publication, Putin is a control freak and wants first of all to organise himself his succession by keeping all the options on the table, legally, including the possibility he might present himself again to the voters. He certainly tends to exaggerate his own importance, seeing himself as a defender of motherland and of a Russian special civilization. He knows too well the Kremlin intrigues and has just have to look abroad to see how the prospect of a presidential election weakens the incumbent’s actions.
Finally, one has also to read the story of this strange referendum to see another demonstration of the “Russia first” mentality that percolated largely the Russian society. The OSCE was not invited to observe the vote; the Kremlin has rejected the request of the European Union for an inquiry on alleged irregularities. As declared by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov “Russia will stay first of all attached to national sovereignty… We are not ready to take account of the so-called preoccupations of the West”.