The newly approved amendments to the Russian constitution went into force on July 4. The night before, President Vladimir Putin signed the relevant executive order. According to official data, in the elections, which took place on July 1, the amendments received the support of 77.92 percent of voters, with a turnout of 67.97 percent (RIA Novosti, July 2).
Although the most-often-referenced item in the new package of amendments has understandably been the “nullification” of Putin’s presidential terms, which allows him to run again in 2024 and 2030 (see EDM, July 2), the reformed constitution also includes several other provisions with potentially long-lasting consequences. For instance, experts point to the new version of Article 81, which now reads as a veiled intention to pursue further territorial expansion. Specifically, the rewritten passage stipulates that a candidate for the presidency should not hold foreign citizenship except for “citizens of the Russian Federation formerly holding citizenship of a state which was accepted or part of which was accepted into the Russian Federation.” Notably, there is no direct reference here to Crimea or Sevastopol; the article remains effectively open-ended, leaving open the prospects for additional annexations in the future. The newly adopted wording on the priority of national law over international law also contains a reservation regarding cases where international norms (not laws) “contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” In this case, they can also include decisions related to the annexation of Crimea and the possible expropriation of other territories in the future (Krymr.com, January 23).
Several sociologists point out that even the newly added symbolic amendments that seem harmless and socially oriented could negatively affect the population of Russia. But more importantly, experts opine that the primary negative result will be the rupture of the entire system of elections, “which, from now on, will have virtually no legitimacy” in the eyes of the politically active population. Arguably, this will increase the degree of popular dissatisfaction, though not necessarily of the protest potential, since the authorities are too well prepared to deal with protests (Ekb.dk, July 2).
Pro-Kremlin sources confirm a tangible split in society. Konstantin Kalachev, a political analyst working for the ruling United Russia party, cites extremely high polarization rates within the Russian population and predicts a large social explosion within a few years (Ruchron, July 1). Even the pro-government All-Russian Center for the Study of Social Opinion, whose conclusions usually diverge from the data of independent sociological centers, admits that 71 percent of youth between the ages of 18 and 24 are not optimistic about the future and see hard times ahead (Wciom.ru, July 2).
Nevertheless, sociologists do not believe the undercurrent of dissatisfaction among Russians will result in large-scale protests in the near future. Aside from governmental repression, the coronovirus pandemic has played an important role by eliminating contact between people (Ekb.dk, July 2). Another important factor is the absence of popular legitimate protest leaders and intra-opposition distrust largely caused by 10–15 years of the Kremlin and the Russian special services discrediting and marginalizing various liberal activists.
First of all, the authorities have applied measures to influence the “human factor”: repression, infiltration of the opposition by government agents and provocateurs, and a constant focus on discord in its ranks. Second, not only particular individuals or movements were discredited by the government but also the very terms “liberalism” and “democracy.” For many years, state propaganda attached negative associations to these notions. But most opposition activists were late in recognizing these trends and proved unprepared to oppose them.
Third, besides discrediting the concept of a liberal democracy, the Kremlin succeeded in destroying its values as such. It convinced the majority of Russians that all politicians, without exception, “lie and steal,” with the only difference being that members of the opposition do it “on the orders of their foreign masters.” As such, the Kremlin propagandists effectively mirrored the methods of their opponents, damaging the most effective tactics of the opposition: revealing lies and corruption. For example, one of the closest collaborators of Yevgeniy Pregozhin, the chairperson of the Commission on Mass Media of the Public Chamber of Russia, Aleksandr Malkevich, has for several months conducted a wide media campaign to “battle fakes.” He began with the launch of a site “to combat fakes about the coronovirus,” actually copying the idea of the Ukrainian Stopfake anti-disinformation project (RIA Novosti, April 29). While debunking a conspiracy theory about “microchipping,” these “social activists” also claimed that information on real disease outbreaks or hospital closures were fake (Coronafake.ru, June 9). Then Malevich took the initiative to expose “fake information about the constitutional amendments,” denying on social networks that there was any vote fraud (Oprf.ru, June 5).
Such efforts leave the impression that objective truth does not exist and that the information landscape is a “funhouse of mirrors,” saturated with fiction. According to the same principle, officials initiated criminal proceedings against the Fund to Fight Corruption, headed by blogger and former Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny, intended to discredit the very idea that there could be such a fight (Оvdinfo.org, September 24, 2019).
Fourth, the cult of Joseph Stalin and a glorified Soviet history—created by Putin to legitimize his own rule—has increasingly illuminated visible contradictions between the behavior of today’s Russian elites versus the idealized images from the past. But the ostensible attractiveness of this whitewashed historical memory prevents the masses from accepting current opposition figures as leaders (see EDM, January 15).
As a result of all of the above-mentioned factors, most Russians simply do not see any viable way to fight for their public welfare under the present circumstances any more than they can identify a leader who shares their interests. But the absence of a structured opposition with widespread support might in practice become a serious vulnerability to the autocratic Putinist system, since the opposition is becoming increasingly spontaneous and uncontrollable. The activities of disgruntled people are unpredictable while lacking a single organizational center that can be influenced, let alone controlled by the authorities (YouTube, March 9).
Consequently, the situation in Russia may, sooner or later, reach a point in the which the system built on principles of “manual control” but now filled with “latent dissidents” can no longer function as intended. These processes may be accelerated by external events and new, fatal mistakes by the Russian authorities. The West would do well to prepare for the coming breakdown in advance.