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Putin’s Sham Vote

The changes to the Russian constitution could make him the longest-reigning Russian ruler in modern history, surpassing even Stalin.
July 9, 2020
Putin’s Sham Vote
Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station after a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms in Moscow on July 1, 2020. - Russia went to the polls in a nationwide ballot on constitutional reforms that could see President Vladimir Putin remain in power until 2036. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

From June 25 to July 1, Russia held a week of balloting on a package of amendments to the Russian constitution, the headliner of which was a provision that, as it is often described in the press, “resets the presidential term-limit clock to zero.” Its approval means that Russian President Vladimir Putin can run for two additional six-year terms when his current stint ends in 2024.

This would have Putin occupying the president’s chair (the possibility of him losing a presidential election is not even acknowledged) until 2036, when he would be 83 years of age. The former KGB lieutenant colonel has been in power since 2000 and has been the president for this entire period—except 2008-2012 when he served as prime minister and Dmitri Medvedev was president for one four-year term. A presidency continuing until 2036 would make him the longest-reigning Russian ruler in modern history, surpassing even the three decades of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Before the vote, the greatest fear of the ruling order in the Kremlin, a Moscow-based political analyst explained to me, was that “the turnout in voter participation for these constitutional amendments would fall far short of a majority of the electorate. Many people are so cynical about this entire process because the always knew Putin was going to find some mechanism to stay in power—it was just a question of how. Not voting at all was the option that many of them decided would be their way of protesting.”

It is also clear that the administration in the Kremlin understood this reality, which was why all possible steps were taken to boost the voter turnout. These measures went well beyond just allowing voters a full week to cast their ballots instead of a standard, one-day election. Among other innovations was permitting voting in the cities of Moscow and Nizhni-Novgorod—as an “experimental” procedure—by mobile device.

What is notable is that a relentless public program of advertisements encouraging voters to come out and cast their ballots highlighted all the other items in the list of changes to the Russian constitution. But the ads made almost no mention of the provision that would effectively make Putin a president-for-life—telegraphing that a “Putin forever” scenario is not nearly as popular as the Kremlin would like to think.

The other items being voted upon included an increase in pension payments and the minimum wage, a minor reorganization of the government structure, a change in the constitutional language mentioning “faith in God,” a ban on gay marriage, requirements of the state institutions to take steps to preserve Russian history, and a ban on top officials holding dual citizenship—the latter of which is likely to be widely violated with little or no consequence for those guilty of doing so.

The same ads attempted to entice all of those eligible to vote by emphasizing that casting a ballot would make one eligible to win one of “millions of prizes,” and not voting means no chance of taking home a new washing machine or hair dryer.

“It looks like a game show but I’m telling everybody I know to take this seriously, it’s enough to make you lose your mind,” said Oleg Kharlamov, a laboratory technician from Moscow, who told Ukraine’s UNIAN news service that he intended to vote against the proposed amendments. The vote would help determine “who’s in charge for the next generation, and if we complain, they will say . . . ‘you voted for it,’” he said.

Not taking the balloting seriously was also fairly easy to do, as this vote entailed almost no safeguards against the stuffing of ballot boxes. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as the excuse, election officials decided that from a public health standpoint it would be “safer” to collect ballots outdoors. So ballot boxes were placed on tree stumps, in the trunks of automobiles, on public buses—even on plastic patio furniture.

(It is worth noting that, although the international press often referred to the vote as a “referendum,” it technically was not. Under Russian law, a formal referendum entails a number of requirements—including election monitors with free access to polling stations, no electronic voting, voting limited to one day—that Putin’s government was able to circumvent by calling this a “general vote,” a term with no legal meaning.)

Speaking with the Russian media just before the week of voting began, Grigory Melkonyants, the co-chair of Russia’s independent election-monitoring organization Golos, declared the vote to be the “most manipulative” and “least transparent” election in the history of modern Russia. “We’ve never had this many complaints from people telling us they are being pressured to vote,” he told the Moscow Times.

