Of tragedies and farces

Russia will hold military parades across the country to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War, on 24 June. Following the parade (officially on 1 July, but with voting stretched out over a week) a country-wide plebiscite will be held about a constitutional reform proposed by Vladimir Putin in January and adopted by Russia’s parliament in March. Both the parades and the vote, planned for May and April respectively, had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while Russia is slowly bending the curve, the situation does not look suitable to hold mass events and a vote. Yet, anticipating economic hardship and facing falling ratings, Putin wants to get the vote done as soon as possible. In recent weeks, small acts of defiance have suggested that the haste may take away a great deal of legitimacy from the reform.

To be fair, Putin is between a rock and a hard place. First, his trust rating is declining and has been for years, a tendency that the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have accelerated. According to the independent Levada Center in May only 25 percent of respondents named Putin as one of 5-6 political leaders whom they trusted, less than the 28 percent who said that they were ready to participate in a protest. Another Levada survey, published last week, in which participants had to name living people who inspired them, put Alexei Navalny at second place with 4 percent, behind Putin with 8, despite the character assassination campaign that the Kremlin has been conducting against Navalny for almost a decade. What is more, Navalny beat Putin among 40-54-year-olds, an interesting cohort that came of age in 1984-98 and seem to be inspired by people across the whole spectrum of Russian politics.

Putin was not fully invisible or withdrawn from decision-making during the pandemic; he simply tried to bestow responsibility for potentially unpopular or risky measures on lower-level officials, while only announcing feel-good measures or tough dressing-downs himself, an arrangement that had worked in the past, but which turned out to be woefully unsuited for a pandemic. And when Putin tried to look tough, it looked more like a caricature, with headlines such as “Putin threw his pen on the table” or “Putin raised his voice and shook his finger”, far from the swagger of the Putin cracking jokes on live TV or publicly humiliating unruly oligarchs. Arguably, if the plebiscite is indeed regarded as a referendum on Putin, the president is interested to get it over and done with as soon as possible, before the coming economic crisis turns it into a referendum on his recent performance.

At the same time, the pandemic is far from over. This week Russia’s official case count surpassed 500,000 and while according to official figures the number of new cases has plateaued around 8,000 daily, this is still far from reassuring, especially in regions that are several weeks behind Moscow. Yet, for the sake of the Victory Day parade and the plebiscite – which are really two parts of the same political choreography – people as well as regional and local authorities are now asked to do the exact opposite of what they have been doing so far, even as in certain regions the situation keeps worsening. One could argue that the situation actually benefits the Kremlin: under the pretext of ensuring voters’ safety, absentee voting and electronic voting will be extended, which will make it easier to hide any rigging from the prying eyes of observers. But the Kremlin seems intent to hold the vote in an atmosphere of “normalcy”, even as in most regions it is obvious that the situation is not normal.

Not adding up

This week Putin said that “an absolute majority” backed the constitutional reform. This is far from certain. Arguably, an absolute majority probably backs many of the proposed changes – the ultraconservative elements and social guarantees that were added to the “package” as a means to make it more palatable for voters, and which Putin will flesh out in a series of interviews in the coming weeks -, but the picture is more mixed when it comes to the most important part, the provision allowing Putin to run for two more presidential terms post-2024. According to a Levada survey from March, only 48 percent of Russians supported this and 47 percent were against, virtually a tie. It should also be pointed out that speaking of an “absolute majority”, if Putin was actually hinting at the result that he wanted to see on 1 July, suggests that the Kremlin significantly lowered its expectations as regards the vote: in February media reported that regions had been instructed to ensure that the reform is supported by at least 70 percent of voters at a turnout of at least 60 percent. And it seems that even to meet these lowered expectations the authorities will have to take a significant health risk, conduct a sweeping PR-campaign all while keeping the “zeroing” amendment almost hidden – even though as recently as in March the story was that “ordinary people” asked Valentina Tereshkova to table the amendment –, stretch out the vote over seven days and force civil servants to register. It will probably also take a lot of rigging.

It is in this already awkward situation that we have seen several small acts of defiance from officials, public servants and other elements of the Russian political system. I have recently written about the newfound assertiveness of some regional leaders, which in my view raised questions about the durability of the power arrangement between Moscow and the regions. The newest acts of defiance have to do with both the constitutional plebiscite and the Victory Day parades.

