Of course, the Russian president definitely won the popular voting organized between 25th June and 1st July. He did it without any bigger administrative pressure, although probably not without the over-zeal of local bureaucrats. He obtained not only a very clear mandate of trust, but also a lot of valuable information about the attitude of the nation in his huge country. But Vladimir Putin cannot speak of full success after being forced to abandon his original plan to make Putinism a political system which would have contended him with a personal victory and petrification of his personal liberal authoritarianism until who knows when.
In Yeltsin’s Shoes
Of course, one would get the impression by looking at Western news about it that the plebiscite only asked Russians one question: „Do you want V. Putin to rule us until he gets bored?”. However, the subject, scope, and real motives for implementing this plan were somewhat more complex. And more precisely, so complicated that (as we can see by the research carried out during whole procedure) the Russians themselves considered the particularly important issues that they were supposed to decide to not be among the questions that they were really asked. Even so, this did not discourage voters, so what was the real goal of the Russian referendum?
First of all, we should understand well what the president wanted to change and in what document. The Constitution of the Russian Federation from December 1993 was established in very special circumstances after the coup attempt the White House (unfortunately, not the one that should have been targeted…) by Boris Yeltsin’s forces. The new regulations were therefore set primarily to guarantee the scope of power of the then-presidential factions (particularly criminals and other law dodgers, those connected with Yeltsin’s „family” system, as well as those liberal Westerners under the Kremlin umbrella). In parallel, it was about calming the so-called Western public opinion, which was somewhat confused by the fact that democracy in Russia is defended by setting fire to the parliament building. The constitution thus established a system of liberal authoritarianism in Russia, maintained with minor changes until today thanks to the personality of the current president.
De Gaulle’S Trap
The initiative taken by Vladimir Putin in December 2019 and January 2020 had two clear goals. First of all, it was about proposing a new system that would allow the current president to leave his position while maintaining power continuity (and, by the way, better coordinating currently poorly balanced centres of power which real competences are not directly related to the Constitution). It was to be reached by the legal empowerment of the Council of State, which was assumed would be led by V. Putin himself. The second package was ideological issues, that is, writing straight in the Constitution an appeal to God, defining a family based on a heterosexual relationship, and emphasizing the role of the Russia nation and language within the Federation. If we add to this the introduction of elements of social guarantees (the most controversial issue being the retirement age, as well as the revaluation of wages and benefits), then we would receive a vision of reforming Russia in a national-conservative-community direction, ensuring an element of continuity of power. Thus, the personal liberal authoritarianism is to be replaced by a conservative state. This very original sense of the whole process was (again, consciously) abandoned by V. Putin.
This time, however, the reason was not the president’s legendary procrastination, his tendency to reactive defensively, nor his tactic of masking his real desires by waiting until the last minute to make a decision. After a few weeks of the referendum campaign, Vladimir Putin probably understood that he was vigorously moving towards de Gaulle’s trap. As we know, the leader of France in 1969, in his neo-Bonapartist custom, decided to put under the judgment of the nation the proposals of seemingly cosmetic, and in fact systemic, reform of the state’s political system following the pure “l’esprit de participation”. Like all referendums of this type, it was a plebiscite, a vote of confidence or its refusal of the head of state. What was also the same was the matter of legal changes was too complicated for the masses, and the moment to ask people for expressing their opinion was controversial. And finally, the French presidential government and party machine not only didn’t see its own interest in supporting the changes proposed by the General, but even decided to sabotage them. We know the effect: the referendum was lost and de Gaulle (after a moment of hesitation about using the army) gave power to the technocrats in whose hands it remains till today, destroying all the achievements of neo-imperial France, a child of Gaullism. It was exactly the same with Putin’s idea.
Do Not Ask The Chief To Write A Constitution
The whole institution of the referendum under the pretext for law-making makes even less sense than any other popular vote. Simply put, the abilities and especially the interests of the average citizen of any country do not even reach all that far, so asking them about the political system has the same sense as letting a monkey choose articles of the constitution hidden in nuts. In fact, despite the significance of the issues proposed, Russian national voting was to be a plebiscite in any case for or against Putin, but without proper mobilization of the president’s supporters and even with a clear sabotage of this part of the state/party machine, which feels comfortable within the current liberal authoritarianism and does not want to change it.
In this situation, the president decided that there is no other way but to put himself into the questions to increase the turnout and the power of the vote „For„. That has started on 10March 2020, after V. Putin clearly indicated that the change in the Constitution would also apply to this unfortunate paragraph about holding presidential office only „for two terms in a row„. Polls were then conducted and officials as well as United Russia activists began to race each other in announcing who will organize more voters. So, the very popular narrative in Western propaganda that “Putin wanted from the beginning only to extend his power” is totally untrue. Quite the opposite, it was Putin himself who consciously and intentionally threw out his original project of institutional (and personal) change in the country, instead announcing and sanctioning this extension of the status quo till who knows when.
Three Waves Of Putinism
Did he, however, gain something in return for abandoning his original plans? Yes, without a doubt, at levels that cannot be overestimated for a politician. First of all, Putinism did not legalize itself as a system but revived itself as a peoples’ movement. To understand the support for the Russian president, we should see three waves of this sympathy. The first come soon after he had received personal power, in the early 2000s. Putin was then supported as the one who finally gave something after all those who only stole. Inevitably, such enthusiasm could not last long, because the memory how bad it had been was erased, aspirations were rising to make everyday life even better, and the next generation was coming of age full of people who were not able to remember the black times of Yeltsin’s rule. So, this first wave began to fall with the global financial crisis of 2007-2010 reaching Russia, and actually, the decreasing trend remained not too dangerous, only because of the lack of any noticeable competition (primarily as an effect of the complete castration and institutionalization of the communist party). At that time, however, Putin was rescued by an international situation, and more precisely by the national will and the determination of this part of the establishment, thanks to which Crimea was saved for Russia.
