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Here to Stay: What Putin’s Referendum Means for Russia and the World

Here to Stay: What Putin’s Referendum Means for Russia and the World

On August 14, 2020, Posted by , In Uncategorized, With Comments Off on Here to Stay: What Putin’s Referendum Means for Russia and the World
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By Nate McGhie

Russians went to the polls July 1st to vote on a referendum that will make sweeping changes to their constitution, most notably greatly expanding President Vladimir Putin’s federal power and extending his potential presidency to the year 2036.

The longtime Russian leader’s term limit was set to end in 2024, but the recently approved constitutional amendment will reset his term limits. It will also allow the president to appoint and remove cabinet members without Parliamentary approval, appoint and fire justices of the Russian Supreme Court, and appoint members to the Federal Council (comparable to the US Senate) for life. It writes a same-sex marriage ban into the country’s constitution, [1] and finally, the referendum affords Putin lifetime legal immunity. [2]

With the exception of the recent coronavirus era, Putin has enjoyed approval ratings in the 60-80% range for the entirety of his time in office. [4] The Russian leader has held power, either as president or prime minister, since 1999. Should Putin serve to the end of 2036 as the referendum allows, he will have led the Russian government for 37 years. One must look back to 17th century and Peter the Great to find a Russian head of state who has held power for longer. [5]

Prior to the proposed amendments, the political atmosphere in Russia was becoming increasingly tense. Speculation rose as to how the empty space would be filled when Putin, the unquestionable center of the Russian power balance, left office. The leader’s recent actions have put that tension to rest. Russians, who have seen power vacuums wreak havoc and chaos in their long history, see in Putin a man whose name has become “synonymous with stability”. [3] Had the referendum failed, Russia would face its biggest political uncertainty since the fall of the Soviet Union. That undesirable prospect undoubtedly occupied on Russians minds as they went to the polls.

In addition to the strength that continued stability could bring to Russia, Putin added several amendments to the referendum that likely sealed the deal for voters. Among them is a provision that minimum wage and pension be renewed annually to never dip below the poverty line in addition to updated financial incentives for having children [2]. Even as overall approval of Putin dropped during the pandemic, support for the referendum has risen during the economically and emotionally trying phase Russian citizens currently find themselves in. Even before voting day, the measure was widely expected to pass. One senior fellow at a British think tank went so far as to call the referendum “a done deal”. [1]

Lastly, the impact of Putin’s extension on relations with the West will be profound. The president has made no secret of his goal of returning Russia to the economic, social, and geopolitical status it enjoyed at the height of the Cold War. With recent conflicts over Ukraine, Syria, spy executions, and alleged election fraud, the US-Russia relationship is at a low. Geopolitically speaking, Putin has shown his willingness to use military force in Ukraine and Syria. Thus, NATO and G7 are organizations that could find their already imperative role grow more crucial in coming years for America and its allies seeking to limit Putin’s influence. A weakening of either could signal an opportunity for the Russian president to begin foreign excursions without fear of geopolitical or economic consequence.

Sources:

[1] Simmons, Ann M. “Russian Vote Could Extend Putin Era for Years.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, June 23, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-vote-could-extend-putin-era-for-years-11592931430.

[2] Bushuev, Mikhail. “Russians Vote on Constitutional Changes: DW: 24.06.2020.” DW.COM, June 24, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/russians-vote-on-constitutional-changes/a-53931760.

[3] Eggert, Konstantin. “Putin’s Pushkin-like Play to Lead Russia till 2036.” DW.COM, March 10, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-putins-pushkin-like-play-to-lead-russia-till-2036/a-52714094.

[4] Elagina, D. “Putin Approval Rating Russia 2000-2020.” Statista, May 8, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/896181/putin-approval-rating-russia/.

[5] Manaev, Georgy. “Who Ruled Russia the Longest?” Russia Beyond. Russia Beyond, March 16, 2020. https://www.rbth.com/history/331831-who-ruled-russia-longest.

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