Photo: Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg
After the coronavirus changed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans, he is trying to regain political initiative on his goal of remaining in power potentially until 2036.
In the coming weeks, the head of state may call a referendum on already proposed changes to the constitution that would allow him to circumvent restrictions on the number of seats, according to four people familiar with the Kremlin discussions.
Putin postponed the vote, which was originally scheduled for April 22, due to the coronavirus epidemic. What then seemed like a mere formality may now be more difficult to accomplish. Like millions of others around the world, Russians face difficulties and uncertainty over the country’s blockade imposed in late March, which has shrunk economic activity by 33%.
“Putin is very quick to push through constitutional reform,” Sergei Markov, a Kremlin political adviser, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg. “He wants to finish it as soon as possible,” he added.
Although there are signs of a weakening epidemic in Russia, the world’s second-largest contagion, the effects of the virus and an unprecedented drop in oil prices continue to have an effect on the country’s economy. And while local authorities are introducing some relief, the risk of a second wave of infection remains.
The risk of delay
All of this is putting pressure on Putin to call a referendum either in late June or early July, sources said. According to government officials, it would be too risky for voting to remain in September or later, as voter discontent could peak.
It took less than a week for parliament and the Constitutional Court to pass changes to the basic law that allow Putin to run for another two six-year terms at the helm of the country after his current term ends in 2024. However, the changes must pass. voter approval, which effectively gives them a veto, something that the president’s political opponents can use to reduce his approval in opinion polls.
“They were thinking of canceling the vote, but it’s too late,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow. Currently, even state-backed agencies say only half of Russians approve of Putin.
According to two Bloomberg sources, the president hopes to introduce electronic voting for the referendum to ensure that millions of civil servants who vote through a state portal will support the changes for fear that their vote will not be anonymous.
Also, holding a referendum immediately after the lifting of restrictive measures could benefit the government because of, albeit short-lived, a sense of relief, according to another source close to what is happening in the Kremlin.
On Thursday, the country’s Central Election Commission began resuming preparations for the referendum. It will need 20-30 days after the new date is announced, said its chairman Maya Grishina.
“It is, of course, convenient for the authorities to use this moment when people are busy with matters of life and death,” said Olga Kryshchanovskaya, a sociologist at Moscow State University of Management. “When the problem with Covid-19 disappears, everyone’s anger will be directed against the government,” she added.