This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Preliminary results indicate that a national, nonbinding plebiscite has 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.
According to results released by Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) early on July 2, with all ballots counted, 77.9 percent of voters endorsed the Kremlin-backed package of more than 200 constitutional amendments. 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.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the commission, said the vote 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. “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.
During the voting, several hundred people spontaneously gathered on Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest the amendments and the prospect of two more presidential terms for Putin, who has said he has yet to decide on his future.
Moscow City Council Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin, of the liberal Yabloko party, was among those who gathered on the square. He told RFE/RL that the plebiscite vote marks “the end of…the rule of law in Russia.”
The demonstration proceeded peacefully with one-person pickets taking turns holding up signs at the base of a statue to Russian national poet Aleksandr Pushkin. There was a strong police presence around the square but no action was taken against the protesters.
One demonstrator who held a sign reading “Down with the Tsar,” told RFE/RL: “We don’t want to live in a dictatorship, particularly not in a legalized dictatorship.”
About 100 people participated in a demonstration against the amendments in St. Petersburg, carrying copies of the old version of the constitution. Police and National Guard troops forced them off the Palace Square and several people were reportedly detained.
There were numerous reports of alleged ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities in the voting on July 1. The previous day, 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 (CPJ), 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.
In an unusual development, the CEC began publishing preliminary results hours before polls closed in the western parts of the country. Normally, the publication of voting results or exit polling before voting closes is illegal in Russia. However, the nonbinding plebiscite on the constitutional amendments has not been conducted in accordance with Russian laws on referendums.
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 the CEC, 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 Arkhangeslk region, which was one of the amendments in the package.
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.
That prospect sparked a minor protest in Moscow’s famous Red Square. Police moved in and quickly ended the protest, briefly detaining eight activists who used their bodies to form the number “2036.”
The activists included Moscow municipal lawmakers, Lyusya Shtein and Viktor Kotov, and members of the protest performance group Pussy Riot, Aleksandr Sofeyev, Nika Nikulshina, and activists Maria Bezverkhaya, Gosha Kozhevnikov, Liza Samoilova, and Maria Timofeyeva.
All eight men and women were later released without charges.
Putin, who voted at a polling station at Russia’s Academy of Sciences, 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.”
Putin first proposed the sweeping amendments during a national address in January. The document was presented to the legislature just five days later after cursory discussion by a hastily formed “working group.”
On March 10, the wording that would allow Putin to seek reelection in 2024 and 2030 was abruptly added.
The package of more than 200 amendments was adopted the next day by both the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, and the upper chamber, the Federation Council.
Putin initially scheduled the vote for April 22, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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.