Entering a new, more Putin-like, Russia

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow, Russia, 26 June 2020. [EPA-EFE/MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL]

On 25 June 2020, the Russian citizens embarked on a journey that might transform their country in many ways and keep the Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apparatchiks in power until 2036, writes Pavel Havlicek.

Pavel Havlicek is a Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs Research Centre and a Board Member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

The so-called “all-Russia” vote finishing on 1 July, with more than two hundred amendments to the Russian constitution to be decided upon, has been marked by systematic electoral fraud, mass mobilisation of the administrative resources, populistic promises or exploiting the historical memory.

All of these are supposed to promote a positive outcome of the plebiscite and, most importantly, based on the new Article 81 (para. 3.1.) enable the current head of state to run for the office again in 2024 and 2030.

Apart from that, the Russian regime is also proposing to introduce social measures for the poorest in the Russian society, enshrine conservative values and promote ‘patriotism’ or further concentrate powers in the hands of the president.

What is potentially most far-reaching, is the new Article 79, that suggests allowing the Russian courts to de facto ignore judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) of which Russia is a party.

On June 19, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe criticised this and other amendments to the basic law for not complying with the European Convention on Human Rights and political interference in the legal system, namely the constitutional court, and demanded their revisions.

The call was ignored by the Russian authorities, as were other recommendations of international institutions and legal experts pointing to the contradictory nature of some of the proposed changes.

Another appeal to hold a review by the Venice Commission of the constitutional reshuffle to the Council of Europe standards, submitted by more than 230,000 Russian citizens, is still pending. This clearly illustrates that the Russian society is far from being united on amendments.

What do people want

The popularity of the Russian leadership is decreasing over the years, most recently also due to inefficient management of the coronavirus pandemic. This too is reflected in the public perception of the proposed changes allowing Putin to stay in power for beyond 2024.

The March Levada Centre polling showed that the Russian society is evenly split in half when it comes to the nullification of the presidential terms. Another Levada´s sociological poll pointed to the fact that an overwhelming majority of the Russian society would impose an age limit of 70 for the Russian head of state, whereas Putin himself will be 72 years old in 2024.

However, due to the current lockdown and pressure from the ruling elites against pro-democracy activists, civil society and independent media, the Russian opposition and civil society struggle to properly organise and mobilise their supporters.

For the pro-democratic forces, it also proved to be immensely complicated to choose a common tactic on the voting procedure. The most famous Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny called for boycotting the plebiscite altogether.

What further complicates the situation, including electoral commissions and domestic observers, is the fact that the vote is rather fragmented – and not just because it lasts over a week.

Some regions – as Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod – allow online voting, others manage it differently, early voting is allowed in an unprecedented scope. All of it limits the ability of independent actors to observe the process to almost zero.

For example, the Russian election watchdog GOLOS, a member organisation of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, has criticised the “all-Russia” voting for being unfair and curtailing basic voters´ rights and freedoms of citizens. Also, other Russian civil society organisations and critically-minded citizens are rather sceptical about the prospects and the path of the country’s development after the vote

It is almost certain that Putin´s regime will not allow this politically highly sensitive transformational process to fail. But this is not the end of the story. Over the last couple of years, there has been a visible activation and mobilisation of the Russian civil society, be it urban elites, youth or regional communities affected by environmental crises.

These groups are now coming together and entering public life. In the upcoming years, the legitimacy of the Russian leadership and constitutional set-up – even if approved by the “all-Russia” vote now – will be continuously called into question both internationally and domestically.

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