Joseph Stalin was reported to have said, at a Bolshevik party meeting in 1923, that voting is “completely unimportant” — “what is extraordinarily important is … who will count the votes, and how.” Except for a brief democratic interlude in the 1990s, this maxim has governed the Soviet and later the Russian government’s approach to elections ever since.

It was also on full display last week as the Central Election Commission announced the official results of a recent plebiscite that waived Vladimir Putin’s presidential term limits, allowing him to remain in power until 2036. Evidently unconcerned with appearances, the commission began publishing the tallies before voting has ended.

According to the certified results, 78 percent of Russians voted to make Putin, in effect, president for life. His press secretary Dmitry Peskov hailed the vote as a “triumphant referendum” on Putin’s leadership.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

A referendum, as codified in Russian law and governed by the international framework under Russia’s membership in bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), would have provided an opportunity to campaign on both sides; it would also have clearly established procedures on voting and counting; and it would have allowed independent and international observation at polling places. Given the trends in Russian public opinion —including the fall of public trust in Putin to 25 percent and a clear majority for age-limiting the presidency at 70 (Putin turns 68 this year) — it is hardly surprising that the Kremlin decided not to entrust such an important decision to the whim of the electorate.

Instead of a referendum, Russians got an ill-defined “public vote” — as Electoral Commission chair Ella Pamfilova called it, “a unique one-time affair.” While government agencies engaged in an unfettered push for a "yes” vote, the "no” campaign had its website blocked by the federal regulator and its rallies prohibited under the pretext of concern for public health. The voting lasted a whole week, with ballots handed out not only in regular polling places but also in makeshift mobile locations set up on park benches, car trunks and shopping trolleys. Organized coercion of public-sector employees to participate in the plebiscite was reported all over the country. (How they voted was of little concern: Ballots could be easily switched while being stored overnight in electoral commissions). According to two exit polls, most voters in Moscow and St. Petersburg rejected Putin’s constitutional amendments. The official tallies for both cities recorded a resounding "yes.”

In regular circumstances, many of these manipulations would have been exposed by independent observers — as they had been in previous Russian elections, most prominently in 2011. This time, however, the only observers allowed for the count were those approved by state-controlled institutions. Poll watchers from the OSCE and the Council of Europe were not invited — instead, Russian television paraded “international monitors” carefully selected among Europe’s far-right politicians, the Kremlin’s most reliable allies in the West. One such “monitor,” German Bundestag member Stefan Keuter from the Alternative for Germany — a known Nazi sympathizer who has sent out pictures of Adolf Hitler, made anti-Semitic remarks and defended the Third Reich’s policy of forced euthanasia — praised Russia’s election standards as “higher than Germany’s.”

Outside of the choreographed statements from the Kremlin’s far-right partners, international reaction to Putin’s power grab has been clear. “The outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied,” the bipartisan leaders of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), said in a statement. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people.” Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, was even blunter, noting that the “sham” vote “has swept away all remnants of Putin’s legitimacy.”

Legitimacy, indeed, is the key issue here. For a long time, Putin has been illegitimate de facto — extending his rule through a prearranged job swap (does anyone remember “President” Dmitry Medvedev?) or rubber-stamp “elections” in which opponents would be removed from the ballot. Until now, however, he was careful to maintain appearances, formally adhering to the letter of the law even as he violated its spirit.

This time, it’s different. By subverting term limits through a patently fraudulent vote, Putin has become illegitimate de jure; in the same league with rogue regimes that had employed this trick before.

From now — and certainly from the end of his current mandate in 2024 — the world’s democracies should treat him the same way they had, say, Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso or Alberto Fujimori in Peru. No more red-carpet ceremonies, no more “resets,” no more invitations to prestigious summits — in short, democracies should not offer the international acceptance Putin so desperately wants.

With his constitutional coup of 2020, Vladimir Putin has left the West no other choice. No other choice, that is, that wouldn’t betray its fundamental principles.

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