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Volume 72, Number 26 (July 22-28, 2020)
FEATURED NEWS STORIES
Constitutional Amendments Vote Kicks Off
THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Independent Statisticians Say COVID Situation Is Far Worse Than Russian Officials Report
OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES
Khalip: Arrests of Potential Opposition Candidates Shows Lukashenko Is Seriously Shaken Click here to read more
Kiev Is Worried Moscow Will Use Crimea’s Water Woes as Pretext for Invasion
New START Consultations Fail to Make Inroads in Vienna
Zhebin: Moscow, Not Washington, Holds the Key to Deescalating Tensions on Korean Peninsula
Arms Control and Nonproliferation
Arbatov: World Is Already in Another Self-Destructive Nuclear Arms Race
Russia’s UN Ambassador Reflects on UN’s History, Accomplishments, Current Challenges
Author: Grigory Yudin
The One and Only or a Nobody: What Putin Wants From the Plebiscite and What His Opponents Can Do
By Grigory Yudin. Republic.ru, June 11, 2020, https://republic.ru/posts/96942. Complete text:
The gradual changes that have been taking place in Russia over the past two years have put the country on the brink of a qualitatively different political reality. During these two years, Vladimir Putin has begun to morph from an indisputable leader towering above the political system into a niche politician. His electoral base is way bigger than anybody else’s, but his position is visibly weakening outside that base. The June-July plebiscite is a desperate, blitzkrieg attempt to reverse this trend. What will be the results of the plebiscite, and how can they be influenced? To answer this question, it is important to first understand the [plebiscite’s] goals.
Point of conservation.
Numerous surveys in some way or other show that Russians are weary of the foreign policy agenda. They also show a lack of clear-cut project for the country’s future, an increase in democratic activities on the local level and disappointment with Putin after the high expectations of the 2018 [presidential] election (which was in effect also a plebiscite). It is telling that the COVID‑19 pandemic has not significantly impacted these trends. For example, polls show a steadily growing gap between Putin’s spontaneous ratings (28%, the response to an open-ended question asking respondents to name politicians they trust) and his plebiscite ratings (68%, the response to a direct question about trust in Putin).
The most unpleasant news for Putin is that his core electorate is becoming more narrowly defined. It consists of seniors and the elderly (particularly [older] women); civil servants; and soldiers. As a matter of fact, these were the categories [of voters] that used to ensure Putin’s election victory despite the almost complete indifference of all the other [voting groups]. But now this indifference and silent irritation is giving way to mild opposition. The gap in the approval ratings of Putin and his key initiatives between the 55+ age group and the other age groups is growing and gradually turning into a chasm. The share of Putin’s loyal voters is about 35% to 40%. These are people who get their news exclusively from television. Putin is turning into an old ladies’ president. Having reached retirement age himself, he is convinced that the country must be controlled by himself and his retirement-aged cronies, who time and again readily admit that mentally they are still living in the late Soviet era.
The completion of this transformation spells disaster for Putin. As a plebiscite leader, he cannot and does not want to participate in competitive politics. He cannot have 35% vs. his opponent’s 30%. The moment Putin loses the prize that goes to the indisputable leader (in the form of those who go [to the polls] not to “elect a president” but to “vote for the president”), he also loses the loyalty of the [state] apparatus. He can be either the one and only or a nobody.
Putin’s desire to reverse the trend
and get his beloved [approval] figures back again has forced him to open up the
Constitution and decisively put his legitimacy on the line – by raising the
issue of a lifelong presidency. And make no mistake, a lifelong presidency is precisely
what [the constitutional amendments] are all about. The reference to “
Symbolically, Putin’s big push [to amend the Constitution] is about much more than just the Kremlin changing hands. The emerging social conflict is really about preserving the status quo. Vladimir Putin represents those who would be fine living forever the way things are right now – i.e., with a rather sober view of the present and the past, but without any hope for a better future. I’ve repeatedly heard elderly respondents say: “Let us die under Putin, and then they can do whatever they like.” At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who have their own agenda and generally would like to see a different Russia. They are younger, their number is growing, and they are finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground with the elderly. Now is the last window of opportunity to put them in their place ahead of the upcoming time of troubles. That’s why Putin is in a rush.
The Kremlin’s tactics.
