In practice, the goal of the reform, already approved by Parliament, is to move the clock back to zero by putting the count of years already spent in the Kremlin for Putin (and only for Putin). In this way, the Russian leader could run for president again in 2024 and 2030 and continue to hold the reins of the country in his hands potentially up to the venerable age of 83 years even surpassing Stalin for longevity in power.
The polling stations opened just after the maxi military parade for the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Second World War which yesterday saw over 13,000 soldiers parading on Red Square with missiles and tanks. It is no coincidence: Putin relies heavily on patriotism to push the Russians to square around him and right now he needs it more than ever. The coronavirus epidemic and the economic crisis have in fact sunk its rating, making it drop to 59%, the lowest level ever.
The vote was initially scheduled for April 22, but Covid-19 forced the authorities to postpone it. The military parade was instead scheduled as every year on May 9, the day when Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazism, but was also postponed due to the epidemic. They thus decided to strategically bring the two events closer to the Kremlin: they chose the date of the parade on June 24, the day when in 1945 the Soviet soldiers marched on Red Square after defeating the Nazi troops, and they set for the following day (i.e. for today) the start of the vote for the constitutional reform. Putin was evidently in a hurry to get the Russians to vote. The economy may deteriorate further in the near future and unemployment may rise, further lowering the popularity of the Kremlin leader. And so, to limit the damage, he decided not to wait for the end of the epidemic, which also prevents opponents from protesting.
Yesterday’s military parade was certainly not the great diplomatic success that Russia had hoped for months to demonstrate the end of its international isolation. Before the pandemic, world-class leaders such as French Emmanuel Macron and Chinese Xi Jinping were expected in Moscow. In Red Square yesterday, however, there were only the leaders of some of the countries politically closest to Russia such as Serbia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Uzbekistan. Yesterday the Russian president attended the parade surrounded by 80 veterans. The veterans, now 90 years old, before attending the event had to observe a period of quarantine to avoid spreading the coronavirus. And probably also to avoid infecting Putin, who recently shows up in public and has even had “disinfectant tunnels” installed in the Kremlin and at the entrance to his presidential residence outside Moscow.
But if Putin is so concerned about his health, there are those who accuse him of not thinking enough about public health. In fact, some observers fear that the parade could raise the infection, still more than 7,000 a day in Russia. The mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, had advised his fellow citizens to watch the parade on TV, but yesterday thousands of people were in Tverskaya avenue and near Red Square to see the tanks parading. Even the vote on constitutional reform could be a risk, even if it was spread over several days to avoid gatherings and the authorities assure that all the necessary precautions will be taken. In polling stations, disinfectant gels and masks should be made available, whoever wants can request that the ballot box be brought to his home to allow him to vote while in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod it will also be possible to express his preference online.
The “new Constitution” provides that marriage is “a union between a man and a woman” in order to strengthen the ban on gay marriages, prohibits diminishing the Soviet contribution in the fight against Nazism and recognizes Russia as the heir of the USSR legitimizing its aims as a great power on the international chessboard. The most important thing in reality is that Putin will be able to apply again and remain in the Kremlin, but this aspect is not advertised in the media campaign in favor of the “Yes”, which rather focuses on the alleged safeguarding of family values and social aid. For example, a billboard shows a child embracing his grandmother and under the slogan “For a guaranteed pension”.
The reform officially does not require this sort of plebiscite, but the Russian president needs to give a sprinkling of popular legitimacy to his power. It seems that before the epidemic he was aiming for 70% of turnout, he could now settle for a little less, perhaps even 55%. In any case, Putin is playing all his cards to get as many votes as possible: he has promised more subsidies to families with children and in some places even lotteries are organized where houses and cars are at stake. But there are also those who report pressure on civil servants to vote, online or physically going to polling stations. In some respects Russia truly confirms itself as the heir to the USSR.