A second constitutional referendum – in the streets of Russia

By Nina Bachkatov & Andrew Wilson

President Putin expressed his satisfaction after a constitutional referendum that was a personal success, despite doubts about the conditions of votes or the organisation of the campaign. In the same time, the referendum tested the opposition, reshaping the border between the “non-systemic opposition” (the “liberal” opposition outside the system) and the “systemic opposition” (that takes part in the Duma and has generally backed Putin’s legislation).

But instead of simply savouring victory, the Russian authorities launched an attack on opponents of different backgrounds, allowing the anti-Putin activists to rebound and reinforcing the bad image of Russia in the West. The attack also pointed a finger to weakness at the top, suggesting that president Putin feels vulnerable despite the referendum’s success or/and is unable to reign over what looks gradually like a lack of control on law and order forces, including intelligence agencies.


It also shows that the Russian authorities still suffer of their 20-years old schizophrenic attitude towards opposition. On one way, officials mock the opposition’s inefficiency, and its incapacity to connect with “real” Russians; on the other hand, they feel fragile enough to launch cyclical waves of repression against “pseudo-rivals”. This is specially puzzling after a successful referendum in which the opponents played a minor role during the campaign due to a mixture of legal limits to their action, the Covid19 restriction, and a basic lack of interest for the subject among the population.

However, the referendum campaign and results provide for a new Russian socio-political picture, with the opposition to Putin’s regime loosely structuring itself around three main branches: one around Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist; one linked to Open Russia, the movement financed by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky; and a third one around a new post-Soviet generation of communists and members of the LDPR.

The two first groups continue to be divided by personal ambition, lack of common tactical choices, and incoherent political lines. Many work with the help of a nebula of ‘independent’ NGOs that back opposition with figures, analyses, polls, surveys of elections, etc. They are indeed independent from the Kremlin, but they are financed through Western grants and funds, notably from American institutions, making it easier to accuse them of serving their “masters” interests by sowing disagreement in Russia and feeding the fake news’s pipeline which the Kremlin detects in any non-official story concerning Russia.

Back to systemic

Communists have been making a comeback, under a new face, breaking with the image of a mixture of aging die-hard Bolsheviks and middle-aged “new” members, who have kept the manners and the slogans from the Soviet period. They are still there, including “historical” leaders, but the party has recruited others among young adults or students, who share the view, often heard in Russia, that “Russians need more than accumulating money in a free market economy”. As the Communist party, the LDPR, kept its historic and extravagant leader (Vladimir Zhirinovsky); and its deputies in the Duma contest texts drafted by the government during parliament’s sessions, before supporting the new texts during the vote.

But, in both cases, activists have been attracting a younger generation very different from what Communists and LDPR were under president Yeltsin. They do not fear to openly contest the person of President Putin or decisions from Moscow affecting regional conditions and specificities; they also stand for a kind of social democracy and support state intervention, with LDPR defending a narrower nationalist populism.

Mostly they have occupied the ground left open by a general fatigue with both the system of “party of power” (for the moment United Russia) and the failure of non-systemic movements to offer a credible alternative. These did succeed in organising local sections within their parties (especially Navalny), they attracted people onto the streets to denounce corruption and the Kremlin, but they are trapped into the image of city dweller obsessed by the Western echo of their action. Most importantly, they failed to see the specific regional dimension of successive waves of discontent about social conditions and reforms (especially pensions, health services and infrastructures). Contrary to them, systemic parties with political experience and well-known labels gained political dividends in the provinces developing their own elites on a larger basis including local figures, trade unions, active committees.

Doing so, they have been open to a new mind-set of millions who translate liberal slogans about “freedom” as the right to select their own leaders. This is a move far away from the time when governors were more concerned about courting the Kremlin than their electors. A turn that was intensified by the degradation of social conditions, an increase of unemployment in industrial towns, and the Covid crisis – all a change in popular expectations that the “non-systemic” opposition misread, unable to move away from a “anti” attitude towards constructive plans to answer the new needs of the population.


This is why the recent events in Khabarovsk are revealing. In short, the present governor, Sergei Furgal successfully campaigned against the referendum, playing on a rejection of Putin’s reforms, and tensions between the federal centre and the regions. After the referendum, he was detained on charges of ordering the murders and attempted murders of several businessmen in 2004 and 2005, and sent to Moscow to wait for his trial in two months’ time.

Immediately, people took to the streets to defend “their” governor and denounce the arbitrary policy of Moscow. Some slogans were openly anti-Putin. Of course, they know that the charges can be founded. After all, Furgal is a former timber and scrap metal trader, a job where corruption, intimidation and murder were not unknown. But they are shocked by the fact that the charges were not a discovery and that they have been left to rest as long as Furgal stayed for eleven years a trustful member of the systemic opposition party LDPR.

Most importantly, demonstrators in Khabarosk are sending different messages at once.

First of all, to the Kremlin to remember that the governor’s nominations and dismissals are not part of a chess game to keep control on the regions by a mixture of rewards and threats, but the results of a democratic choice that electors want to be respected. It would be dangerous to concluded that it was a small bush fire, as the number of demonstrators dwelled from 40.000 to a few hundreds, and reduced their demands to a trial in Khabarovsk instead of Moscow.

Second, to the non-systemic opposition. In September 2018, the incumbent governor of Khabarovsk has been defeated thanks to a campaign by the regional section of Navalny’s anticorruption party. It resulted in the election of a new governor – but of a man who has been for 11 years a member of the LDPR party in the Duma. Not a Putin’s boy, but not really Navalny’s and allies cup of tea.

Finally to the West, which tends to celebrate, and even to encourage, “popular” revolts against Moscow they seen as a sign that this Russian Federation threatening “world order” is in fact fragile giant. Khabarovsk is a sign of political emancipation, not of separatist tendencies, showing that supporting anything or anyone just because they are anti-Putin can backfire.

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