Opposition groups protest against July 1 constitutional referendum that will keep Russian President Vladimir Putin in power until 2036 as it is held under the risk of Covid-19 spread in Moscow, Russia on July 1, 2020. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Sefa Karacan

ST PETERSBURG – In yet another win for Russian President Vladimir Putin, 67, a national referendum found that nearly 78% approve of him retaining power until 2036 at the stately age of 83. Reports say voter turnout was almost 68%.

Wednesday’s constitutional reform vote delivered an impressive result to a leader who is besieged by a raft of problems ranging from falling living standards and a stagnating economy to an out-of-control pandemic and the financial fallout from an oil price war.

But while Putin’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, they are still formidable at 59.9%. And the referendum result suggests that Putin has craftily outmaneuvered subordinates who may be quietly jostling for power.

Meanwhile, ordinary Russians say they see few viable new political choices on the horizon.

“To be honest, I don’t see any alternatives,” said Kirill, a 42-year-old at a voting booth in St Petersburg after casting his vote in Russia’s historic referendum. “It’s unlikely that by 2024 someone more worthy than him will run for the presidency.”

Without a constitutional amendment, Putin, now serving his fourth term in the Kremlin’s top job, would have been restricted to four presidential terms.

But the referendum results, with 77.93% of Russians in favor, means that Putin can now reset his presidential terms to zero and run again for the presidency in 2024. Beyond that, Putin could feasibly extend his time in office to two more terms, meaning he could rule consecutively until 2036.

With Putin holding the presidency from 2000-2004, 2004-2008, 2012-2018 and 2018 to the present – along with two prime-ministerial terms – he is the longest sitting leader in recent Russian or USSR history, beating Soviet premier Josef Stalin’s 1941-1953 record.

Clearly, the vote delivered a strong mandate, but a largely symbolic one.

The constitutional amendments were a done deal, having already been approved by Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament. Bookshops had even started selling copies of the amended constitution weeks ahead of the vote. 

Still, Putin needed the referendum to confer popular legitimacy while he arguably faces the first chill breeze of discontent since assuming power in 2000. Covid-19 is raging across the world’s largest country, with more than 6,000 cases being registered every day, according to official statistics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin inspects an honor guard. Credit: Daily Beast.

Putin defined July 1 as “the ideal date” for holding the referendum. But critics say he needed the constitutional reforms to be passed before the full economic consequences of the pandemic become apparent, at which point popular discontent will likely mount from a breeze to a wind.  

The amendment played a relatively low-key role in state messaging ahead of the vote.

Instead, street billboards and TV commercials focused on other amendments included in the package that might be more palatable to Russians, including the definition of marriage as a heterosexual institution, the inclusion of God in the country’s main law and a series of social welfare guarantees. 

Critics say these were largely a smokescreen to cover the referendum’s real focus – the constitutional enablement of Putin’s sustained rule.

The Kremlin deployed a range of methods to secure a high voter turnout, including the mobilization of state sector workers and employees at Kremlin-friendly private enterprises. Moscow citizens who registered to vote, meanwhile, were eligible to win a variety of prizes

Because of social distancing rules, early voting had been allowed since June 25. Early polling stations were set up in bizarre locations, like playgrounds, street benches and even car trunks, though normal stations were opened on the day of the vote. 

Critics say these measures were designed to prevent independent observers from properly tracking voter fraud, but if that was the aim it was not entirely successful.

According to Golos, an independent election monitor, numerous violations were reported around the country, including among employees who were pressured to vote in favor of the referendum. There were also reports of people voting twice. 

Putin’s opponents, meanwhile, saw little point in casting votes. “There was no point in participating,” said Dimitry, 24, who decided to boycott the plebiscite. “Our vote doesn’t count,” he said, declining to give his last name.

Elizaveta, 42, waited until the last day before casting her ballot against the reforms because she was concerned about possible falsifications. “I was happy with the constitution as it was and I am strongly against the resetting of Putin’s term,” she said.

A police officer urges people gathered to protest against amendments to the Constitution of Russia to leave Dvortsovaya Square and to free the way to communal vehicles in downtown Saint Petersburg on July 1, 2020, Photo: AFP/Olga Maltseva

Putin has said he is uncertain whether he will run again for the presidency in 2024, but most analysts agree he needs to keep the option open to avoid becoming a lame duck and to strengthen his control over the political elite. 

In a documentary that recently aired on state television’s Rossiya 1 channel, Putin expressed concerns that the search for his successor could paralyze governance.  

“I can tell you from my own experience that in about two years, instead of the regular rhythmic work on many levels of government, you’d have eyes shifting around hunting for possible successors,” Putin said. “It is necessary to work, not to look for successors.”

According to Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Putin feels that different factions within the elite are already “splitting the pie” behind his back in trying to locate his successor.

“Putin doesn’t like that,” she said. “He sees it as a source of destabilization of the system he has built.”

Indeed, by securing the possibility to run again in 2024 and after that in 2030, Putin has leaped over the succession issue, thus ending the elite’s machinations. 

By winning the referendum, Putin appears to have obtained “a certificate of trust,” proving to any political class aspirants with dreams of leading the country that the people of Russia have his back. 

“This will strengthen his status as the inviolable leader, who cannot brook any opposition either within the elite or on the political field,” Stanovaya told Asia Times.

As Aleksey Kolesnikov pointed out in a recent article for Carnegie Moscow Center, the referendum aimed at confirming the existence of “Putin’s Majority,” a supposed nationwide community united by conservative values and trust in strongman rule. 

However, “Putin’s Majority” might be less solid than the results of the referendum appear. 

A man holds a Constitution book as he protests against amendments to the Constitution of Russia on Dvortsovaya Square in downtown Saint Petersburg on July 1, 2020, Photo: AFP/Olga Maltseva

The Levada Center, an independent pollster, noted that Putin’s approval ratings touched 59% in May, a decent number for any leader in a Western polity but an all-time low for Putin. 

According to Grigory Golosov, a professor of comparative politics at the European University of Saint Petersburg, even that number is an overestimate.

“When, in polls, people are asked whether they support Putin, many of them say ‘yes’ because they are afraid to say otherwise or because there is no real alternative,” he told Asia Times

Golosov’s view is reflected in polls by state-funded VTsIOM, which said about 48% of respondents struggle to name a politician they trust and only 27% name Putin. Golosov thus defines the “Putin Majority” as “an artificial construct.”

The only real Putin majority, according to Golosov, was the one that supported the then far more youthful president in his first two terms. Then, Putin led the country out of the tumultuous Yeltsin years of the 1990s, largely on the back of surging energy prices, and led the way out of the debilitating Chechen Wars.

“Putin Majority 2.0” was arguably revived on the spike of nationalistic sentiment following the successful and largely bloodless 2014 annexation of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that is strategically vital for Russia. His approval ratings then touched all-time highs. 

In recent years, however, Russians’ enthusiasm for foreign adventures has ebbed. They have instead been increasingly concerned over falling living standards, a stagnating economy and a botched pension reform plan in 2018 that sparked nationwide protests.

Now, with a perfect storm of crashing oil prices and the coronavirus crisis, even the impressive referendum result might not be enough to guarantee a “Putin Majority 3.0.”