First, there was the way Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin ended the city’s lockdown. Up until early June Sobyanin, an early champion of severe restrictions had maintained that some of the measures would not be withdrawn until the daily count of new covid cases dropped to a couple of hundred. Yet, this count was around 2,000 when he abruptly announced that the measures would be lifted. Shortly thereafter Sobyanin advised Muscovites not to attend the Victory Day parade. Sobyanin’s last-minute turnaround suggests either that there is barely any coordination between the mayor and the Kremlin – which is unlikely – or that Sobyanin wanted to make it abundantly clear that the lockdown was lifted for the sake of Putin’s projects, and thus it wasn’t his decision. He couldn’t possibly say no to a command coming directly from the Kremlin, but he could emphasize that there was a disagreement and that it needed to come to this. In other words, Sobyanin refused to anticipate the Kremlin’s wishes.

At the same time, at least ten cities across Russia have announced that they were going to postpone their Victory Day parades. While these do not include any of the most important cities – “Hero Cities” and cities housing military units – but it can still be regarded as small acts of defiance, city officials putting common sense and residents’ interests above Putin’s. The 350 election officials who days later publicly refused to participate in the plebiscite also appealed to common sense, making a clear distinction between the interest of Putin and the interest of the people by saying “we don’t understand why such sacrifices and risks are needed, why we need to hold such a vote now and at any price”. Again, this is a small act of defiance – there are hundreds of thousands of election officials who will be working on the plebiscite – but the 350 dissenters still make up a visible enough group. And there is also the Communist Party, the biggest party of the “systemic opposition”, urging people not to support the reform, going as far as to set up its own online vote. The Communist Party does take jabs at the Kremlin every once in a while, but has usually toed the Kremlin line on important issues in recent years and only abstained at the Duma vote in March.  

Dangers ahead

Considering these awkward grains of sand in the machine, it is perhaps no wonder that Russia’s security elite seems to be more vocally concerned about separatism. Nikolay Patrushev, the Kremlin’s main security hawk and the secretary of the Security Council told the Argumenty i Fakti weekly that the Council had information of Western attempts to stoke nationalism and separatism in Russia’s region. The fear of renewed separatism – in spite (or because) of two decades of relentless centralization – impacted the constitutional reform itself. One has to wonder if Patrushev’s statement is a message to the regions that any attempt at independent initiatives and expanding their self-rule will be answered with the utmost strictness.

These small acts of defiance and the Kremlin’s visible concern over them matter because running the electoral machine on which the Kremlin relies for legitimacy still requires a lot of cooperation. You need regional officials to draw out absentee voting over a week evenly. You need electoral officials to stuff ballot boxes or falsify the results. You need law enforcement, judges and thugs to keep observers away. And it just seems that this cooperation may cost more and may become harder to solicit in the future. And this, again, matters because for Putin’s own legitimacy it is vital that his orders are not questioned or just not implemented by lower-level officials.

The most immediate and biggest danger – that the plebiscite fails – can probably be dodged. It also still seems unlikely that major protests will follow. As we have seen over the past couple of years, “readiness” to participate in protests does not readily translate into people actually taking to the streets and it is understood that when it comes to law enforcement, the Kremlin can still strike when and where it has to.

But there is another danger. The pandemic highlighted some of the worst failures of the system Putin has built over the past twenty years. The lackluster federal response coupled with hesitant steps by regional authorities that were suddenly more visible and accessible, but still lacked the means to take effective decisions; the sometimes confusing communication by the authorities, falsified numbers, the differences in the way the government handled big and small corporations, quarantine-dodging elites and frontline medical workers. It very likely made a fair number of people more suspicious of the government’s figures and intentions. And if you cannot trust your local COVID-19 figures, why would you trust the official results of the plebiscite?

If the constitutional reform and the plebiscite were, as many suggested, supposed to cement Putinism by showcasing its public support, then the plan is not going well. The biggest danger for Putin is not that the changes don’t pass. It is that as soon as the reform is enacted, its legitimacy can be challenged very easily. Much more easily than it looked like five, or even just three months ago.

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