The people of Moscow received text messages this week telling them they had been registered to win “millions of prizes”.
The catch? They have to vote on constitutional amendments that include allowing Vladimir Putin to remain in the Kremlin potentially until 2036.
Organisers of Russia’s pseudo-referendum to amend the constitution – originally scheduled for 22 April but delayed owing to the coronavirus outbreak – appear to be making up the rules as they go along.
In a single vote, Russians must choose whether to support a package of amendments that include pension and minimum wage boosts, a modest reorganisation of government, a constitutional mention of “faith in god”, a ban on gay marriage, exhortations to preserve Russian history, and a ban on top officials holding dual citizenship.
Ads for the vote barely mention that it will also reset term limits for Putin, who has ruled since 2000.
It is not an official referendum and the rules are custom-designed. Unlike in normal elections, voting is allowed online and takes place over a week, between 25 June and 1 July. As Russia continues to grapple with the coronavirus, some voting officials have decided it is safer to collect ballots outdoors, planting ballot boxes on tree stumps, in the boots of cars, in public buses and on plastic patio furniture.
The referendum is both momentous and absurd. Russians can endorse (or oppose) a plan to let Putin run for two more terms, potentially prolonging his rule beyond that of Stalin, and then win a washing machine or a hairdryer.
“It looks like a gameshow but I’m telling everybody I know to take this seriously, it’s enough to make you lose your mind,” said Oleg Kharlamov, a laboratory technician from Moscow who said he intended to vote against the amendments. The vote would help determine “who’s in charge for the next generation, and if we complain, they will say … ‘you voted for it’,” he said.
The raffles and prize giveaways are just part of a broad get-out-the-vote effort endorsed by the government. Companies have authorised their own prize giveaways that could allow them to track employee voting, while government workers such as teachers and doctors – some of whom are busy fighting the coronavirus outbreak – are reportedly being urged to cast ballots, in systematic attempts to boost turnout.
Meanwhile, Instagram and TikTok influencers claim they have been offered millions of roubles by shady middlemen to urge their young followers to vote.
Analysts say the Kremlin has concluded that the rescheduled referendum had to happen now, after Russia had declared victory over the coronavirus (despite more than 7,000 new cases a day still being reported) and before the effects of a battered economy or a potential second wave further sour public opinion.
“The situation looks volatile, people are in a tough situation. Many have lost their jobs and more could lose them in the future,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of the R.Politik analysis firm. “They [the government] want to hold this vote quickly and close the topic. The longer they waited, the harder it would be to mobilise the public and get the right result.”
There are broad concerns that the results will be manipulated, particularly with limited scope to monitor polling places and online voting. Pavel Lobkov, a reporter for TV Rain, managed to vote in person at a polling station and then online on Thursday as the polls opened, effectively casting two ballots. Election officials said his extra vote would be discounted.
There is almost no likelihood the vote will fail. Weeks before the vote, publishers had begun stocking Moscow bookstores with copies of the amended constitution.
The Kremlin is said to be targeting 70% support for the amendments, and it would embarrass Putin for the measure to sneak through with a thin majority. But the government also must avoid any image of a rigged vote like that which led to protests following the 2011 parliamentary elections.
Rather than an emphatic public endorsement of Putin, the vote has more resembled a chore that must be done.
“It will be something that the bureaucratic machine will be happy to get off its chest. ‘We’re done, now let’s forget about it,’” said Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist. She added that the vote was more of a burden on the Kremlin’s political resources than a chance to win a new political mandate. “It will not be the source of additional legitimacy to the political regime or to the president individually.”
The government campaign has avoided reminding Russians that they are potentially endorsing Putin’s right to rule until 2036, which Schulmann said was most divisive amendment. Instead, billboards have urged Russians to “preserve family values” or featured images of the poet Alexander Pushkin saying “protect our language and culture”.
“I don’t know how the campaign organisers actually sold it to [Putin] but he is not that popular right now,” said Schulmann, noting that the president’s ratings had dipped since 2018. “So that’s why we see children and Pushkin, so as not to antagonise but consolidate the electorate.”
Putin himself dangled the possibility of amending the constitution in 2012 but then boasted at his restraint in leaving the country’s founding document untouched. When he returned to the idea in the last year, advisors understood that the campaign would be divisive. But despite calling for the referendum, Putin has exhibited a characteristic disdain for campaign politics, barely advocating for his own measures.
“Putin believes he has the public’s support, that they believe in him and his reforms, and for him this [vote] is just a formality,” said Stanovaya, noting that he appeared far more invested in holding the country’s rescheduled Victory Day parade than in the vote.
The vote was targeted at stabilising elite circles, argued Stanovaya. “He needs a reference that he can show his elites and say: ‘I have public support to rule for as long as I believe I need to. No one of you has the right to discuss successors.”
There remains debate over whether Putin will actually return for terms five and six or simply wants to avoid becoming a lame duck. As he himself argued during a TV interview last week, his potential return will put to bed discussions of a possible successor for the coming four years. Or 10. Or 16.