On July 4th, new amendments to the Russian constitution came into effect, allowing President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, making him the longest reigning Kremlin leader since Stalin. Additional amendments banned same-sex marriage, stress the superiority of Russian law over international law, grant prosecutorial immunity to former presidents, and add a reference in the constitution to God.
Putin proposed the changes in January which were then approved by Russian parliament and the Constitutional court. Putin insisted on a nationwide referendum, initially schedule in April, but postponed to the end of June due to coronavirus.
77.92% of Russians voted in favor of the reforms, with 65% voter turnout, according to the Russian Electoral Commission. The results of the referendum are questionable at best. The commission started publishing tallies before the voting ended. Up to 22 million votes may have been cast fraudulently, according to electoral researcher Sergei Shpilkin.
All polling is faulty, particularly in authoritarian countries where people are fearful to share their real views. However, Putin’s approval rating hit a historic low in April at 59%, according to the Levada Center, the only independent pollster in Russia. Levada also found 62% of Russians are in favor of restricting the age of civil servants to 70 years of age, a way of asking voters their opinion on the amendments without mentioning Putin.
Putin carefully choregraphed his extension of power, planning a massive celebration on May 9th, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. It would have been two weeks after the planned referendum.
“The holiday, envisioned as a kind of coronation for Putin’s presidential reset and the triumphant return of Russia as a world power, went by almost unmarked,” writes Alexander Zemlianichenko.
Putin’s waning popularity has accelerated due to the coronavirus response. Russia has had the third-highest coronavirus case load globally, and struggled to respond with a decaying Soviet healthcare system. The Kremlin has focused on controlling the message, ordering platforms to take down “false information” about the pandemic.
The last time Putin’s approval rating dipped below 60% was November 2013 but sky-rocketed to 80% in March 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Putin has always united Russia by redirecting their anger at the Kremlin against a common enemy. It would be wise to watch Moscow closely during this time of global upheaval.