Putin's referendum - President for life?


Last month, Russia voted on whether to approve 206 changes to approximately 60% of its Constitution. These changes included political reforms, most notably changing Presidential term limits to 2 overall rather than 2 consecutive and resetting the terms of the current President, Vladimir Putin, to 0. Thrown into the package were welfare reforms, including mandating pensions rising according to inflation, and social policies, including defining marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. 77.9% and all but one of Russia’s 85 regions voted in favour.

These results, however, have been greatly challenged by allegations of manipulation and vote rigging, whilst their purpose has been perceived as dishonest, designed primarily to legitimise Constitutional amendments conferring Putin as ‘President for Life’, potentially permanently damaging Russia’s Constitutional integrity and its democracy. Consequently, the ‘referendum’ has highlighted Russian democracy and society’s substantial plight resulting from eroded democratic norms, alongside ultra-nationalistic and traditionally conservative ideology’s permeation. Most importantly, however, it signifies an increasingly irreversible slide towards authoritarianism that places Putin beyond reach.

Putin’s Presidency has shown considerable contempt for democracy, with prominent critics imprisoned or exiled (e.g. oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and in some cases, murdered (e.g. former opposition leader Boris Nemtsov). Putin has further sought to concentrate his power within the Kremlin, reflected in the likely forced resignation of former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s government last January, and the appointment of the relatively unknown Mikhail Mishustin as Prime Minister. Moreover, allegations of electoral irregularities, including banning opposition candidates and vote rigging have dogged Putin’s Presidency.

This ‘referendum’, however, has surpassed previous democratic assaults. Putin’s record unpopularity, owing to economic stagnation, proposals to raise the retirement age and the Kremlin’s unsuccessful handling of COVID-19, has motivated improvised and unconstitutional procedures, including failing to mandate the required democratic standards and voting on the amendments collectively rather than separately. Such procedures reflect the Kremlin’s manipulation of the Constitution and ‘referendum’ to their advantage, for example, utilising the proposal’s omnibus nature to shift emphasis towards more popular proposals such as pension reform rather than extending Putin’s Presidency, increasing its likelihood of passing.

Moreover, these improvised measures greatly compromised free and fair elections. The independent watchdog Golos emphasised how voting being spread out across a week, sporadic electronic voting and government-run monitoring concocted the perfect conditions for rigged voting. Moreover, the government incentives to voters, ranging from smartphones to apartments, resembled greater farce than democracy. Consequently, this ‘referendum’ represented a pronounced display of calculated Kremlin manipulation, designed to manufacture the ‘Putin supermajority’ (coined by electoral strategist Gleb Pavlovsky, indicating wide cross-societal support) through improvised, deceitful and farcical procedures that are insufficiently challenged, meaning that despite his immense unpopularity, Putin can claim legitimacy for the amendments. Accordingly, this will further slide Russia towards authoritarianism, with the Constitution failing to uphold democratic standards owing to ruthless Kremlin manipulation and thus become increasingly fragile, resulting in Putin’s position becoming insurmountable.

The amendments also not only suggest Putin’s contempt for democracy, but also the consolidation of traditional conservatism and fervent nationalism. These amendments reflect Putin’s emphasis upon order and nationhood over democracy and freedom, distancing himself from the economic, social and political chaos of the 1990s that was blamed predominantly upon liberalism and Westernisation and argued to have corrupted society and caused Russia’s international decline. Furthermore, amendments including making secession of Russian territory (including Crimea) unconstitutional further highlight Putin’s highly nationalistic agenda reflecting national identity being traditionally based upon ethnicity and language, owing to what scholar Taras Kuzio describes as Russia’s ancestral identity as an empire. Consequently, the ‘referendum’ highlights Putin reaffirming Russia’s traditionally conservative and nationalist societal attitudes, attitudes far greater resembling authoritarianism than democracy.

Putin’s reaffirming of Russian society’s traditionalist attitudes also reflects the Russian Orthodox Church’s resurrection. Heavily repressed under Communist rule, the Russian Orthodox Church has re-established itself as Russia’s dominant religion, with 70% of Russians identifying with it. The Orthodox Church’s “ultra-conservatism and anti-modernism” as described by Kuzio heavily aligns with both Putin and Russian society, through its shared criticism of 1990s liberalisation, its highly nationalist rhetoric and its authoritarian patriarchal nature. Consequently, many amendments bare the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence, in particular, the amendment defining marriage reflects the Orthodox Church’s long-term derision of homosexuality, whilst the amendment defining Russian’s unique ancestrally Orthodox belief in God points to its highly nationalistic nature.

Nonetheless, the Orthodox Church remains highly reliant on Putin for its privileged position, and thus more accurately resembles a vessel of Putin’s leadership rather than a substantial influence. Aligning with the Church has enabled Putin to reaffirm his traditionalist and nationalist agenda within society, whilst also guaranteeing him avoiding criticism on controversial policies, especially those derided internationally, for example the Church justifying Syrian military action as morally just based upon Russian societal support. Therefore, the amendments more accurately reflect their shared agenda with Putin that alongside their support, provides legitimacy despite his current unpopularity.

Russia’s democratic future, therefore, looks bleak. Its gradual erosion over two decades has been greatly advanced by the ‘referendum’, which has set a dangerous precedent of Kremlin manipulation being utilised to confer legitimacy, leaving it immensely fragile. Moreover, the ‘referendum’ has reaffirmed Russia’s conservative and nationalistic traditions, especially by highlighting the Kremlin’s aligning with the revived and influential, but crucially obedient, Russian Orthodox Church. Consequently, the ‘referendum’ has been the final action that has placed Putin beyond reach, with his manipulation consolidating his authoritarian leadership and meaning that despite his current unpopularity, his legitimacy has been permanently conferred.

This consolidated power carries significant implications going forward, particularly internationally. Putin has regularly exercised Russia’s nationalistic foreign policy, most evident in recent flashpoints in the Ukraine. Moreover, increasingly consolidated Russian authoritarianism has presented a further challenge to the Western-led ‘Liberal World Order’, itself under heightened scrutiny by populism and threatened by great power competition. Consequently, Putin’s consolidation of authoritarianism in the ‘referendum’ will likely result in greater tensions with the West, with his and his policies’ legitimacy being increasingly questioned and likely more intensely challenged. Nevertheless, Putin’s domestic power, alongside the increasingly illiberal global challenge to the ‘Liberal World Order’, will likely place him further beyond reproach internationally.

Image - Flickr (United Nations Photo)

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