Putin’s Constitutional Tsarism

by Times Newsroom 1
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President Putin presenting his identification document to validate his vote in Russia’s constitutional amendment referendum that would permit him to remain president until 2036, Moscow, July 1, 2020

On July 1, after “recovering,” by decree, from the coronavirus pandemic, Russia held a vote on a package of constitutional amendments. Introduced by Vladimir Putin back in January and expanded by the State Duma over the following months, the 206 changes are touted as protecting Russia’s sovereignty, defending Russian history, and boosting Russians’ economic well-being. The amendments also nullify the previous presidential terms of Vladimir Putin, allowing him to run again for the presidency when his current, fourth term expires—in effect, extending his twenty-year grip on power indefinitely. “Russia’s strength,” explained the chairman of the Duma when talking about amendments, “is not oil and gas, but Vladimir Putin.”

Though results weren’t formally in until July 2, the triumphal outcome of the referendum was never in doubt: Russian bookstores were already selling copies of “the new Constitution,” as if it were a fait accompli from the middle of June. Even as early as March, Ella Pamfilova, the head of the Central Election Commission, declared amendments as “already legitimate” and lauded President Putin’s effort to solicit “non-required” popular assent—a concept Pamfilova apparently disdained, judging by her smirk as she uttered the phrase.

When asked about the legitimacy of “packet” (or wholesale) voting, as opposed to voting on each individual amendment, Pamfilova compared Russia’s constitutional referendum with a prix fixe restaurant meal. If you didn’t like the beet salad but did like the borscht or the cutlets, she offered, you’d need to decide whether to turn down the whole dinner or simply skip the salad and enjoy the borscht and the cutlets. In other words, there would be no à la carte choice: if you don’t like the amendment that makes veiled threats against anyone considered to be undermining Russia’s “territorial integrity,” then you don’t get to vote on the measure guaranteeing indexed pensions either. It’s all or nothing.

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