Putin’s referendum

President Putin’s grand referendum on several hundred proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution officially takes place on July 1st, although de facto through ‘early voting’ it will have been running for a week when polls open tomorrow.

If you live in the United States or in Western Europe, you would hardly know anything about it, nor is there any reason for you to know, in the estimation of our mainstream media, because the vote is a fraud and the outcome is known in advance as “proven” by copies of the new revised Constitution that went on sale in Moscow a couple of days ago. Moreover, given all the time and attention shown to the new outbreaks of Covid19 in the USA there is hardly a column inch to spare for the Russians, other than to remark on their place as number three worldwide in Covid infections and the shabby state of their medical infrastructure in the hinterland. Putin is denounced, yet again, for putting his own political objectives ahead of public health by holding this election in the midst of the pandemic.

If, however, you live in the Russian Federation or for some reason watch Russian state television broadcasts by satellite as I do, you are not merely aware of the referendum, you are saturated with news coverage about its every facet. This includes details of social distancing, hand sanitizers and the like to ensure hygiene and public safety of those coming to cast their votes. It includes interviews with volunteers who have been going out to visit the old and the infirm who cannot travel to polling stations and collect the ballots at their homes.  It includes ‘human interest story’ interviews with newlyweds who went straight from the civil office registering their marriage to the polling booths to be sure to have their votes counted and to protect the future of their progeny by signing up to the amendments, which enshrine in the Basic Law a huge list of social welfare benefits.  It includes almost daily addresses by President Putin to the nation regarding new allocations of monthly allowances to the parents of babes, of adolescents and to other socially fragile groups of the population in the spirit of the revised Constitution. This is not vote rigging but it is good old fashioned vote buying and it is being carried out shamelessly on state television.

In between these two extremes of non-coverage and over-exposure to the referendum, there is a third media position on the referendum which we may call the position of “alternative” Western media, meaning the relatively few websites that are either subtly or more commonly blatantly pro-Putin.  They are all pro-referendum because of one amendment in particular which we may call the “Tereshkova amendment” after the octogenarian Duma member, first Soviet woman in space, who at the closing of hearings on the amendments in the lower house introduced an additional paragraph resetting to zero President Putin’s time in office and thereby allowing him to run again for President in 2024 and in 2030. Our alternative media see this as an unmixed blessing, assuring Russia of firm (anti-Western) leadership to the end of our days.  This same media is mostly blissfully ignorant of Russian realities, mostly have never set foot in the country. For them, Russia is just a stick with which to beat the American hegemon and its European running dogs.

For those of us who do care about Russia and have some depth of experience of the country, this referendum is a sad page in Russia’s move backwards towards autocracy instead of forwards towards greater parliamentary democracy.  To be sure, some of the promoters of the revisions on Russian television, such as the anchorman on the “News on Saturday” program Sergey Brillyov, speak of more power sharing with parliament coming with the revised Basic Law.  But that is unsupported by the language of the amendments, which is opaque and subject to the interpretation of whoever runs the Executive in future. Meanwhile, as regards relations between the Executive and the Judiciary, there is nothing to discuss: the revised Constitution will give new powers to the Executive to remove judges who are unwilling to bend to the times.

Instead, the real pluses of the amended Constitution, such as they are, may be found in the provisions regarding protection of pensions through indexation, financial assistance to support families and the like. For Russians with a conservative bent, and Russian society, just like East Central European society in general, is deeply conservative in its social and ethical values, there are the definition of marriage solely as the bond between a man and a woman, the reminder that ‘in God they trust’, the vow never to give up an inch of national territory and many other provisions setting in concrete the values of the Putin years.

Having called out the reasons why Russians may vote ‘pro’ in the referendum, I must quickly add that not everyone has been bought off by the goodies so as to overlook the bone in the throat of a perpetual president.  In fact polls last week suggested that 43% of the Russian population opposes the revised Constitution.

So where are the Russian Opposition parties on this?  If you look at our mainstream press there are no Opposition parties in Russia.  There are Opposition personalities, the most prominent of which is the blogger Alexei Navalny. Navalny has wisely decided to hold his fire, to avoid new time in jail and to save his strength and his popularity for the 2021 legislative elections.

However, the Western mainstream press willfully overlooks the Duma parties, which they conveniently describe as sham, tolerated by United Russia to give an appearance of democracy.  Again, reality is very different.  From the beginning of democratic Russia in the early 1990s, the Communist Party has been the largest and most effective counter force first to the Neoliberal centrists of Yeltsin and then to the centrists who gathered around Vladimir Putin to form eventually United Russia.  A couple of weeks ago their leader Gennady Zyuganov spoke to the press and denounced the referendum. He said the revised Constitution would give Putin powers greater than those enjoyed by the Egyptian pharaohs. A colorful turn of phrase, it showed enormous civic courage. Needless to say, Zyuganov has not been given a microphone since.

The other less numerous parties, namely Fair Russia led by Sergei Mironov and the LDPR of firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky have been less honorable. Mironov has simply shut up.  Zhirinovsky was more royalist than the king and declared a few weeks ago that the referendum is not needed because the Duma has already approved the revised Constitution.

It will be very interesting to see what the actual numbers are in this referendum.  Given all the safeguards to protect abuses at the polling stations, it is very unlikely there will be hanky panky.  But calls for a boycott of the vote by the many thinking Russians who reject the perpetual presidency of Putin could dope the outcome.  We shall see shortly.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

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