To the untutored observer, that diverse input might look like evidence of democracy. In reality, like so many other aspects of government in today’s Russia, the amendment process is nothing more than an ornate facade for Putin’s authoritarian system. The 22 constitutional changes put forward by the Kremlin will remain the same in substance: a further strengthening of presidential power; the de facto abolition of the primacy of international law (including the European Convention on Human Rights) over domestic legislation; additional restrictions on eligibility for elected office, including the presidency; and the dramatic expansion of a once-insignificant institution, the State Council, which could become Putin’s power base after his (supposedly) final presidential term ends in four years. In a nutshell, the constitutional “reform” of 2020 is designed to institutionalize Putin’s long-intended status as ruler for life.
On the first reading last month, the constitutional amendments passed the Duma by 432 votes to zero, with no abstentions. For some time now, Russian parliaments have been compared to Soviet-era equivalents, which unanimously rubber-stamped the decisions of the Politburo. Until recently, however, there were always at least a handful of no votes or abstentions even on the most sensitive issues, including the ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children and the annexation of Crimea.
Now even that semblance of dissent appears to have ended. The first parliamentary vote on Putin’s constitutional amendments was as unanimous as the Soviet votes on the adoption of Joseph Stalin’s constitution in December 1936 or Leonid Brezhnev’s in October 1977. The Duma is now indeed “not a place for discussion,” as its former speaker once famously put it.
The Kremlin appears to be conscious of the legitimacy deficit of Russia’s opposition-free legislature. So in order to give the process some credibility, it will resort to a tool favored by dictators from Adolf Hitler to Saddam Hussein: a national plebiscite. Planning is already underway at the Central Election Commission. The Kremlin is reportedly giving regional governments targets for the desired outcome: more than 50 percent in favor of the amendments on a minimum of 50 percent turnout (with the goal for some regions set at 90 percent approval on a 70 percent turnout). A report on the independent news site Meduza cites government sources who say the inflated figures are supposed to “demonstrate high support for Vladimir Putin and his proposals.”
In a recent radio interview, Boris Nadezhdin, a former lawmaker and a moderate pro-Kremlin liberal, pointed out that such results will be “impossible” to achieve in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition sentiments have been growing increasingly strong. “The level of support [for the regime] is very low,” he said, noting that the authorities will have to resort to overt vote fraud, which will almost certainly provoke public protests of the kind seen in 2011. “I’m begging you, while it’s not too late: Cancel that vote,” he added live on the air, addressing the authorities.
The Russian opposition is already organizing to turn the plebiscite into a vote of no confidence in the regime. A manifesto signed by more than 40,000 people — including prominent leaders of the pro-democracy opposition and civil society groups — is urging Russians to go to the polls in April and reject what the authors are calling “a constitutional coup d’etat.” “There are situations in life when the main word becomes the word ‘No’,” wrote Lev Shlosberg, a regional lawmaker from the opposition Yabloko party and one of the manifesto’s signatories. “Millions of votes are needed against the policies of Vladimir Putin. . . . Say NO to Vladimir Putin.”
There weren’t many plebiscites called by authoritarian regimes that ended in their defeat. But there is at least one precedent that gives Putin’s opponents hope: On Oct. 5, 1988, Chileans voted in a national referendum called by the military junta to prolong the 15-year rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet by another eight years. In a stunning upset — memorialized in Pablo Larraín’s 2012 Oscar-nominated movie “No” — 56 percent of Chileans rejected the proposal, opening the way to multiparty elections and a transition to democratic rule.
Few are expecting the same result in Russia this year. Putin’s regime maintains tight control over society, and there is little international pressure of the kind that compelled Pinochet’s junta to count the votes honestly (and accept the result). But now, for the first time in decades, Russian citizens are getting a chance to make a clear, binary, black-and-white choice: yes or no to the regime. As former opposition lawmaker Dmitri Gudkov noted, “it would be a shame not to use the opportunity.”