This real conflict, which was brewing anyway (it could already be seen in the reaction to the 2019 events) and which Putin bravely decided to escalate, manifests itself in the country’s split on the issue of the so-called “reset” [of Putin’s presidential term limits]. According to polls, roughly equally sized groups of 47% to 48% have supported and opposed this idea in recent months, with outspoken opponents impressively prevailing among those who oppose the resetting of Putin’s term clock. Factoring in the statistical margin of error, the situation seems even less favorable to Putin: This question leaves him practically alone with his base niche. Although quite large, it is clearly insufficient for the legitimacy of a plebiscite leader.
“Legitimacy” is still the key word. Putin is ruling the country because he has democratic legitimacy that he receives in plebiscites. His elections are by no means a quirky vestige or a decorative façade: They convince the Russian people that Putin is a ruler by the will (be it good or bad) of the people. The Kremlin has learned how to produce legitimacy from indifference, but this time its task is more challenging: It has to portray Putin’s niche as representing the entire population in a situation where this niche has found itself in troubled waters.
The Kremlin’s main tactic is to bury Putin’s presidency-for-life bid in other amendments. Talking points mention [Aleksandr] Pushkin, pensions – anything but Russia’s transformation into an elective monarchy (the [“reset”] amendment was initially even hidden on the plebiscite’s official Web site). That decision is understandable given the division the key amendment has caused: The more of a campaign issue it becomes, the more opponents the entire package will have. The second-tier argument (“No one will force you to vote for Putin when he decides to run”) is being held in reserve – for now. It is obviously weaker – not only because it calls into question the idea of term limits in general, but also because it assumes that Putin will not be the next president (and then it is not clear why he should be allowed to run in the first place).
From the standpoint of current goals, [Putin’s first deputy chief of staff] Sergei Kiriyenko has two options. The first is to go for targets of about 53% (turnout) and 68% (“for” votes). The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (ARCSPO) has already made precisely this forecast, and it’s hard to imagine that it was published without the approval of the presidential administration (ARCSPO forecasts are direct guidelines for the entire apparatus). It will be rather difficult to achieve that target, but it’s realistic: The final result (36% of the whole [electorate voting in favor]) essentially coincides with Putin’s base. On the one hand, it has yet to be mobilized for a moot vote; on the other, the plebiscite procedure gives administrators unlimited opportunities.
The problem is that this is not enough for the plebiscite’s legitimacy. If this scenario is implemented, the plebiscite will end in a draw. Putin will receive official approval of his monarchical claims, but he already has official approval from parliament. On the other hand, it is difficult to lay claim to lifelong rule with 35% to 40% support: It does not provide a real mandate, and that would be obvious. In 2018, Putin for the first time ever received 52%, which works out to 45%-46%, minus falsifications (in 2012, he only got 42%, according to official data), and this sets the benchmark for the current vote.
The Kremlin may have realized that the true key indicator will be the share of the total population votes for the amendments: That will be crucial to Putin’s legitimacy. This may be the reason for reports that plebiscite target indicators have significantly increased and are to be at the 2018 level. In that case, the target will be around 50%: 67% (turnout) and 75% (votes in favor).
That would considerably impact how the campaign is organized. An indicator like that would require far greater resources than the Kremlin currently has. Compared to 2018, which required an overstraining of resources and the mobilization of [social] groups that had never been subjected to [voter] coercion before, now the initial lineup is perceptibly less favorable, the motivation of Putin’s supporters is far lower and time is short. Right now, there are only two ways to achieve this result – extreme violence and unprecedented falsifications. Coercion may be slightly eased by making it unnecessary to go to a polling station: Voters will simply have to submit a [ballot] application (somebody else may even be able to submit it for them) and wait for a team to bring a ballot to their door. Naturally, a plebiscite without rules provides vast opportunities to tamper with votes, but that would involve rewriting ballot sheets across the country (Putin would not settle for a situation where Moscow and St. Petersburg vote no even if Kemerovo votes 100% yes). Still, it is conceivable that the new targets are based on a completely erroneous assessment of the situation by those who simply want a repetition of two years ago, but fail to see the real changes [in public attitudes].
How will the plebiscite end?
