Wednesday, July 1, was the last day of a week-long voting period in which Russians reportedly approved multiple amendments to their constitution. Among the controversial changes proposed by President Vladimir Putin was a ban on gay marriage and a resetting of his own term limits so that Putin will be able to remain president through 2036.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the country, voting was allowed in-person or online and Russians have been able to vote on the constitutional changes since June 25.
Despite efforts by the government to give the vote a democratic sheen, Russia’s parliament has treated the result of the vote as a foregone conclusion, approving Putin’s proposed changes before even a single vote was cast.
A constitutional amendment on term limits
Well before the Russian people began heading to the polls, the nation’s parliament, or Federal Assembly, approved the amendments to Russia’s constitution.
Those constitutional reforms were proposed by Putin, who has led the country as president or prime minister since 2000. In response to the proposed changes, the government resigned, though Putin quickly replaced the prime minister and the amendments were soon taken up in parliament.
In his initial proposal, approved in January, Putin claimed that his goal was to increase the democratization of the nation’s institutions and strengthen parliament. At the time, observers were certain Putin’s goal was to allow himself to remain in power, but it wasn’t entirely clear how that would be accomplished with his proposed amendments.
In March, it became clearer.
Valentina Tereshkova, an ally of Putin’s (and, in 1963, the first woman to travel to space), introduced an amendment that “reset the term-limit clock to zero.” This would allow Putin to serve two more consecutive six-year terms, following the end of his current term in 2024. As a result, Putin could be in power until 2036, when he would be 83 years old.
As a rationale for the amendment, Tereshkova argued that Putin was a “stabilizing factor” for the country.
The amendments passed the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, without a single “no” vote (though there were a number of absentees). Only one person voted against the amendment in the upper house, known as the Federation Council.
Days after the Federal Assembly approved Putin’s constitutional amendments, all 85 regional parliaments also approved them. All that was left to do was put the vote to the people of Russia.
Russia votes for Putin’s constitutional reforms
Days before the polls opened, Putin made his first public appearance since Russia went into a coronavirus-related lockdown. Speaking without a mask, Putin claimed that an “absolute majority” supported his proposed changes to the constitution.
His confidence may have been due to the fact that the results of the vote, even before it began last Thursday, were considered a “foregone conclusion.” This is according to CNBC, which reported that experts said the exercise was more of a poll or “advisory referendum” than an actual vote. The yes/no vote was always expected to approve the constitutional changes.
Nonetheless, Russia went out of its way to bestow legitimacy on the procedure by encouraging people to vote and making it as easy as possible. One such method included telling people they were entered to win prizes, so long as they voted on the constitutional changes.
Voting was initially supposed to occur on April 22 but had to be delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. To ensure the voting was safer, citizens were allowed to vote online. The government also put ballot boxes in open outdoor spaces, such as on tree stumps and in public buses.
On Wednesday, the last day for voting, the Kremlin’s official Twitter account posted a picture of Putin sitting at a polling station in Moscow, waiting to vote.
As had been expected, CNN was reporting that the vote had gone Putin’s way by early evening in Moscow. At the end of voting, RT, the Russian state-backed, English-language news source, reported that 71% of the country had voted in favor of Putin’s constitutional reforms.
What are the other constitutional amendments?
While much attention has been given to Putin’s efforts to secure power for the next decade and a half, there were many other amendments involved in the vote.
Among the amendments was one that required that the minimum wage always be kept at the country’s official poverty line or higher. The amendments also included, according to the official State Duma website, a revision of the pension system “based on the principles of universality, justice, and solidarity of generations.”
The amendments also establish the “State Council” as another branch of the government that will “ensure coordinated interaction between state authorities and determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy.”
It was believed in January, when this amendment was first proposed, that this new body could possibly be one way in which Putin would maintain power even if he was no longer president.
Controversial constitutional reforms
Among the more controversial amendments was a ban on gay marriage that officially defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. This follows years of anti-LGBT legislation under Putin, including a law against “gay propaganda” that prevents young people in Russia from getting information related to the LGBT community.
Critics of the amendments have said that such “family value” amendments, including one that would increase payments to mothers for newborn children, were merely an “attempt to score points with conservative and right-wing nationalist voters.”
While the amendments also purportedly “enhance the role” of both the State Duma and the Federation Council, in practice, they actually give the president more power. For one thing, while the Federal Assembly maintains the right to approve presidential nominees for prime minister, a new rule would permit the president to appoint whomever he likes if the Duma rejected his nominee three times.
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