The recent referendum held in Russia to amend its 1993 constitution has given a boost to the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, and paved the way for him to remain in office through 2036. A the same time, with the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing protests in the Russian Far East against centralism and the heavy-handedness that has characterised his tenure, Putin is facing one of his worst crises since assuming power two decades ago.
These domestic challenges have been compounded by conflicts with Russia’s western European neighbours following the emergence of a new scandal involving the operations of Russia’s intelligence services in the United Kingdom. A British parliamentary committee report revealed that for years London did nothing to prevent Moscow’s intelligence services from interfering in the UK’s internal political affairs. It is yet another episode in a never-ending Cold War that continues on long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, raising suspicions at the worst of times about the Kremlin’s alleged interest in the instability of the NATO countries.
Between 25 June and 1 July, Russia held a referendum on whether to approve or reject a series of 206 amendments to its 1993 constitution, introduced under then president Boris Yeltsin. Approved with almost 78 per cent of the vote with voter turnout close to 68 per cent, the amendments allow Putin to hold presidential office through 2036 if he should win future elections.
Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia on 31 December 1999 following Yeltsin’s resignation. He was elected president in the elections of March 2000 and, when the constitution prevented him for standing for a third term in 2008, he threw his support behind then deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev for president, taking the post of prime minister for himself. No one doubted, however, that Putin remained in Russia’s driver’s seat for the next six years, bolstered by his victory in the Second Chechen War and the country’s economic momentum in the first decade of the 21st century. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and was re-elected in 2018 with 76.79 per cent of the vote, a percentage very similar to the 77.92 per cent with which the referendum won.
While it is not clear whether Putin, now 67, actually intends to stand in the next two elections, with the constitution amended and no heir apparent in the ranks of the former KGB agent’s political apparatus, the road is paved for him to serve until 2036, at which point he would be the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin.
The opposition was able to do little to oppose the amendments, partially due to the restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Russia’s communist party, the only parliamentary political force to reject the constitutional reform, were left with little room to manoeuvre, while Putin made it clear that a victory of the referendum was a personal victory for him.
The amendments to the constitution include the annual indexation of pensions, which in part explains the overwhelming support that the ‘yes’ vote received from Russia’s seniors
The referendum highlighted the political rift between these older voters, who see Putin as crucial to the country’s stability, and younger voters who tended to vote ‘no’ and who see in the current president a throwback to despotic leaders of the past.
Putin’s brand of conservatism is also reflected in an amendment that stresses the existence of God and another that defends heterosexual marriage over other types of marital relationships.
More nationalism and nuclear deterrence
Other amendments reflected the marked nationalism that has defined Putin’s time in office. One amendment, for example, prioritises national legislation over international law. This reform sends a direct message to Russia’s allies and opponents on the world stage that Moscow will always act first and foremost in accordance with its own interests over those of the international community – particularly when it comes to security and defence.
In early June, before the amendments to the 1993 constitution were adopted, Putin approved the Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence. These guidelines, which update those adopted ten years ago, define Russia’s strategy in this area as ‘defensive in nature’ and commit to compliance with international obligations on nuclear arms control.
The document refers to the main risks confronting Russia which, in addition to the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons on land or in space, include “the deployment of offensive weapons in countries that view Russia as a potential adversary,” as well as the accumulation of military forces “near Russian borders.”
The text warns that Moscow will apply nuclear deterrence against those countries or coalitions of countries that consider Russia to be a “potential adversary,” particularly those who possess nuclear weapons. It further indicates that Russia would respond to a nuclear attack by launching a nuclear attack of its own, and that, most significantly, it would do the same in response to aggression against the country using conventional weapons when “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
In view of this, one of the most significant amendments approved in the referendum expressly prohibits the secession of territories that currently make up the Russian Federation.
Some of these territories have belonged to Russia for decades, such as the Kuril Islands, which it occupied from Japan at the end of the Second World War. Others were acquired more recently, such as the Crimean peninsula, incorporated into the Federation in 2014. Crimea, which is key to the security of eastern European and the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions, previously belonged to Ukraine and is one of the most contentious disputes in eastern Europe and a main point of friction between Russia and the European Union, NATO and the United States.
The changes to Russia’s constitution have made it clear that it will not give up Crimea and that, as it states in its Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence, it is prepared to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent to avoid threats in that region or in any other territory, republic or city in the Russian Federation.
This is the backdrop against which new incidents could occur between Moscow and its neighbours. The British parliamentary committee report concerns one such incident. Other reports have detailed cyber attacks (such as another recent one allegedly used to steal data from COVID-19 vaccine research), attacks on former members of the Russian secret services who have defected to western countries, and hacking and disinformation to interfere in European elections. The list is long and Europe’s mistrust runs deep.
Unemployment and unrest on the Federation’s periphery
But Putin’s most important battleground in the short and medium term is the economy. In June of this year, the Russian unemployment rate rose to 6.2 per cent, the highest it has been since March 2013, mostly due to temporary closures of business to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In June 2019, Russia’s unemployment rate was less than 4.4 per cent.
Russia’s economy, like that of many of its European neighbours, is not doing well. But unlike its neighbours, Russia has significant problems with public unrest emerging on the Federation’s periphery, specifically in the Khabarovsk region in the country’s far east. The arrest and dismissal of Governor Sergei Furgal for alleged crimes (including murder) committed in the past have been seen as a coup to silence a politician who, since his election in September 2018, has been at odds with Putin.
The anti-Moscow sentiment that has driven tens of thousands of protesters into the streets has been compounded by deep economic discontent in the eastern region, which is of strategic importance for relations with China. In Khabarovsk, 6,000 kilometres east of Moscow, wages are much lower than in western Russia, poverty is rampant and unemployment has been persistent for decades. These circumstances are fuelling a growing nationalist movement in Eastern Siberia that may spread like wildfire, one of the greatest fears of successive centralist governments in Moscow since the time of the Tsars. While Putin will not allow such separatist sentiments to prevail there or elsewhere in Russia, this is certainly not the ideal time to be facing such threats.