The official result of the plebiscite is already clear: In fact, it is not an unknown quantity under the existing rules. What is unknown is the set of rules that will have to be modified to ensure that result. As for the political result, it remains uncertain. Whether Putin can secure [political] legitimacy depends in part on what the hypothetical “party of change” actually does.
Its initial positions look pretty good. Putin’s March 10 démarche [when he told lawmakers that he agreed with amendments that would allow him to extend his rule; see Vol. 72, No. 10‑11, pp. 8‑11 – Trans.] angered many people and created a strong desire to vote against [the package of amendments]. The June campaign also got off to an incredibly bad start for the Kremlin: Two screw-ups with campaign ads raised major red flags. Even extremely cynical people like designer [Artemy] Lebedev are facing such strong pressure that they are considering it necessary to dissociate themselves from Putin’s project. Lebedev’s reaction and [popular TV host Ivan] Urgant’s parody of a campaign video show that even the moderately progressive and young audience is extremely hostile toward Putin’s plan.
The opponents of Putin’s monarchy inevitably face the issue of voting tactics. This question is badly muddled by a pathological fascination with voting – namely, the belief that participating in voting is crucial for democracy. However, the task for Putin’s opponents is not to win this vote – it’s impossible to win it. The task is to find a way to express the will of those who do not want Russia to turn into an elective monarchy.
The legitimacy of “resetting the term clock” depends on the share of its supporters as a proportion of the total electorate. So making a distinction between voting against and boycotting the vote is pointless. Under different circumstances, proponents of the “against” vote would have an advantage, but in the current situation they are unable to critically show how “against” votes can be officially recorded without effective monitoring. What’s more, [advocates of] these tactics need an alliance: It needs to be clear that their votes are symbolically tallied. Pressure from the Kremlin will force them to make a choice: Those who do not vote in favor will be considered to have voted against.
Let’s not forget that for very many people in Russia, refusing to vote is not a couldn’t-care-less attitude but a rather daring act of civic engagement, given the intense pressure. Likewise, checking the “no” box for those who are forced to vote may be an act of heroism. It is very easy to discuss tactics in the abstract, but one phone call from your boss may abruptly change your position. These are not the 2019 Moscow elections: Tens of millions of people across the country may face serious blackmail.
As a matter of fact, there is no conflict between the main political forces on this issue. All opponents of Putin’s plan acknowledge both options. However, for all of them, the current situation is becoming a test of their ability to talk to the new groups that Putin has alienated. Many of those groups do not see any “criminal regime” [and] don’t think Putin needs to be put on trial at The Hague or think it’s necessary to review the results of privatization. It’s simply that they positively dislike the idea that Russia must always live with the same president and the same elite: This simply does not fit into their plans for life or their vision of the country’s future. These groups may have voices and public faces that will articulate a moderate position: “Putin has done a lot of good, and we are grateful to him, but enough is enough.”
Another category that should not be underestimated comprises groups that do not know or realize that the July plebiscite means legally enshrining a president for life. These groups are quite numerous, and their votes may become decisive for Putin. Their position could be changed by a campaign to explain what this vote is really about. It is important to remember that “resetting the term clock” is the weak spot of Putin’s ploy. Not only does it have relatively low support, but the future monarch himself, in his March 10 keynote speech, had to acknowledge that it is not normal for there to be no turnover in government, but that this was a necessary evil given that Russia is simply not mature enough for a new president.
Finally, for the relatively low level of support for Putin’s lifelong presidency to become obvious, [special] tools are needed. The idea of a counter-plebiscite has been talked about in various forms by many people. Under the current circumstances, the most realistic form of such a counter-plebiscite could be an independent and expanded nationwide snap poll, with representation from the regions or at least the federal districts. Its central objective would be to gauge support for the “term limit reset” idea with just two or three questions. For all the serious limitations of polls, this tool would make it possible to not only get broader data on the key issue of Russian politics, but also articulate an alternative agenda. For the first time, the opportunity to be heard – an opportunity that is being denied by Putin’s plebiscite – is becoming relevant for tens of millions of people across Russia. If they get this opportunity, the political outcome of the plebiscite may prove unexpected.