The authorities are making use of the pandemic “to their advantage,” Melkonyants said. “Mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines mean observers won’t be able to verify a voter’s identity.”

Election observers, who are normally given full access to all polling stations, were not allowed to visit any of them without first securing approval from the local election commission. No video monitoring of polling stations was made possible and the ballot boxes themselves were kept overnight in the polling stations and not in central lockup of the local election board. As Melkonyants described it, this arrangement

leaves a dark zone in which we won’t know what is happening. . . . It opens up the possibility for mass tampering. . . . The motivation in my mind is to make the voting maximally non-transparent. . . . This very seriously influences our trust in the results.

Plenty of reasons for doubting the integrity of the results soon emerged. Despite numerous assurances from public officials that those voting by electronic device online would not be permitted to cast a paper ballot or vice versa, a reporter from Moscow’s Dozhd TV was able to do just that. His double-vote was caught and corrected only because he embarrassed the city election commission by reporting the incident online.

Putin’s victory was preordained. Local and regional officials were literally given quotas of voter participation—as well as numbers of “yes” votes—that they were required to meet, in a move that harks back to the orders in the old Soviet “five-year plans” to fulfill production quotas.

Other reports have emerged of voters being assigned QR codes and then being told that voting entered them in a raffle to win a car or an apartment, with the QR codes being generated in the first place by local companies uploading a list of their employees to a website designed to get out the vote. Public figures with wide followings on Instagram and TikTok were even offered millions of Russian rubles in under-the-table payments if they encouraged all their followers to cast ballots.

But perhaps the clearest sign that the fix was in was the fact that, weeks before the vote even took place, publishing houses were already stocking bookstores in Moscow and elsewhere with copies of the new, amended constitution—even though no changes had been approved yet.

Prior to the election, the Kremlin’s orders about voter turnout were for the measures to pass by a margin of at least 70 to 30 percent. Not surprisingly, the final tally was roughly just that—79 percent in favor of the changes to the constitution and 21 percent against, with a 68 percent voter turnout.

Equally unsurprising are the charges of massive electoral fraud leveled in Moscow over the weekend. An independent analysis by Russian researcher Sergei Shpilkin estimates that at least 22 million votes—one out of every four tallied—were cast fraudulently. The falsification of the vote “exceeded anything seen before” in recent Russian elections, he wrote in an article after the balloting, describing it as an “unprecedented situation.”

That famous joke of bygone generations about “in Chicago we vote early and often” would look like a clean election by comparison

Putin now has the result he wanted, but that does not mean the road ahead is free of potential disruptions. The Levada Center, which is virtually the only reliable and independent polling entity left in Russia, puts Putin’s popularity at its lowest point since he came to power in 2000. According to VTsIOM, the state polling agency, for the last several months under 30 percent of Russians have said they actually trust Putin.

Furthermore, the stamp of legitimacy Putin had wanted as a result of this vote is nonexistent. Factoring in the likely number of fraudulent votes reveals that no more than 29 percent of all eligible voters cast a ballot in favor of the constitutional changes. There are also huge divisions among ethnic Russians, with 40 percent approving and 30 percent opposing giving Putin two more terms in office.

Russia faces immense problems of social and economic disintegration. Infrastructure, one of the few areas in which Soviet planners performed reasonably well, is becoming more and more an abject failure under Putin’s rule. A recent oil spill in the Arctic region of Norilsk has only added to the list of ecological disasters in post-Communist Russia.

“Putin now has the constitutional authority to keep running for president until he is the same age as [presumptive U.S. Democratic nominee] Joe Biden is today,” a leading Russian political analyst here in Kiev told me. “But given the problems of Russia today and the troubles ahead it is by no means an ironclad guarantee that Putin can remain in power this long—or that the system of government he has created is sustainable.”

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.