Russia is going to vote… for Putin again?

The situation evolving in Russia bears a strong resemblance to a feast during the plague. The official COVID-19 figures are still impressive. Every day, more than 7,000 new cases are recorded, bringing the total to over 600,000 cases with over 8,000 deaths. Investigative journalists keep revealing new outbreaks and question mortality data in different regions of the country by adding what is not included in the statistics. Medical workers still complain about the lack of protective gear, while a Remembrance List which contains 496 names of medics died from coronavirus was set up by their colleagues. Despite that calls to stay home are no longer heard in Russia, while the streets in various cities are full of people, according to a self-isolation index created by Yandex. The country is getting ready for a nationwide referendum on constitutional changes which aim to secure Putin’s ability to stay in power until 2036.
This voting was supposed to take place on April 22, but the pandemic ruined these plans. Having marked the date by signing a decree on March 17, when regional authorities had already been instructed to prepare food supplies to prevent shortages due to the COVID spread in the country, Putin delayed its cancellation till the very last moment. Such urgency and desire of the existing president to approve these constitutional changes to consolidate his opportunity to run for election in 2024 raised questions even among those loyal citizens. Meanwhile, the independent media reported that the new virus had confused Putin’s intentions to such an extent that he practically nearly disappeared, giving way to his officials to fight the coronavirus. The creation of two separate working groups for these purposes was even seen as an attempt to choose his potential successor.
Nevertheless, the Russian president is far from being new in politics; having 20 years of experience in running the country, except for a short period of so-called Putin-Medvedev “tandem,” he found a solution. Regardless of increasing numbers of confirmed COVID cases, Putin announced the end of the paid holiday period which had been introduced earlier instead of a state of emergency. As a result, on May 11, the Russians went back to work wearing gloves and masks, while the parliament promptly changed the electoral legislature two days later. So, now, people can vote either through the Internet or by mail, if necessary. These days, the need is great of course! If we consider state-funded media outlets’ opinion, the constitutional referendum itself is a symbol of victory over the pandemic.
Although it seems too early to talk about victory, it is more important for Putin not to miss the moment. Moreover, people’s patience and money began to run out during this self-isolation period. By not declaring a state of emergency, the government got off with the indistinct holidays at employers’ expenses. At the same time, the employers were urged not to dismiss their employees, while the state only subsidized for them a minimum monthly wage for each employee (which is approximately 235 CAD). Also, unemployment benefits were increased to the same level, and families with children received block grants from the budget at the rate of 100 – 200 CAD per child, depending on their age. These measures were insufficient and didn’t prevent businesses from closures. Additional payments for medical staff working with coronavirus patients which Putin had promised turned into pennies calculated for a per-minute contact with patients whose diagnosis had been confirmed. Ambulance teams across the country recorded numerous video addresses to the president, calling for justice. It took several rounds of his personal intervention to resolve the issue.
Thus, broad gestures and a climate of festivities were much needed to eliminate the negative dynamic and encourage people to vote. The gestures came into play on June 23, when Putin addressed the nation announcing new payments to families with children, expanded preferential mortgage and extended medical workers’ bonuses. As for the festivities, the Victory Day Parade postponed from May 9 to June 24 came in handy. This holiday is traditionally considered as a mobilizer of patriotic sentiments in the country, while patriotism in Russia is equated to the unconditional support of the existing regime.
So, will citizens vote for the package of constitutional amendments? The voting started on June 25, and we will find out on July 1. Anyway, the question of what will happen after 2024, when Putin’s fourth term ends, has been in the air. Perhaps the question should be posed differently: what will happen to Russia if he takes the fifth (or “new first”) term again?

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