A show of force

According to the official results 78 percent of the 67 percent of Russian citizens who voted in a plebiscite on Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reform – or just over 50 percent of all voters – supported the reform, which will enter into force on July 4. The vote seems to have been egregiously rigged and thus is unlikely to lend much public legitimacy to the reform. But perhaps this was not the goal anyway.

It is done: a constitutional reform initiated by Vladimir Putin in January, which, among other important changes, strengthens the position of the Russian president and will allow Putin to run for two more presidential terms, is entering into force tomorrow, on July 4. Even considering that the vote had to be postponed from April to July due to the COVID-19 pandemic (and was then held in July in spite of the pandemic), the reform was adopted exceptionally fast. Less than half a year has passed between the day when we all first heard about the changes and the day when Russian citizens approved them in a plebiscite.

Only they most likely did not.

Not keeping up appearances

A statistical analysis of the official result by Sergey Shpilkin, a researcher suggests that more than 20 million votes cast in support of the amendments were likely falsified, making the plebiscite the most rigged vote in the past three decades. Observers across the country reported much lower turnout at the polling stations that they observed than what the Central Electoral Commission registered at other polling stations in the same area. Turnout figures and voting results at many polling stations seem to be suspiciously uniform, suggesting that the appropriate number was simply written down by officials without even bothering to count the actual votes. Surreptitiously taken photos suggest that in some cases officials simply adding a thousand votes to the “yes” side by writing a “1” in front of the number on the official record of votes before publishing it electronically. Independent exit-polls in Moscow and St. Petersburg showed a comfortable majority against the amendments in both cities, even as official results stated the opposite. In the Komi Republic, a recently restive region North of Moscow, early results suggested a large majority against the constitutional reform. They were swiftly “corrected”.

And these reports do not even take into account the effect of voter coercion by large enterprises and public institutions, the blatant abuse of administrative resources to lure people to polling stations, or the state-owned VTsIOM pollster publishing “exit-poll” results before the vote was already over, thereby putting pressure on voters by suggesting to them that an overwhelming majority supported the amendments.

Officially in only one federal subject did citizens vote against the amendments: the Nenets Autonomous District (NAO), a remote and sparsely populated region in Russia’s Arctic with significant oil and gas reserves – Russia’s smallest region by population – where plans to merge the district with the poorer Arkhangelsk Region had recently led to protests by residents and local officials and residents also feared that the constitutional reform would create the possibility for Moscow to take direct control over the region and its resources. This certainly contributed to the majority “no” vote, as did the fact that in a small region where residents and officials know each other it is more difficult to commit the kind of mass falsifications seen in other regions. But this fiasco, if one can even call it that, is unlikely to make any difference. In fact, Ella Pamfilova, the head of the Central Electoral Commission was quick to suggest that the official result in the NAO confirming that the majority voted against the reform, proved that votes must have been counted fairly everywhere else, which is obvious nonsense. At best, the results in the NAO show the limits of coercion and how the Kremlin needs the cooperation of local elites and public servants in the regions to implement policies or to commit fraud, and that these elites have their own interests to pursue, which do not always align with the Kremlin’s.

A riskier path?

The plebiscite, which was supposed to give a legitimacy boost to Putin’s constitutional reforms itself struggled with legitimacy problems even before the falsifications, which prompted the president to don his pragmatic persona and remind Russian citizens that their choice was between endorsing the amendments and chaos. Given the circumstances, it was not a terrible pitch.

However, Shpilkin’s model suggests that even without the rampant falsification, the plebiscite – which was not a legal requirement for the reform to pass anyway – would have confirmed the amendments: an estimated 65 percent of those who did indeed turn out to vote (the real turnout was likely around 45 percent) supported the reform. Now this is only 30 percent of Russian voters, not their absolute majority – a goal that Putin named before the vote – but given the circumstances of the vote the Kremlin’s media would surely have been able to explain the abstention away and turn the results into a roaring endorsement. Instead, the authorities, uncharacteristically for Putin, took a riskier approach and falsified the vote to suggest a much more significant endorsement that however looks thoroughly illegitimate. Why?

First of all, it seems unlikely that the falsifications will trigger a protest movement as significant as the rigging of the 2011 Duma election did. In December 2011 the protests were actually triggered by the “castling” – Putin and Dmitry Medvedev announcing that they would change places – and the election was likely a mere catalyst. The calculus looked different: for the Moscow protesters then the choice seemed to be between a gradually liberalizing Russia and Putin’s return to power; now the choice, even if one does not accept Putin’s argument that his alternative is chaos, seems much less clear. To many, the risk may seem less worth taking, especially after years of lavish spending on the capital. Without a doubt the pandemic has also had an effect on people’s perception and tolerance of risk and these changes are not lost on the Kremlin.

Second, perhaps we are looking at the legitimacy problem from the wrong angle. The constitutional reform is indeed very likely an attempt to prevent the political elite from preparing themselves for a post-Putin era already, by leaving open the possibility that Putin will serve two more terms. The purpose of the plebiscite, on the other hand, may have been to show that Putin running for president in 2024 was not just a theoretical possibility, but a feasible scenario. Even the timing of the vote may have carried this message. Yes, Putin very likely wanted to avoid postponing the plebiscite to an uncertain future when the economic and social situation might be significantly worse than now, but he was also likely irked by the behavior of certain officials – such as Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin – who looked ready to place public health considerations above the boss’s political interests, almost to the point of publicly disagreeing. Putin may have felt the necessity to draw a line.

Ultimately whether this works out for Putin will depend on how many voters recognize the vote and the results as fundamentally legitimate or at least inevitable – and how many will actively protest them – but also on how many in the elite find this new form of electoral autocracy sustainable. It will do little to solve Putin’s “pre-2024 problem” if the message to the elite is that the majority will tolerate Putin only as long as the alternative is chaos and demonstrating this support requires either frequent or continuous high-degree use of administrative resources. But if the vote creates a new reality – which the strengthened presidential powers do, in a sense – that the political elite and public servants accept as a manageable update to a system that risked becoming dangerously unstable, then Putin might just have pulled this one off.  

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