The second wave was support for V. Putin not only for not being as bad as the others, but for something tangible: for Crimea, for Donbass, for Syria, and for Russia’s return to the international arena, even for Skripal’s affair and the fact that the world began feel afraid of Russia ocne again and finally stopped mocking it. That was the moment which turned V. Putin into The Katehon, a leader matching the ambitions of the inhabitants of the largest country in the world. And this wave, however, was dialectically doomed to crash due to the belief that a resurrected global superpower should provide its own citizens with better living conditions. The Russian people asked this question themselves and began to fidget more and more in the realities of the country that’s still licking its wounds after the dark 1990s and the period of dominance by the oligarchs. Most importantly, in response, V. Putin clearly decided to no longer fight for another wave of support, but on the contrary, to go against it to leave something less glamorous, but maybe even more needed than Russian aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea.
We know that V. Putin really wanted to leave because of the pension reform he undertook in 2018, which was absolutely necessary for the Russian economy, but at the same time was obviously exploited by the liberal opposition and was extremely unpopular to such an extent that it again awakened hopes in the West for the “democratization of Russia”. The president himself defended his personal popularity, it also did not suffer any significant damage after poor governmental actions considered to be chaotic and inefficient during the so-called pandemic COVID-19, however, the Russians’ enthusiasm for their own president clearly diminished, turning into passive approval. And suddenly something as hermetic as the reform of the Constitution once again aroused peoples’ Putinism!
By some clever instinct, the Russians sensed that thanks to the popular vote, they are regaining their own president from the establishment. Putin winning, Putin staying – that is a trick against this part of the Kremlin administration, the government, and United Russia, which for the last several months has been focused on the issue of succession of the president. For voters, the vote was not only for the good tsar but above all against the bad boyars.
This is also the second advantage that he gained. In the voting, Putin obtained a mechanism of seeing the real social attitude which cannot be covered by creative reporting of professional administrative Putinism. This is a microscope put in the bowels of Russia, on a much larger scale than the famous president’s great conferences, so mocked in the West but so effective as an instrument of exercising power through an archetypal reference to a Slavic Veche. From the results of the vote, for example, we know that Nenets do not want their autonomous country to be subordinated to the Arkhangelsk Oblast, or that the Yakuts want Moscow to finally do something with all the mess left after the oligarchs stole the local factories. The results of the vote are therefore invaluable to the presidential administration and the governance scheme best suited to Russia.
As a result of the popular vote, President Putin improved his own election result from 2018, receiving 57.7 instead of 56.4 million votes. The third wave of peoples’ Putinism turned out to be particularly high despite the fact that the Russians did not exactly know what they were voting for. It is important, however, what they meant and why in their opinion V. Putin is to stay. When asked which constitutional amendments they considered the most important, voters in the first place (28%) put forbidding persons having (now and in the past) foreign citizenship from working in public service. This is not only an anti-oligarchic move, but also expresses the distrust of ordinary citizens towards the elites and the current power system, but hardly anyone knows that such bans already exist on the basis of lower-level acts though they do not seem to be really impactful. 21% of respondents, in turn, indicated the protection of natural resources against sale to foreign hands (the point of which was only in the original, earlier version of the changes) and equalizing the salaries of officials with the minimum wage, which was not the subject of voting at all. In fourth place was the issue of guaranteeing retirement age at the level before the 2018 announcement (which was not promised) and the priority of the Russian Constitution over foreign law. The formal regulation giving V. Putin the right to apply for the next presidential term was far behind these expressions of hostility towards the elite and foreign influence in Russia. Therefore, the social-national part of the president’s program gained a clear peoples’ legitimacy, and the question remains whether and how Putin will turn this third wave of support into a program that also covers his other political and ideological proposals.
The Question That We Cannot Escape From
Russia will not run away from the question of what comes after Putin, although the president gained another excellent excuse for his favourite tactic of avoiding a decision. Again, despite himself and against his other natural tendencies, he became the voice of the people, but lonely as the good tsar for eternity against the bad, unreliable, and Western-friendly boyars. About this, the topic of Putin’s loneliness was probably thought about the most by one of his associates, Ramzan Kadyrov, when (having in mind 97,92% support in the referendum in Chechnya) was asked why bother people at all if V. Putin should be offered a lifetime presidency. This would allow him to dismiss all the troubles of the system and the problem of succession in time beyond his death. But still, this would not be the answer to the question: what comes AFTER Putin? What comes next for Russia?
Another talented Russian, Konstantin Malofeev, reponded even more insolently but seriously by following the long-standing tradition of letting the new Zemsky Sobor offer Putin Monomakh’s Cap! The problem with such a thing is that the Russian president was only just recently trying to carry this out, albeit without the decor, but to no avail.
The extent of Putin’s dilemma should be evidenced by the fact that the tsar was „gratefully” shot the last time that he tried to grant Russia a constitution. Remembering this lesson, his successor, the great Alexander III, showed his son a great tight fist on his deathbed and ordered him to “Keep everything!”. But V. Putin not only knows that he has no one to say that to, but also he himself has no tsarist fists. Putin will rule as long as he wants, but he’ll remain lonely. The peoples’ Putinism is all that still remains since the systemic one does not exist. Fortunately, however, Russia itself is eternal.