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July 2, 2020

RUSSIA: Constitutional changes shed little light on Putin’s post-2024 plans

BY Andrius Tursa

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Yesterday, 1 July, Russia concluded a week-long nationwide vote on 206 amendments to the country’s 1993 constitution. The approved constitutional amendments aim to give legitimacy to President Vladimir Putin’s potential re-election after his current term expires in 2024 and quell discussions among political elites about his succession. Putin has multiple options at his disposal to remain in power beyond 2024 and is unlikely to unveil his plans anytime soon. Although no mass protests have followed the vote, the deteriorating economic situation will keep the risk of larger-scale public unrest elevated in the second half of the year.

With nearly all ballots counted, results show that 77.9% of voters supported the amendments. Out of 85 Russia’s regions, only one – Nenets in the northwestern part of the country – voted against the changes. Turnout was relatively high at 65% but slightly lower than in the 2018 presidential election.

The positive outcome was widely anticipated, although the results should be taken with a grain of salt. The unusually long and flexible voting procedure left considerable room for irregularities. Although the country’s electoral commission reported no significant incidents, non-governmental observers noted multiple violations, accusing the authorities of mass fraud. Nonetheless, the Kremlin considers the new voting procedure successful in terms of limiting the potential epidemiological risks and boosting turnout. As a result, it possible that a similar voting setup will be used in future elections.

Despite some small-scale demonstrations in key cities, the poll did not trigger mass protests, as seen during the past few years. However, this does not mean that public tensions have subsided. Independent opinion polls show that Putin’s ratings remain at near all-time lows. Given the worsening economic situation and the limited prospects for a real improvement in living standards, even a small incident could spark a new wave of public unrest.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin will attempt to use the result of the vote to reaffirm Putin’s authority. The overwhelming support for the amendments – despite the questionable voting procedures – demonstrates that the vast majority of voters still support Putin’s regime. The high turnout also shows that Putin was able to mobilize the entire state apparatus and two-thirds of the electorate to change the country’s basic law.

As previously noted, the vote aims to legitimize Putin’s potential run for re-election after his term expires in 2024. While this does not necessarily mean that Putin will run for the post, such a possibility helps quell discussions among Russian elites about his potential successor. Putin is unlikely to reveal his plans anytime soon, however. One signpost to watch is how the readjusted power balance among the government branches works after the 2021 parliamentary election and whether the State Council – with the newly defined mandate of coordinating and developing domestic and foreign policies – gains in political significance.

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