On January 15, 2020, during an annual address to a joint session of both houses of parliament, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a process of constitutional reforms (see EDM, January 16, 20), which officially concluded with a national referendum, held on June 25–July 1. The procedure of constitutional change turned out to be lengthier and more precarious than the Kremlin originally planned. The State Duma (lower house of parliament) and the Federation Council (upper house) duly rubber-stamped the constitutional amendments, and the legislatures of all 85 subjects (this number includes Crimea and Sevastopol city, illegally annexed in 2014) of the Russian Federation ratified them. The Constitutional Court took less than two days to compose a lengthy legal document vetting all the amendments as fully legal and democratic “because [they] will reflect the will of the people” (see EDM, March 19). The referendum to finalize and legitimize the process was initially planned for April 22, 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantines in Moscow and other major cities intervened. By June, most quarantine restrictions were lifted, and the referendum was finally scheduled for July 1, with a week of early and Internet voting. Putin obtained the end result he wanted: Almost 78 percent voted “Yes,” with an overall turnout of almost 68 percent. This translated to almost 58 million Russian casting “Yes” ballots (almost 53 percent of all eligible voters); so the outcome is considered constitutionally valid (Interfax, July 2). The Kremlin described the vote as a “triumph” (RBC, July 2).
The approved amendments consist of a mass of line-item editorial changes throughout the text of the Russian constitution: Many of them are declarations on social, cultural and sovereignty issues with little practical sense, promoted by the state propaganda machine to spark interest among the electorate. When Putin first announced the constitutional amendments at the start of the year, many observers in Russia and abroad commended them as “revolutionary” and “the beginning of a transition,” believing Putin was planning to delegate some powers away from the Kremlin, in preparation for retirement after his fourth presidential term expires in 2024. In reality, the entire move was a power grab: The approved amendments allow Putin to rum for two more six-year presidential terms, in 2024 and 2030, effectively prolong his reign until 2036, when he will be 84, by then having ruled Russia for 36 years, since 2000. Putin has already announced he is “considering” running in 2024, saying it is imperative for the stability of Russia because “in two years [in 2022] officialdom at different levels of power will begin to look out for a successor instead of working properly” (Interfax, June 21).
The 1993 Russian constitution installed a powerful executive presidency but was still built on the principal of a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Today, the Kremlin de facto fully dominates, with the State Duma and judges rubberstamping all directives handed down by the Presidential Office. The newly approved amendments legalize this practice by formally subjecting the Duma and the courts to Kremlin control. The president has been given the power not only to appoint but also to dismiss judges (including the Supreme and Constitutional courts) in consultation with the Federation Council—an unelected legislative chamber fully controlled by the Kremlin. In Russia, a presidential veto may be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote in the parliament; this happened several times between 1996 and 2004, but not since then. Under the rewritten constitution, such a two-thirds vote is not enough—the Constitutional Court must also agree. Since Putin may fire Constitutional Court judges at his own discretion, a presidential veto becomes effectively final. In addition, Putin may appoint a prime minister without the Duma’s approval, if he so wishes. And if he ever retires, Putin will be fully immune from any prosecution and can choose to become a life-long senator (Newsru.com, July 1).
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov announced, “We must elect Putin eternal president—no one can replace him.” The Kremlin replied, “There is no such executive position as eternal president,” but otherwise did not seem displeased (Interfax, June 30). The official turnout in Chechnya was over 95 percent, and some 98 percent voted “Yes.” Kadyrov boasted that this represented the best result in the Russian Federation and thanked the subjects of his fiefdom (Interfax, July 2). The only region in Russia to reject Putin’s constitutional changes was the scarcely populated Nenets Autonomous Okrug, with over 55 percent voting “No”—to protest a Kremlin-approved plan to dissolve the oil-rich Nenets region into Arkhangelsk Oblast (see EDM, June 16). In Moscow over 65 percent voted “Yes,” with a turnout of almost 56 percent (Interfax, July 2).
Putin’s constitutional rewrite generated little true enthusiasm in Russia (see EDM, June 15, 22, 29). According to the independent pollster the Levada Center, only 25 percent of Russians would have supported Putin’s amendments if they were presented with an alternative. Russians do not want a super powerful executive presidency, but the declarative social clauses included in the amendment package garnered broad support (Newsru.com, June 22). The Kremlin ensured there would be no alternative. Campaigning against the amendments was suppressed. And to help conjure the result the regime wanted, it established an early voting period, makeshift voting stations on street corners, and Internet voting. Meanwhile, the ballots themselves only listed the options to vote “Yes” or “No”—with no description of the multiple constitutional changes as well as no possibility to vote for some but not other amendments. According to the independent election watchdog Golos, the referendum was unfair and unjust and its results illegitimate. Some 80 percent of the votes tallied were either cast via the Internet or by in-person early voting prior to July 1, with little or no oversight (Golosinfo.org, July 2). Putin thanked “the vast majority” of the Russian populace that believes in and supports his regime (Interfax, July 2).
The Russian Federation has now completed its transformation into a system resembling a Latin American–style caudillo regime. Mexican Presidente Porfirio Díaz notably ruled from 1876 to 1911, the same length of time now open to Putin. Venezuelan strongman Juan Vicente Gómez ruled from 1908 until 1935, and died while in power. But Díaz was ousted after his seventh reelection, followed by a decade of bloody and devastating civil war. The implications for the Putin regime and the direction it is taking Russia, thus, look far from auspicious.