This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The European Union has called on Russia to probe reports of irregularities in a national, nonbinding plebiscite that approved a sprawling package of constitutional amendments that, among other things, would open the possibility for President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036.
The Kremlin on July 2 hailed the landslide victory that saw almost 78 percent of ballots approving the package of more than 200 changes to the constitution as “a triumphant referendum on trust in President Vladimir Putin.”
But reports of irregularities at some polling stations, and intimidation of activists and journalists seeking to monitor the vote, prompted the 27-nation bloc to call for an immediate investigation.
“We are aware of reports and allegations of irregularities during the vote, including voter coercion, double voting, violation of secrecy of the vote, and allegations of police violence against a journalist who was present to observe,” EU spokesman Peter Stano said.
“We expect these reports to be duly investigated because these are serious allegations,” Stano added.
The U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement the same day saying it was “troubled by reports of Russian government efforts to manipulate the result of the vote.”
The Kremlin has said the amendments are necessary for the country’s stability and security, while Putin’s critics charge they are a bid for the 67-year-old to secure power for life.
Voters were given the option of accepting or rejecting the entire package of amendments.
The most-controversial among more than 200 amendments in the package is one that resets Putin’s term-limit clock to zero, opening the way for him to run for reelection when his current six-year term expires in 2024, and again in 2030.
According to results released by Russia’s Central Election Commission early on July 2, with all ballots counted, 77.9 percent of voters endorsed the Kremlin-backed package. Some 21.3 percent voted against.
The official turnout was about 65 percent, the commission said. Voting was spread out over a week in an effort to maintain precautions to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Putin had declared July 1, the final day of the voting, to be a public holiday in a bid to encourage voter turnout.
Even though the result was seen by many as a foregone conclusion — copies of the new constitution were already on sale in bookshops weeks ahead of the ballot — Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov trumpeted the outcome.
“Now that Russians have given such support for changes to the constitution, this will all become the foundation for a better future for our country,” Peskov said.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the commission overseeing the vote said balloting had been transparent and that officials had done everything to ensure its integrity, but critics and opposition figures denounced the outcome.
“The just-announced ‘results’ are a fake and a huge lie,” opposition politician Aleksei Navalny wrote in a blog post on July 1. “They have nothing in common with the opinions of the citizens of Russia. We have witnessed a show, the ending of which was scripted in advance.”
He told supporters in a video he would “never recognize this result.”
Navalny said the opposition would not protest now because of the coronavirus pandemic but will later this year if its candidates are blocked from taking part in regional elections or if the election results are falsified.
“What Putin fears most is the street,” said Navalny. Putin “will not leave until we start to take to the streets in the hundreds of thousands and in the millions.”
The anti-amendments campaign Nyet! released its own exit polling estimating that in Moscow, 55 percent voted against the package, while in St. Petersburg, 63 percent opposed the amendments.
There were numerous reports of alleged ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities in the voting on July 1. Police in St. Petersburg broke the arm of journalist David Frenkel of the MediaZona outlet as he was covering the voting. Russian authorities said they were investigating the incident.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media rights group, issued a statement on July 1 criticizing the Russian authorities for having “attacked, arrested, or harassed at least five journalists in the lead-up” to the plebiscite.
Russians were encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and advertisements putting the spotlight on popular amendments such as one that guarantees inflation-linked pensions.
Even as voters headed to the polls, Putin ordered one-off payments of 10,000 rubles ($141) to those with children.
Opposition to the amendments has been divided, with some groups — including the Communist Party — calling for a “no” vote and others — including prominent opposition leader Navalny and the Yabloko party — calling for a boycott of the plebiscite.
According to the election commission, the package of amendments received at least 50 percent support in almost every region of the country. It said the Republic of Tyva polled the highest support — almost 97 percent. The Nenets autonomous region was the only one to reject the amendments, results showed, with about 53 percent voting no.
Some officials said the rejection by Nenets is likely the result of residents not wanting to unify with the Arkhangelsk region, which was one of the amendments in the package.
Putin has said that he may take part in 2024 presidential poll. If he ran for another term after that, he would be 84 by the time his final term expired.
Putin’s critics, law experts, opposition politicians, and civil rights activists have described the amendments as a “constitutional coup.”
In addition to enabling Putin to seek additional terms, the amendments would broaden the powers of the parliament in the formation of the government and redistribute some authority among various government structures.
They also explicitly state the priority of Russian law over international law, ban same-sex marriages, describe a “belief in God” as a core national value, define the Russian language as “the language of the state-forming ethnicity,” and make it “impossible to alienate parts of the Russian Federation.”
The vote comes amid growing discontent in Russia over the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, and as polls have shown a decline in Putin’s popularity in recent years. His approval rating sank to a low of 59 percent during the spring, according to the independent Levada Center polling agency.
Putin, a longtime KGB officer during the Soviet era, has been president or prime minister since 1999.
His supporters credit him with strengthening the country and its economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crises of the 1990s.
Critics say he has weakened democratic institutions, marginalized political opponents, stifled criticism, and allowed corruption to flourish.
The EU also criticized an amendment of the reform that gave Russian law primacy over its international commitments, which defied the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, of which Moscow is a signatory.
“We expect Russia, regardless of any amendments to this constitution, to live up to its international obligations,” EU spokesman Stano said, adding that the bloc did not recognize any voting that was held in Crimea, which has been annexed by Russia, and eastern Ukraine.