Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a delayed vote on constitutional reforms that could extend his rule beyond 2024 will take place on July 1, amid a mounting number of coronavirus cases in the country. The Russians, however, can cast their vote as early as June 25 to avoid crowds and ensure safety at the polling stations. At the same time, this move most likely won’t add to the transparency of the process.
Putin is not happy about the delay. The COVID-19 pandemic has led not only to the vote being delayed but also to the postponement of a massive military parade to celebrate the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in WWII which could potentially lift spirits amid tight restrictions of the last few months. The Kremlin is aware that the number of Russians who have been furious about quarantine measures caused by the virus and poverty as a result of the deteriorating economy is growing exponentially.
For the population, amending the constitution shows that it is yet another Kremlin’s desire to finally “reset” Putin’s presidential term count back to zero. The vote matters because it will allow Putin to stay on as president until 2036. To achieve this, about 15 billion rubles (almost $219 million) in total would be spent by the Russian government. Elon Musk could have used this money to send spaceships with Russian officials into space at least four times.
As Russia announced the novel coronavirus has peaked in the country where at least 485,000 cases are confirmed, one of the country's oldest pollsters, Russian Public Opinion Research Center has already predicted a turnout for the Constitution vote to be at 66% with 61% of support to the proposed amendments. Such data matches the numbers voiced by the Presidential Office earlier which (most likely) had been prepared by the same people.
The most recent data published by Russia's Levada Center also suggests that 44% of voters are set to approve the planned changes, with 32% against. In April, the figures were 47% and 31%.
As Reuters reported on June 1, Putin's opponents also suspect that the vote may be rigged to make sure the Kremlin gets the result it wants. For instance, the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation headed by Ella Pamfilova proposes to simplify the procedure and issue ballots for voting without entering citizens’ passport data as well as to conduct voting at home and provide early voting possibility without good reason. Such innovations will level out the remainder of the legal force of the referendum. What matters to the Kremlin is the result, not the legitimacy of the vote.
The pandemic has shown that no political leader is immune to its effects on their popularity. A few polls from mid-May indicate a poor state of affairs: Putin's real rating stands at about 15% and not 28% as it’s often declared. About 75% of respondents said they don’t trust his policy and this number is even higher among the young, reaching a whopping 90 percent. At the same time, more Russians are ready to take it to the streets as their readiness to protest is at its highest level in the past 20 years. Alexander Kynev, a political scientist and expert in the field of regional political processes in Russia and the CIS, says such figures are no surprise. “It was mentioned that Putin's rating is 7-15%. This is the drop in the rating that is obvious to everyone.”
The military parade - postponed from May 9 - is now due to go ahead June 24, the week before the vote on the constitution. Before then, official statistics will most likely show a decline in the new cases of COVID-19. The regions are preparing to lift strict lockdown measures by ensuring the vote will go as planned.
Boosting morale on the eve of the constitutional changes vote has been one of the priorities of the Kremlin's political technologists. Therefore, immediately after the Victory Day Parade, a vaccine against coronavirus might be introduced, according to a few sources with knowledge of the matter. Perhaps, it won’t be viable, but it will fulfill its role in the overall political performance.
To reassure the public, the Kremlin promises on the nearest future to deliver to Russian hospitals a new drug "Avifavir" against COVID-19 with allegedly proven clinical effectiveness. It is announced that the first treatment kits will be distributed free of charge to all Russians with medical insurance. The Kremlin has already started an extensive propaganda campaign to praise its “leadership” in an international race for treatment and will try to highlight this fact as a victory over the United States, Japan, and China. It is also expected that Moscow will try to win the title of “savior” of the world economy, as in record time it was able to provide a global response to the global pandemic.
The “first Russian drug against coronavirus,” approved by the Russian Ministry of Health, is a drug called “Favipiravir,” which was first produced in Japan in 2014 as a cure for influenza. Experts argue that there is nothing Russian in it, except for the packaging.
As Russia still records the world’s third-highest number of reported coronavirus cases after the United States and Brazil, it is ready to lift the restrictions to approve Putin’s latest constitutional changes. “Well that’s that, we vanquished coronavirus,” Kira Yarmysh, the spokesperson for Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, tweeted. “Just two weeks before the parade and vote, what a lucky break.”