Russian voters said they want to see Putin till 2036. But did they? Those who want a real change are now fearful - Putin's Orwellian order has been planned a long ago by the Kremlin.
A former KGB agent Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia for almost 20 years. He served two of his first terms between 2000-2008. Not long before the August War, he served a real magical trick - Dimitry Medvediev became president for 4 years while Putin took the prime minister’s seat. He was back in 2012. This time for a 6-year term. In 2018, he became president again, for another 6 years. According to the old version of the constitution, he could no longer run for president in 2024. According to his opponents, the new changes to the constitution only have one goal - annul Putin’s presidential terms. This would give him the opportunity to rule the country until 2036.
Political technologist Gleb Pavlovski believes that it is equally important to take other factors into account. Silencing the opponents, controlling the courts, and the media - the government has been pulling these levers for a long time. But it is no longer enough.
“In this case it’s about one country being replaced by another. In an alpha republic, the question of Putin leaving is an important, normal issue. In a beta republic, it has no importance. Putin will be in the middle of a web of institutions where everything is interconnected: the state council, administration, the government. In this republic, Putin will never go away”, Gleb Pavlovski declared in an interview with Medusa, an alternative Russian media outlet.
By Putin’s initiative, international norms of law and multilateral agreements should no longer stand above the Russian constitution. This in turn means that, for instance, Russia will no longer be obligated to respect the decisions of the European court. Therefore, Russian citizens will no longer be able to defend their rights with the help of international institutions. Or to conduct a dispute with the government.
He started playing out this combination in the beginning of the year. But the pandemic messed with his plans. The economy sharing took a strong blow. According to the forecast by economists, it will be at least 5% down. Moreover, the petrol price has fallen dramatically. All these circumstances have already taken their toll on the citizens’ wallets. The euphoria that was palpable in the country after the annexation of Crimea is now also a thing of the past. And Putin’s approval rate is at an all-time low.
“With the people, but a little above”
Anton Sheinin, a 32-year-old civil activist, lives in the town of Yaroslav. He thinks that the pandemic challenged Putin’s role as the “father of the nation”.
“He was above politics up to this point and placed all responsibility on his environment. The coronavirus made him a mortal again, he had to directly rule the country and make promises to the population. It’s one thing when the prime minister says something, and another when it’s Putin himself. His personal promises couldn’t be kept this time and it showed on his rating”, Anton tells us.
Political experts explain: a demand for change is ripening among the population, but the government cannot offer an alternative. This is why the Kremlin resorts to fictive changes - it talks about the “importance of changing governments” all the while locking the system and reinforcing its verticality. According to Putin’s idea, rebuilding the country must begin with a clean slate. Changes will only become effective if a majority of the population supports them. However, Putin doesn’t specify that there will be no low bar at the plebiscite. That means the vote will be considered successful regardless of the number of people showing up at the polls.
The Russian “Ministry of Truth” devotes much more time to the importance of changes than to their content. This is why many doubt the magnanimity of the authoritarian leader. Civil activists say that the government tries everything in their power to mobilize the citizens: terrorizing, pressure, bribing, and… homophobia.
“You don’t want gays to have the right to adopt? Then vote for Putin’s presidency”. A video clip with this message was spread on social media during the quarantine period. Despite the fact that the level of homophobia in Russia is very high, the video was met with sarcasm by many.
“This propaganda would work if people weren’t hungry and had jobs. But right now, no one really cares about that topic”, says Anton.
A clean slate
It’s pretty clear for the people in Russia - Putin desperately needs this vote and legitimization. Now the opinions of the civil society are divided: some endorse a boycott while others think that saying “No” is necessary. They believe that a firm refusal may become a clear signal for the government.
In the meantime, a new version of the constitution has already been published. It says “Will enter into force after the referendum”. Is this an illusion of choice? Anton is sure that it’s not.
“Everything is quite simple - they are testing to see if they can get away with it. We must show them that they won’t”, he says.
According to him, a silent protest has been building up among the population since the presidential election of 2018. And now is the perfect time for the protest sentiment to become stronger and for the government to feel resistance.
It's July 3 and the opponents of the regime are speaking about mass fraud at the voting. The latest sociological survey suggested, that more than 30% of the population were against the constitutional changes. Anton said that many people were crossing fingers on July 1st, as they saw sparks in the society that had the potential to turn into a real fire. But the opponents of the Kremlin see perfectly well that it won’t be easy to replace the silent protest with a loud one - the plebiscite "results" turned out to be acceptable for Putin. Now the “father of the nation” will begin everything anew, with a clean slate. But that slate, most probably won’t have any place for those who are fighting for democracy.
Illustration: Khareba Kavtaradze
Picture: Konstantin Lenkov/Shutterstock