Jenny Mathers


A photograph of a cat was making the rounds on Twitter during Russia’s nationwide vote on a package of proposed changes to the constitution. The cat sits on a chair, facing a woman wearing personal protective equipment behind a table set up as an open air polling station. The caption describes the woman welcoming the cat and reassuring him that he will be able to cast his vote freely. Then she explains the procedure: meow to vote yes, bark to vote no.


This tweet encapsulates the gap between form and substance that characterises voting in Russia. There is an illusion of choice, but the outcome is never in any real doubt. The availability in bookshops of printed copies of the new constitution before votes were even cast demonstrates the authorities’ confidence in the results.


What can we possibly learn from this event, except that the tradition of managing voting is alive and well in Russia? The logical, headline conclusion – the  state wins again and Putin gets what he wants (a green light to stay in power until 2036) – may be accurate, but it masks important, incremental developments in Russian politics that are only visible in the details.


Getting Out the Vote


One obvious lesson of this vote is that the state has to work a lot harder these days to get the results that it wants. Russian officials typically deploy a number of measures to ensure both a high turnout and a comfortable margin for the right outcome. But on this occasion they clearly felt the need to pull out all the stops. Incentives for voters to come to the polls included raffles offering extravagant prizes such as the chance to win a new flat; far more exciting than the cheap food and free entertainment that is usually on offer. To address the public health concerns of going to the polls during a pandemic, voting was held over a week-long period, with opportunities to vote online as well as at a wide range of dispersed outdoor sites, and the final day of voting (1 July) was a public holiday.


There was also the element of subtle or not so subtle coercion. But while employers routinely put pressure on their workers to vote, this time there was a new, high tech twist. An electronic surveillance system that required the (probably illegal) sharing of personal data by employers with officials at polling stations was reportedly introduced to track precisely who actually voted.


But even with all of these efforts, which included an advertising campaign that featured images of children to tug at the heartstrings of voters, and credible allegations of historically high levels of outright fraud, the actual turnout was just 65% according to official figures (lower than the 67.5% turnout in the 2018 presidential election), with 21% voting against the bundle of amendments despite a campaign highlighting the most popular, such as indexing pensions to inflation, and downplaying the extension of Putin’s tenure in the Kremlin.


A Determined Civil Society


Another lesson of the constitutional reform process is the growing strength of investigative journalism in Russia. Russia’s independent news media is small but tenacious, and includes outlets like Meduza, which broke the story about voter surveillance technology. One of Meduza’s editors, Alexey Kovalev, spoke to first year International Politics students at Aberystwyth earlier this year about the relationship between politics and the media in Russia. Kovalev emphasized the importance of the daily, often tedious, search for detailed evidence that he and his colleagues carry out. Their dogged commitment to this painstaking work not only enables Russians to be much better informed. It also provides one of the few mechanisms of accountability in politics.  


Furthermore, this vote has demonstrated – again – that Russia’s opposition is not going away. Every campaign and election since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 has given the regime’s opponents more opportunities to articulate their message, influence public opinion and, above all, to demonstrate that they are not giving up. The creativity and attention-grabbing tactics used this time around include staging demonstrations involving toys and vegetables, as well as using the bodies of protesters to spell out the number 2036 (the date when Putin should, finally, cease to be president) on Moscow’s Red Square.  


Those who want to see political change in Russia do not always agree among themselves – there was a split between those who followed the call for a boycott issued by unofficial opposition leader Alexei Navalny and those who decided to exercise their right to vote “no” to the package of amendments. But despite their differences, the persistence of the opposition is impressive. Again and again they have demonstrated their commitment to play a long game and their ability to adapt their tactics to suit the occasion.


A Regime Running Out of Ideas


Finally, the substance of the constitutional amendments themselves suggests that this is a regime without a plan for tomorrow; its only inspiration is the past and its only hope for the future lies in the hands of the man who has already held power for the last two decades.


Resetting the clock on term limits for Putin may look like a power play and the ultimate exercise of political strength, but by going further down the path of a personalist autocracy, Putin reveals the weaknesses of the political system. According to Putin himself, as soon as he indicates that he will step down, Russia’s elites will devote themselves to jockeying for position and the work of government will grind to a halt. A state that is too fragile to withstand a transfer of power is facing trouble in the future, no matter how strenously it tries to postpone that reckoning.


The impression of a narrow and backward-looking vision is reinforced by other measures included in these constitutional reforms. The amendments that address Russian culture, history and society are largely aimed at denying the possibility of development and change. Marriage is to remain the union of a man and a woman, the questioning of Russia’s territorial integrity (for example, its control of Crimea) is banned, and the “historical truth” of Russia’s past is to be preserved. Placing these provisions in the constitution goes beyond a symbolic commitment to conservative values; it implies that these values are under assault and require the added protection of constitutional authority. This helps to discredit those who want to see Russia move in a more tolerant and inclusive direction, as well as providing the authorities with additional firepower to use against critics of the state.


All in all, Putin have bought himself and the Russian state some breathing space, but the days when Russian society placed their faith in him to solve their problems are already gone, perhaps never to return.



Author biography


Jennifer G. Mathers is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Aberystwyth University. She tweets @jgmaber. Image credit: President of Russia.