In a referendum concluded on July 1, nearly 78 per cent of the voters approved a provision which will allow President Putin to participate in two more elections beyond the present term ending in 2024.
By Rajan Kumar
In a referendum concluded on July 1, nearly 78 per cent of the voters approved a provision which will allow President Putin to participate in two more elections beyond the present term ending in 2024. He can potentially remain in power until 2036. In a single vote, people decided on a slew of measures which included resetting Putin’s term limits to zero, a ban on same-sex marriage, minimum wages, pension reforms, respect for veterans, a ban on high officials holding dual citizens and a constitutional mention of ‘faith in God.’ This amendment combines a copious dose of patriotism, social conservatism and an extension of authoritarianism. This ‘reform’ militates against the idea of modernity and civic-liberalism. Why has Putin chosen to rely on this conservative move to justify his continuance in power?
The answer lies in the fear of transitional uncertainty. Putin and his backers in the referendum believe that Russia is yet to emerge from the disintegration of the USSR and the chaos of the 1990s. They fear that the power structure put together under Putin is vulnerable to sabotage from members of the elite that are under the influence of the West. Putin once said that unless the clock is reset, “people at many levels of authority will start looking around in search of possible successors” (The Moscow Times, July 1, 2020). The uncertainty of the regime-transition overwhelms the majority, and they certainly don’t want to revisit the 1990s. Through this referendum, Putin wanted to renew his social contract to silence the elite and curb any dissent that might challenge his regime.
The TINA (there is no alternative) factor seems to endear people to Putin. This is a typical dilemma of authoritarian states when they reach the stage of transition. Since a viable alternative is not allowed to emerge, finding a successor becomes a daunting task. Elite competition may turn deadly in a power vacuum. Putin does not want Russia to get into that direction yet. He will remain in power as long as people stand for him, and decide the heir of his own volition. This is the message referendum delivers to the ambitious and fractious elites of Russia.
As it happens in populist systems, people trust the leader but not the institutions. Russia is a super-centralised presidential system. Political and civil society institutions for checks and balances are not well developed. The legislature is subservient to the presidency and is further weakened by the single-dominant party system-the United Russia Party (URP)- which is supported by Putin. Opposition parties have not matured largely due to legal, social and financial constraints they face on a day-to-day basis. They are often subjected to de-legitimacy and ridicule by state-controlled media and judiciary. More often than not the Communist Party and other liberal parties tend to vote with the URP in the legislature. Alexei Navalny, a Kremlin critic and a leader projected by the West as a crusader, lacks credibility exactly for the same reason – he is seen as the stooge of the West. The anti-Western sentiment is deep and pervasive in Russia. West’s miscalculated policy in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions have widened the rift.
It is not that Russians could not decode the real motives of Putin to retain power. They knew that this was the most coveted item in the package to be voted in the referendum. Of nearly 200 plus issues on the table, only a couple merited any attention. They also knew that a referendum and a single vote may not be the right mechanism to evaluate complex issues presented in a simplified yes/no format.Yet, a huge 65 per cent turned out to vote and anoverwhelming78 per cent of the voters approved the idea of an extension of Putin’s rule.
President Putin is a master geo-strategist and a charismatic leader who has restored the confidence of Russians. He carries no liberal qualms about the repeated extension of his rule either through institutional-shuffle or constitutional changes. The loyalty that he draws from his citizens is paramount in his worldview. He has given up on liberal reconciliation. In his interview with the Financial Times on June 27, 2019, he said: “liberal idea had outlived its purpose.”
What is remarkable is that a huge majority in Russia genuinely subscribes to Putin’s worldview. He has managed to sell the idea of political stability and growth- something that liberals take it for granted. For the liberals in the West, the period of Yeltsin in the early 1990s was the best period of democracy and growth. To Russians, this was a period of utter humiliation, a national disgrace and unprecedented hardship. Russia was sold out to shock-therapy and IMF economists. That period is fresh in the memory of people in the 40s and above. They credit Putin for steering Russia away from that humiliation. Citizens are willing to sacrifice their democratic privileges to retain their national pride and stability. Putin’s strategy has succeeded in convincing people that Russia needs a strong leader and a powerful military. Nothing matters as much as territorial integrity and sovereignty. Even the economic crash and high unemployment have failed to dent the image of Putin substantially. In fact, Russians blame Western sanctions for the ongoing economic distress. It has fed perfectly intothedominantRussian narrative that the West is toxic, and Putin is the saviour.
Presidential elections and referendums are mundane and listless exercises in Russia as the element of surprise is missing. The outcomes are predictable much before the official results are declared. The first and the last time the people of the Soviet Union participated in a referendum was on 17 March 1991 when they were asked to vote for a “continuation of the SovietUnion”. People favoured Union but politics took a different turn and disintegration happened. Yeltsin used a referendum to break the political and constitutional impasse in 1993. He made some sweeping constitutional changes afterwards. In a localised referendum in 2014, the people of Crimea decided to reunite with Russia.
The latest referendum was not legal, but a political project of Putin. He wanted to re-affirm his popularity and give Russia a traditional outlook. Voters may not have agreed to many of the provisions in the referendum, but they did not have the choice of voting on each issue separately. As it stands, the constitution has been amended and the consequences are far-reaching- another generation is tied to Putin. Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, described this as “a triumphal referendum on confidence in President Putin.” The Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, criticised the results as “a fake and a massive lie.”
In any case, the issue of political transition has been settled for now. Prejudice towards homosexuality, the significance of God, patriotic learning, the supremacy of the Russian court over international tribunals and elevated status of Russian language have become part of the covenant. The constitution has changed, but the reign of Putin will continue as usual.
(The author teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)