Is President Putin taking matters back into his own hands? This is what some of the Kremlin’s recently announced decisions might suggest. The rescheduling to July 1 of the popular vote to approve the constitutional reform, which had to be postponed in April due to the pandemic, seems to point in that direction.
Time to revise the Constitution
The main purpose of these changes is to enable Mr. Putin to run again for two more six-year presidential terms, starting in 2024. The current Constitution includes an "in a row" clause, which regulates the maximum number of presidential terms. Removing this clause would also ensure that mandates held under the current regime would not count for the implementation of the amended Constitution.
Furthermore, the Victory Day ceremonies commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany during World War II, originally planned for May 9, will be held on June 24. On May 9, these celebrations would have taken place with several foreign heads of state in attendance, a form of triumph for Mr. Putin – while also building a positive mindset in preparation for the constitutional reform vote. Instead, on June 24, only leaders of the former USSR are invited. The "Immortal Regiment" march, a sort of popular duplicate of the Victory Day ceremonies, is set for July 26.
What is most surprising about this calendar is how at odds it is with the country’s health and social situation: Russia is now the third country in the world with the highest number of infected people. There is little chance that the pandemic will be contained by July 1. The number of deaths is still low, but official statistics are considered unreliable. As we wrote in this blog, Russia was ill-prepared to deal with the health crisis, not least because of its dilapidated health system. The economic effects of the health crisis are further aggravated by the drop in oil prices, which alone is a serious handicap for a Russian economy that is highly dependent on energy exports.
Vladimir Putin also did not turn out to be a very convincing crisis manager. Much like Trump on the side of democracies, he first seemed to deny reality, then privileged the economy over health and tried to shift the responsibility to others, in particular the governors of the provinces (which Trump also did). Rather notably, the President’s popularity continues to decline. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Institute from May 22 to 24, 25% of polled Russians said they "trust" Vladimir Putin, compared to 59% in November 2017. Those close to the President may find relief in the results of another survey: 63% of polled Russians "approve of Vladimir Putin's action as President". However, this figure should be compared with Putin’s 70% satisfaction rate in October 2019.