Throughout Russian history, political repression has been offset by jokes as an outlet for real feelings. Among the most popular jokes of the late Soviet era was one about a local party official coming into the office and seeing the first secretary in a panic because someone had broken in overnight to steal the election tallies. “Don’t worry comrade, they have all been published in the newspapers,” said the official. “You don’t understand,” replied the first secretary. “They stole the results of next year’s elections.”
The joke almost came true last week as Russians voted to approve amendments to the country’s 1993 constitution. The most important reform, and the real reason for the exercise, was to reset presidential term-limits, allowing Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for twenty years and is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin, to remain in office until 2036. Officially, the amendments came into effect once the results of the July 1 vote were published. But Moscow bookstores have been selling copies of the new constitution for weeks, and the Kremlin began referencing it in draft bills as early as May.
The confidence was understandable. The formal result of 78 percent in favor announced by the central electoral commission is no more meaningful—and bears no more relation to actual sentiments in the country—than the 99 percent the Communists invariably scored in single-slate Soviet “elections.”
It’s not difficult to guess what the results of an honest vote on Putin’s continued rule would be. With all the caveats of measuring public opinion in an authoritarian state, where many people are hesitant to give their opinion, the trends in Russia have been unmistakable. According to the Levada Center, the country’s sole independent pollster, public confidence in Putin has dropped to an all-time low of 25 percent. A clear majority of Russians – 58 percent – back the idea of age-limiting the president at 70; a euphemistic way of opposing Putin (who turns 68 this year) without saying his name. Given the choice between the Kremlin’s proposal and alternative amendments put forward by the liberal Yabloko party – with a limit of two four-year presidential terms, an elected upper house, and parliamentary nomination of the prime minister – a plurality would support the opposition’s package.
So instead of a real referendum, with the ability to campaign on both sides, a clear set of procedures, and independent observation of the vote-count, the Kremlin called an ill-defined “plebiscite,” as Putin has termed it, borrowing a word favored by European dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s. Formally speaking, there was no campaign. The government was free to engage in unrestricted propaganda while its opponents had their websites blocked and their rallies prohibited (naturally, out of concern for public health during the coronavirus pandemic.)
Voting went on for a week, with state employees coerced into participating and with ballots stored in the offices of electoral commissions with ample opportunity for tampering. In previous elections, independent monitors had helped document fraud, most prominently in 2011, when large-scale ballot-stuffing in favor of Putin’s party led to unprecedented protests. This time, only those approved by government-controlled “civic chambers” could attend the count. International polls watchers from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were not invited either. Their places were taken by carefully selected far-right politicians from Germany and Italy who praised the vote as “highly transparent.”
For Russians, the vote changes nothing. It has been clear for some time that Putin intends to stay in power as long as he stays alive. This does not, of course, mean that he will. History has amended the best-laid plans of dictators before, in Russia and elsewhere. In the system created by Putin, change will eventually come through the streets, not through the ballot box – and, in all likelihood, much earlier than 2036.
For the West, though, this should have game-changing consequences. While Putin has lacked democratic legitimacy for some time – at least since 2003, when his party seized control of parliament in an election assessed by international monitors as “not fair” – he has been careful to stick to the formal letter of the law even as he violated the spirit. In the past, he extended his power with tricks like naming a placeholder president or disqualifying opponents from running against him.
This time, by subverting term limits, Putin becomes illegitimate not just de facto but also de jure – in a league with dictators who had “reset” terms before him, from Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. As Senator Jim Risch (R-Id.), chairman the U.S. Senate’s foreign relations committee, has noted, “the sham vote [on July 1] … has swept away all remnants of Putin’s legitimacy.”
Previous attempts by American presidents to court him – from George W. Bush “getting a sense of his soul” to Barack Obama’s “reset” to Donald Trump’s invite to the G7 summit – were distasteful and morally dubious. Future gestures, certainly after 2024, will be akin to dealing with a usurper. It is important that Western leaders refrain from all thought of resuming “business as usual” with Putin – and that those who don’t are stopped by their parliaments and public opinion. Russia should only be invited to return to the G8 when it has a democratically elected government that respects both the rights of its own citizens and the basic international norms.
It took Vladimir Putin twenty years to complete the journey from an elected president to an illegitimate dictator. It is somewhat ironic that a man who has paid so much attention to his formal standing and international prestige would, in the end, simply throw it all under the bus.