Thursday, July 02, 2020

Putin's vote less than it seems

By Andrew Higgins
July 1, 2020

Russia’s seven-day national plebiscite, intended to keep President Vladimir V. Putin in power until at least 2036, delivered the expected verdict on Wednesday: Early results showed that three-quarters of voters had given their endorsement.

Less clear, however, was why Mr. Putin even needed voters to approve a raft of constitutional amendments that, already ratified by the national parliament in Moscow and regional legislatures across the country, entered into law months ago.


“It is theater, but very important and well-played theater. The system needs to stage displays of public support even when it doesn’t have it,” Mr. Yudin said. “This vote is putting Putin’s theatrical techniques to the test.”


For weeks, a long parade of prominent Russians who depend on the state for their positions and income — from actors and musicians to the head of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church — have paraded across state television urging people to vote.

Curiously, none of them mentioned the core of the exercise: an amendment to allow Mr. Putin to crash through constitutional term limits in place since 1993 and stay in power virtually for life, rather than step down at the end of his current term in 2024. They instead focused on other changes, like enshrining the protection of pensions, family values, animals, the Russian language and the memory of Russians killed in World War II.

The yes-or-no vote was a package deal, which meant that anyone who believed in the sanctity of Russia’s war dead — a huge number in a country that lost more than 20 million lives during what was known as “the Great Patriotic War” — would most likely tick yes and, in doing so, endorse the idea of letting Mr. Putin, now 67, stay in the Kremlin at least until age 83.


The Kremlin’s primary objective, he said, was less to get public approval for amendments that had already been ratified than to give Mr. Putin a fresh jolt of legitimacy at a time when, with Russia’s economy severely damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, his approval rating has slumped to its lowest level since he came to power 20 years ago.

To ensure that happened, the Kremlin pulled out all the stops. Voters were lured to polling stations by prize lotteries, grocery vouchers, clown shows and other attractions.

There were scattered reports of outright fraud, but more significant was the forced mobilization of the large number of voters whose livelihood depends, one way or another, on staying on the Kremlin’s good side.

Employees at state-funded libraries in St. Petersburg complained that they had been ordered by their institutions to vote and on which day. Boris L. Vishnevsky, a St. Petersburg academic and opposition member of the local council, described this as a “gross violation of labor law,” saying that “employees have no obligation to vote if they don’t want to.”


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