We have come to the end of the strange marathon of a voting procedure in Russia, when for an entire week citizens could vote a single “yes” or “no” on 206 amendments to the constitution. The results – not surprising to anyone, and definitely pleasing to the Kremlin – show 78 per cent support for “resetting” the count on Vladimir Putin’s terms as a president, allowing him to potentially serve until 2036, and increasing his influence over all branches of government.
With a 65 per cent turnout, the Kremlin’s target has been exceeded. The vote was called to add a veneer of legitimacy to changes which have already been made to the constitution, but in this regard, it is not clear that the exercise has been a success.
This vote was not just a typical Russian elections, involving a number of fraud allegations. The technical and practical procedures involved made a mockery of the process. To start with, this was not a referendum, for which there is an established constitutional process; instead, it was a ‘national vote’ – a concept invented for this purpose. The electorate was fully informed about the weight of this procedure when ahead of the vote Ella Pamfilova, Chairwoman of the Russian Central Election Commission, explained that Putin’s desire to hear the public’s opinion was laudable, but not necessary – as the amendments have already been “accepted”.
The Covid-19 crisis provided the Kremlin with an excuse to ‘socially-distance’ voting from independent oversight: polling stations sprang up on park benches and out of car boots, election volunteers visited people in their homes and at work places, and a large share of voting happened online. Such clearly flawed voting procedures (which Valentina Matviyenko, Chairwoman of the Federation Council, has already proposed be made standard for future elections) will make it hard for the general public to take the very idea of voting seriously.
Unintentionally, the Kremlin has created a stark trade-off. The greater the lengths it has gone to in seeking high turnout and approval figures, the less able it has been to create a picture of a valid or legitimate process. The Kremlin spent significant amounts of political capital to get its base out to vote at any cost in the midst of a pandemic.
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes part in a judo training session at a sports complex in St Petersburg on 22 December 2010
Putin holds a tommy gun during a visit to Izhevsk Mechanical Works, a weapons manufacturer in May 2010
Putin plays with his dogs Buffy (L) and Yume at his residence in Novo-Ogariovo in March 2013
Putin wears a helmet and the uniform of the Renault Formula One team before driving a F1 race car on a special track in Leningrad region outside St. Petersburg on in November 2010
Putin sports a pair of goggles during a visit to the Technology Park of the Novosibirsk Academic Town in February 2012
Putin holds a huge pike fish, after he caught it in the Tyva on 26 July 2013
Putin inspects a horse in the Karatash area, near the town of Abakan in March 2010
Putin looks down the sight of a replica kalashnikov rifle at a target range in Moscow in April 2012
Putin works out at a gym at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on 30 August 2015
Putin drives down a highway in St Petersburg in August 2013
Putin takes part in a judo training session at the Moscow sports complex in St Petersburg, on 22 December 2010.
Putin speaks with Leonardo DiCaprio on 23 November 2010 after a concert to mark the International Tiger Conservation Forum in St Petersburg
Putin holds two ancient amphorae he found while scuba diving in Taman Bay as he visits an underwater archaeological site at Phanagoria on 10 August 2011
Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on 4 February 2014
Putin rides a train in Moscow on 21 November 2019
Putin hunts fish in southern Siberia in August 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin plunges into the icy waters of lake Seliger during the celebration of the Epiphany holiday in Russia's Tver region in January 2018
Putin measures a dead polar bear on the island Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipalego in the Arctic Ocean in April 2010
Putin sits inside a T-90AM tank during a visit to an arms exhibition in the Urals town of Nizhny Tagil in September 2011
Putin holds a Bulgarian sheperd dog given to him by his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov after their press conference in Sofia on 13 November 2010
However, this new order will be built on weak foundations. Russia is left without a strong constitution or robust political institutions, which have all have either been weakened by recent amendments or discredited by the months of controversy over pushing them through.
Respect among the public for the rule of law is already chronically low in Russia and the new constitution will do nothing to change that, born as it is from such a public show of its illegitimacy. Putin may have managed to push through his constitutional changes, but the ongoing damage being done to rule of law in Russia means this does little to cement his position.
Professor Nikolai Petrov is senior research fellow on the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House. Ekaterina Aleynikova is a research assistant on the same programme.