Russia: Referendum on constitution aims at keeping Putin in power

President Putin, addressing the Russian Federal Assembly, January 2020 (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

On 25 June voting began in the referendum to decide the future fate of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Voting on a long list of amendments to the constitution will last almost a week, ending on 1 July, with a promise that the result will be announced on the same day.

Behind the beautiful words about the amendments lies the provision to extend Putin’s reign until 2036. At a State Duma meeting, the first female cosmonaut in the history of the world and part-time State Duma deputy, Valentina Tereshkova, proposed that Putin’s elapsed term should not be counted when the new Constitution was being adopted. His terms of government should be calculated only from the moment it is adopted.

An angry reaction followed immediately. People wanted to change the name of streets called after Tereshkova and started saying she was the first and last Soviet woman-cosmonaut because she was incompetent during her control of the spaceship.

The people of Russia will not get anything out of voting for the changes. Only the ruling circles will benefit. Firstly, new amendments to the Constitution essentially do not change anything and such initiatives are already approved by Russian legislation. Secondly, this vote is being used by the ruling circles only to confirm the relationship between Russians and the current government and any outcome will not harm the ruling circles, in any way.

Among the planned amendments is “The consolidation of traditional values”. A propaganda clip from the FAN state news agency about homosexuals taking a boy from an orphanage gained a lot of attention on the internet before it was deleted by YouTube. It tries to scare Russians into believing that if they do not vote for the amendments, children from the orphanages will be at ‘risk’, adopted by homosexual couples. The new amendments lay down that the only family is the union of a man and a woman.

It also gives Russian the status of “the language of a state-forming nation”. New amendments would give priority to Russian and has angered some of the national minorities within Russia’s borders, including Tatars, Bashkirs, Sakha. Their cultural traditions are under threat and they have problems studying in their languages at school with Russian replacing them.

To sweeten the whole project, the constitutional changes include ‘social guarantees’. They talk of establishing a minimum wage, for all, at no less than the level of a living wage. They also include the indexation of pensions and social benefits.

But such stipulations have already been enshrined in law. In 2017, a decree was signed that would increase the minimum wage to the minimum subsistence level from 2019 onwards. Pensions and social benefits are also indexed on paper, although it is difficult to figure out how this is working out in practice. Amendments to the constitution on indexation will not change anything.

The issues of the preservation of family values and the Russian language are not acceptable. Few can tell for sure how many people have been imprisoned for propaganda about homosexual relations and how many people in Russia cannot speak Russian.

What do people think?

Too many betrayals have been experienced by Russian workers over the past two years. The authorities obviously understand that their anti-social measures will not pass easily. One of the reasons for having the vote is to probe the opinion of the people and, if possible, legitimise Putin’s continued rule.

Even if the majority of Russians vote against – and some polls indicate that could be the case – it is hard to imagine that there will be any significant positive results. After the vote, the ruling circles will try to adopt their own particular course anyway.

If there is a majority of votes in favour, the legitimacy of the current government will be established and the current state of affairs in the country will continue.

If there is a majority of votes against, the ruling circles will take special measures to prove that they respect this ‘democracy’ and the interests of the people. New pseudo-changes will begin, such as a change of government after the New Year. The government will make temporary concessions, and, after 2024, the current president will probably be replaced by a new face that is literally the “face” that continues the same character of rule by Putin.

Surveys vary widely. SuperJob, an independent think tank, cites 42% against the amendments and just 18% planning to vote in favour. The more popular Levada Center cites figures that show 44% of Russians approve constitutional amendments, 32% disapprove. The pro-government VTsIOM cites figures that 61% are ready to support the amendments and 21% plan to vote against.

Boycott

Various left-wing opposition organisations in Russia, as in the last presidential election, are calling for a boycott and say it does not matter if this boycott is ‘active’ or ‘passive’. The expression ‘active boycott’ is contradictory anyway since boycott is a passive action.

The boycott can seem to some left activists like a win-win position, as in the case of the “active boycott” of Putin’s election in 2018. They argued for a boycott to demonstrate their defiance towards rulers. But this can also play out in favour of the authorities. The number of “For” votes in relation to “Against” votes increases with the level of abstention.

Supporters of the boycott argue that the lower the turnout, the more illegitimate Putin’s rule becomes. As evidence, they point to the various methods used by the authorities to push up the turnout.

The bureaucratic so-called Communist Party for a long time could not decide its position on the Constitutional referendum. At first they supported the social reforms promised. Then they proposed to boycott the referendum and now they are calling for voting against. They made their own proposal for a referendum on amendments. Despite the fact that their amendments contain a lot of words about social support, some of their amendments have a nationalist connotation. In particular, and not much different from Putin’s measures, they propose to give the Russian people the status of a “state-forming people”, superior to other nationalities within the Russian Federation.

Elections cost a lot of money. Large resources of the political elite and business are spent on elections – the pre-election campaign and efforts to maintain people’s level of confidence in the government. In any case, under our so-called democracy – both genuine and imagined – elections are sacrosanct. If people do not want to vote, the authorities just artificially increase the turnout by various means. There is constant repression, detentions at meetings, and intimidation.

Russian society is deprived of oxygen – the means of expression of opinion in the form of protests and freedom of criticism in the media and the Internet. Many people will decide that the only way to express their dissatisfaction is to vote NO on the amendments to the Constitution.

Obviously, the only way out in the end is not to play by the rules of the authorities. However, at this stage, it would have been better to unite the scattered camps of ‘NO’ and ‘Boycott’. They did not unite their camps and act as a united front. It is very easy for the authorities to put a circle round the names of oppositionists and revolutionaries.

Some recent opinion polls have shown only just over 40% in favour of Putin and his proposals. This is why he did not want to postpone the referendum any longer. Putin also wanted to keep the polls open for nearly a week in order to be able to influence the vote as it is going along!

The government will not meet the demands of the workers, but many workers will decide that they can make their feelings heard by voting ‘No’! It is true that many workers will boycott as a protest but probably many more will vote No in this situation so as to make an active protest.

We are in a stalemate in Russia, and the only way to start breaking it is to protest and organise the mobilisation of workers. The situation may change. In 2011, at first, there were no big protests, but a little more time passed and the whole country began to boil. The left was not ready for such a turn of events. It is time to build a real party of workers that can fight for a socialist alternative to oligarchic capitalism in Russia.

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