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Author: Artyom Zemtsov
'We Don't Want the Current Government to Do Something, We Just Want a Different Government'
By Artyom Zemtsov. Republic.ru, June 5, 2020, https://republic.ru/posts/96885. Condensed text:
Editors’ Note. – On June 4, the Belanovsky Group, an independent research team, published the results of a public opinion study titled “The New Spectrum of Political Sentiments in Russian Society in 2020.” Political analyst Artyom Zemtsov talked with one of its authors, Anastasia Nikolskaya, a psychologist, senior researcher at the Russian President’s Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and assistant professor of psychology at Kosygin Russian State University, on how Russians’ political values, emotions and behaviors are evolving. . . .
* * *
Question. – You and I chatted in fall 2018. We talked about the transformation of Russians’ political values, the growth of protest activity and the emergence of popular demand for justice. What has changed in the last two years?
Answer. – I can’t say that anything has changed qualitatively. In 2018, we talked about the fact that there were a certain number of Russians who already had different values. Now, that number has just gotten bigger. We supposed that these values would gradually form a core, and that this core would develop a shell. That is exactly what is happening now. These new values can be called postmaterialistic, or, if you will, liberal; they are strengthening and becoming popular among a growing number of Russians.
Q. – Eighteen months ago you said: “The people’s love affair with the regime is over. We’re looking for our next fling.” And now in an interview with Znak.com, you claim that “society is ready for a divorce.” Is the divorce process dragging out?
A. – In 2018, people really were saying “We’re looking for our next fling,” but now they are no longer looking for anyone. At least in our study sample, there is no clear demand for any particular political leader. . . .
We are seeing weariness with a single ruler and the concentration of power. Of the 235 respondents in our sample, 179 said that they did not need some prominent leader (56 respondents still find such a leader desirable). Russians are no longer looking for someone else; society has matured to the point that it can live without a leader. We are already thinking about how we will live on our own after the divorce.
Q. – In other words, Russians favor a complete decentralization of power?
A. – More than half of respondents say that an ideal form of government for them is a parliamentary republic, without any charismatic leader. We observed approximately the same thing in focus groups in 2018. Many people, of course, do not fully understand what a parliamentary republic is. But more and more people are talking about a system of checks and balances, and the need for every social group to be represented in the government, so that its interests are taken into account. The overwhelming majority of respondents say that only the interests of a very narrow group – the political elite – are represented. In their opinion, other Russians are not seen or heard. In fall 2019, people wanted to be heard, noticed and respected. Not anymore. We don’t want the current government to do something, we just want a different government. This is a major shift compared to 2018. . . .
Q. – Which social groups no longer need a charismatic leader, and which still urgently need one?
A. – During our study, we suddenly realized that the usual classifications of people – apolitical, critical and loyal – has started to fractionalize. The palette of public sentiment is not monochromatic but has many hues. Based on our interviews, we tried to hone the classification. That turned out to be rather difficult. There are two parameters: On the one hand, there is a person’s ideological basis, and on the other, there is their psychological status.
The first group is the “elderly.” These are generally pensioners, aged 70 to 90, who live in large cities and have a rather decent pension; they no longer have to look after children or even grandchildren. They have enough money to meet their modest needs. These people can calmly enjoy life. They are doing relatively well right now and therefore generally support the current political regime. They continue to see [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as the national leader.
“Great power supporters.” These are supporters of the values the government is offering: nationalism, patriotism, imperialism, the traditional family model, etc. This is the most loyal group to the regime.
“Guardians of the status quo.” This is also a conservative group. It is afraid of changes because they could worsen their personal socioeconomic situation. Their psychological status is “fear of change,” and their ideological basis is conservatism. There are things they aren’t happy about, but they are ready to put up with them.
“Apolitical.” These are people who are practically uninterested in politics. Many people in this group are young adults aged 18 to 23. They have no responsibilities yet. But this group also includes well-off housewives. Their ideological basis is hedonism, and everything is fine in their life.
Q. – What social groups are critical of the authorities?
A. – “Pseudo-political” is the largest group of those critical of the authorities. People in this group became interested in politics no earlier than 2018, and many only in recent months. There is a lot they are unhappy with. They are pushing mostly for socioeconomic changes. Political changes are not so important to them. They don’t want to participate in any civic activity, but they expect that from others. Most people in this group don’t need a leader at all, but they believe the people still need one.
