20 years under Putin: a timeline

Before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Russia, the Kremlin was planning to hold a referendum on constitutional reforms that would allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. The vote will now take place in late June. The move signals that Putin remains invested in the legitimacy of popular approval, and the best possible outcome of the vote is likely to be produced now.


Russia's constitutional referendum will be held from June 25 to July 1, 2020. Photo: edu-mytyshi.ru.


Beginning on June 25, Russians will vote on a package of constitutional reforms that include, among affirmations of the primacy of the Russian language and heterosexual marriage, the “zeroing out” of Vladimir Putin’s four previous presidential terms. This change would overturn the current constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms, and allow Putin to potentially remain in power until 2036. The voting procedure is designed to confirm Putin’s continued leadership of Russia while minimizing the possibility of public dissent. Plebiscites of this kind usually deliver the result sought by the regime but can also act as a barometer of public sentiment. By putting the question of reforms to a vote, Putin is showing that the foundations of his political power are built on popular consent, not institutional legitimacy. 

Plebiscites, also called referendums, are a popular political tool in democracies. They are a form of direct democracy that take the decision on a difficult political issue—Brexit, parliamentary reform, succession—out of the hands of elected representatives and put it into the hands of the people. These “supreme forms of popular power” also have a long history in authoritarian states where, rather than empowering the public, they demonstrate public approval of decisions already made by elites. In the post-Soviet space, plebiscites have been used to expand and secure executive power repeatedly in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Researchers have found that personalistic regimes, which derive legitimacy from the leader’s popularity, are more likely than other kinds of authoritarian regimes (i.e. military or party dictatorships) to hold plebiscites to demonstrate the “people’s trust.”

Russia’s upcoming vote on the constitutional reforms is an attempt to gain public endorsement of the political course chosen by Putin. The procedure by which the Kremlin seeks to validate the constitutional reforms has been specifically designed to mitigate any risks potentially posed by directly engaging the public rather than working through compliant legislatures.

Holding what the Kremlin has called a “nationwide vote”—a term with no established meaning in Russian law—strategically avoids the extensive procedural requirements set out for referendums. A nationwide vote allows the Kremlin to forbid campaigning against the reforms while simultaneously disseminating state-sponsored television and billboard ads promoting them. Because the vote is not technically a referendum, the reforms can be presented as a package, rather than individually, making it impossible for voters to reject particular amendments they disagree with. There is also no minimum level of turnout required to certify the validity of the result. Likewise, voters will be allowed to cast their ballots early, at home, and online—some of these methods would be prohibited if the vote took the form of a referendum.

Public messaging designed to discourage protest voting has also been employed. According to the head of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, holding a vote on the reforms is not mandatory but an expression of “good will” by the president toward voters. This is not quite true. Even though the reforms have already been approved by the State Duma, the Constitutional Court, and a majority of regional parliaments, the law on the amendments itself requires that they be endorsed by at least half of voters in order to come into force. However, what happens in the event that voters reject the changes is unclear from this law.

 It would seem that the Kremlin has decided that the best possible outcome of the nationwide vote can be produced now, when fears of infection remain high and the opposition is divided.

Opposition politicians and activists, unable to stage protests because of pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings imposed in March, are divided as to the best strategy to oppose the reforms. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has urged his supporters not to participate. His ally Leonid Volkov has advocated that poll workers refuse to turn up because of the potential for contracting coronavirus. As of now, 400 poll workers have signed an open letter calling on their colleagues to refuse to organize this vote. Opposition activist Maxim Katz has argued that people should take advantage of the wording of the legislation and vote “No.”   

Typically, election boycotts do not work. In a study of 171 threatened and actual boycotts, Mathew Frankel, Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution, found that while threatening to boycott can yield concessions, actual boycotting of the elections often negatively impacts the proponents by marginalizing them further from the political process, empowering the incumbent, and leading to an unintended rebalancing of political power. There are no comprehensive studies of referendum boycotts, but recent examples seem to suggest that they are also ineffective. A boycott of a constitutional referendum in Guinea earlier this year did not significantly hinder the government’s ability to carry through with reforms. A boycott of a referendum in Macedonia in 2018 worked to lower turnout and make the result legally non-binding, but the country’s parliament still passed the desired changes the following year. 

Yet, because voting is inherently unpredictable, authoritarian regimes expose themselves to public disapproval if they seek legitimacy at the ballot box. Sometimes plebiscites rebuke autocrats. In 1987, Poland’s Communist leaders held a referendum on a package of economic and political reforms. Solidarity, the country’s biggest independent trade union, which had gone underground in 1981 after the imposition of martial law, led a campaign to boycott the vote that succeeded in lowering turnout below 50 percent. Although the government ignored the result and went ahead with the reforms, the referendum demonstrated the public’s lack of support for the regime. A year later, the Communists were forced to negotiate with Solidarity for reforms that led to contested elections and regime change in 1989. In 1988, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet was forced from power after nearly seventeen years as a result of a national plebiscite on the question of extending his tenure in office. An innovative “No” campaign took advantage of the first ever equal advertising time permitted by the government to promote what turned out to be an extremely popular message of positive political transformation. 

The risk of a “No” vote in the upcoming Russian constitutional referendum is minimal. While Putin’s approval rating has dropped recently to a historic low, support for the reforms seems to be holding steady: 44 percent of likely voters report intending to vote “Yes.” However, the certainty of victory has not diminished the importance—and the urgency—of the vote in the eyes of the Kremlin.

Originally scheduled for April 22, the nationwide vote, along with the Victory Day parade, was delayed due to COVID-19. In early May, there were suggestions that the plebiscite might be postponed until September or even December. Last week, however, quarantine measures were suddenly lifted across Russia despite the fact that daily infection rates remain high. The parade and nationwide vote were rescheduled for late June. An aggressive TV, billboard, and print advertising campaign kicked in immediately to emphasize the patriotic and symbolic aspects of the constitution. Putin himself emerged from self-isolation during the Russia Day holiday last week to proclaim that an “absolute majority” of Russians support changing the constitution. 

It would seem that the Kremlin has decided that the best possible outcome of the nationwide vote can be produced now, when fears of infection remain high and the opposition is divided. In the fall, opponents might be able to use regional elections—scheduled for September 13—as a focal point for protest. Rather than risk it, the Kremlin has decided to go to the polls now. These extensive efforts to push the vote and reforms through suggest that despite two decades of molding political institutions to accommodate authoritarian practices, Putin remains invested in the legitimating value of popular approval.