Votes can be uncertain times, but the result of the July 1 all-Russia referendum on constitutional amendments is unlikely to surprise anyone. Despite Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings sinking to historical lows during the COVID-19 pandemic, polling suggests measures allowing the long-serving Russian leader to retain the presidency until 2036 will receive public support. The main draw is the raft of populist measures tied to the ‘zeroing amendment’ resetting presidential term limits, from index linking pensions to effectively outlawing gay marriage. Moscow, still concerned about turnout, is also offering to raffle prizes to all those who vote.
On the surface, this is a power-grab that will see the country saddled to an aging leader well into the next decade. Yet the president has still not committed to running in 2024, and the Kremlin rarely tips its hand, even to Russian elites. This secrecy naturally breeds a sense of conspiracy, but Putin is known to be a tactician, not a strategist. When he says he doesn’t know if he will run, he might be telling the truth. Still, it would be courageous to bet against another term.
The fact that the poll itself is deemed necessary is instructive. Russian institutions are so hobbled by politicization that even in the halls of power it is understood that a popular vote is needed to achieve the veneer of legitimacy so important to the Kremlin. The extra time granted by the amendments also gives the president space to manage a succession. Yet herein lies the problem: Putin has been at the top of Russian politics for 20 years and still, it seems, the system cannot survive without him. In 2020, how Vladimir Putin can leave power and ensure national stability remains an unanswered question. Putin is 67; in 2036 he will turn 84. You can extend presidential terms, but time keeps ticking.