“Saudadists” (not to be confused with Saudis). The Portuguese have a word, saudade, that does not have a straightforward Russian translation. The term means an emotion that expresses longing, nostalgia for a large empire [sic; saudade conveys a general sense of longing or nostalgia – Trans.]. This group of Russians is very nostalgic for the lost great power [status]. Actually, they are similar to great power supporters, but they are completely disappointed in the government. They basically have the same foundational values, but they believe that the government has deceived them; its actions are now completely unacceptable. This group needs a new political leader who can lead the country.
And the last large group is the “opposition.” They don’t need a leader; instead, they need civil society organizations built on horizontal ties. This group talks a lot about a parliamentary republic, about not needing one-person rule or concentration of power. . . .
Q. – You have presented a very interesting and varied picture, but if you were to summarize, what portion of Russians in your sample is most critical of the authorities?
A. – I think more than half. The most critical are the “oppositionists” and “Saudadists.” . . .
Q. – You mentioned an increased level of aggression and frustration – an “agitated state of society.” What kind of “agitated state” is this, and what kind of actions could these emotions result in?
A. – In our quantitative survey, the question was: “What emotions are prevailing for you during the [coronavirus] self-isolation period?” And then there was a list of emotions. “Irritation” ranked first, “anxiety” came in second, and third was “anger.” But irritation and anger are emotions of aggression – just aggression of different intensity. Anxiety is understandable; these are fears for loved ones, for the financial situation. But aggression – What it is aimed at –
Q. – Is it vague or targeted?
A. – We think that it is generally large-scale and targeted. The aggression is directed at the government. More so the federal government, but sometimes the president personally. The irritation is due to the fact that he deceived people, or so they believe. He made promises and did not live up to people’s expectations. If, for example, you were to request a loan from a colleague with whom you have a good but not particularly close relationship, and that person refused, it would be annoying, but normal. But when in a difficult situation you asked someone close to you who knows what is happening in your life and that person refused, this, of course, would elicit completely different feelings. That’s roughly what has happened. People are wondering “How could he do that?” [Putin] surely knows how bad things are for us! How could he escape to his bunker, shirk his responsibility? In people’s minds, illusions that many held right up to the self-isolation period are collapsing. As those illusions dissipate, aggression grows.
Q. – Is this increased level of aggression present in all groups? Which groups have more of it, and which have less?
A. – Of course, there is no aggression among the “elderly” and not that much among the other loyal groups. There is a vague sense of irritation, but it is not directed at the government. On the other hand, people who used to be absolute loyalists include family members of high-ranking officials – i.e., our Russian elite. These people say that everything is fine with them personally, but they understand that it’s really impossible for [ordinary] people to live like this – that something needs to change. Even the loyalists have some kind of understanding. . . .
Q. – Generally speaking, what percentage of your sample could be willing to join the political opposition?
A. – About 15% of respondents, but you need to understand that this willingness is for now [just] declarative. Whether it will manifest itself in behavior is a big question. People are afraid. If not for the fear of repressions, the willingness to protest would be much greater. In our sample, the willingness for progovernment political participation is, of course, much lower. Moreover, the other respondents are on the fence. As soon as they see that thousands of people are filling the streets, they will take to the streets, too – provided there is no police violence. In fact, with the help of repressions, the regime has somehow managed to restrain people; they are afraid. Although there is more and more talk that protests are about to begin, and if the first shot is heard, or if the riot police accidentally hurt some old lady, people will lose their heads and crush the police. That is what one of our respondents, a former riot police officer and pensioner from Ivanovo, thinks. And he roughly understands how the system works on the inside.
It seems to me that the authorities will someday surrender their positions, either peacefully or nonpeacefully. . . .
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Author: Michael Mainville
Russians overwhelmingly approved a package of constitutional changes in a nationwide vote, partial results showed Wednesday, allowing President Vladimir Putin to potentially extend his two-decade rule until 2036.
With almost 30% of polling stations reporting after the end of seven days of voting, 74% of voters had supported the reforms, the central election commission said.
There had been little doubt that voters would back the changes, which Putin announced earlier this year and critics denounced as a maneuver to allow him to stay in the Kremlin for life.
The amendments had been passed weeks ago by Russia’s parliament and copies of the new constitution were already on sale in bookshops, but Putin had said voter approval was essential to give them legitimacy.
The reforms include conservative and populist measures – like guaranteed minimum pensions and an effective ban on gay marriage – but crucially for Putin also reset presidential limits allowing him to run twice again after his current six-year term expires in 2024.
Turnout as of 1700 GMT was just under 65%, the election commission said.
The Kremlin pulled out all the stops to encourage voting, with polls extended over nearly a week, the last day of voting declared a national holiday and prizes, including apartments and cars, on offer to voters.
Initially planned for April 22, the referendum was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic but rescheduled after Putin said the epidemic had peaked and officials began reporting lower numbers of new cases. In a final appeal to voters on Tuesday, Putin said the changes were needed to ensure Russia’s future “stability, security, prosperity.”
State television showed Putin voting Wednesday at his usual polling station at the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he was handed a ballot by an electoral worker wearing a surgical mask and gloves. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Putin was not wearing any protective gear.
At a polling station in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East, 79-year-old Valentina Kungurtseva told AFP she supported the reforms. “For us as pensioners, it’s very important that they will increase our pension every year,” she said, adding that she had no problem with resetting presidential terms. “As long as we have a good president, life will be good,” she said.
In the second city, Saint Petersburg, 20-year-old Sergei Goritsvetov said he opposed the reforms but doubted it would make any difference. “I voted against and I hope there will be many of us, but I don’t know what it will change,” he said. “At least I expressed my opinion.”
Chief opposition campaigner Aleksei Navalny said Putin, 67, and in power as president or prime minister since 2000, wants to make himself “president for life” and called for a boycott.
But the opposition – divided, weakened by years of political repression and with little access to state-controlled media – failed to mount a serious “no” campaign.
Golos, an independent election monitor, said it had received hundreds of complaints of violations, including people voting more than once and claims employers were putting pressure on staff to cast ballots. Election commission chief Ella Pamfilova denied any problems on Wednesday, saying: “During the entire voting period no serious violations***were found.”
Putin’s approval rating has fallen in recent months, in part over early mistakes in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. It stood at 60% in June according to pollster Levada, down 20 points from the months after his re-election in 2018.
Analysts say Putin wanted to get the vote over with before Russians – already suffering from several years of falling incomes – are hit by the full economic impact of the pandemic.
Putin said in a recent interview that he had not decided whether to run again but suggested that part of the reason for the presidential reset was to allow Russia’s political elite to focus on governing instead of “hunting for possible successors.”
Author: Andrei Pertsev
‘There's Nothing the Kremlin Hasn't Tried’: How Russian Election Officials Plan to Secure 55% Turnout in the Upcoming Constitutional Plebiscite
Having rescheduled Russia’s plebiscite on the constitutional amendments for July 1, the Putin administration reportedly hopes at least 55% of eligible voters will participate in the special vote. To increase turnout, they’ve introduced a raft of new rules, including staggering voting over a seven-day period, allowing voting from home, and introducing online voting for residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The pretext for all of these measures is public safety in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but these new regulations could also increase official turnout figures and boost support for the amendments.‘Plausible turnout.’
Several sources close to the Putin administration, as well as political strategists working for Kremlin-supported candidates in the regional elections scheduled for September 2020, told Meduza that Kremlin officials have set a goal of 55% participation in the nationwide vote, with the aim of 60% voting in favor of the constitutional amendments.
That said, there is no mandatory approval threshold for adopting these changes; the amendments are already considered approved and will come into force if supported by a majority of voters. Meanwhile, polls from the independent Levada Center show that 45% of respondents are definitely planning to take part in the plebiscite, while 21% are open to participating, and 13% are sure they won’t vote.
Local authorities reportedly began receiving voting targets from the Kremlin in April (the original date for the plebiscite was April 22). Some regions received turnout targets as high as 70%, with the aim of 90% voting in favor. That said, sources from the administrations of several regions, as well as local branches of the ruling United Russia party, maintain that turnout and approval goals have since been lowered to 65% and 55%, respectively. “The turnout should be plausible,” a source close to the presidential administration told Meduza.
That said, some regions are still doubtful that they will be able to rally this many voters. A senior United Russia representative from one of the regions in the Central Federal District told Meduza that these “plausible targets” can’t be met using traditional voting procedures: In his region, only around 20% of voters are prepared to participate in the plebiscite. “People are afraid of the coronavirus, and the topic of the amendments is already old news. It’s become stale and they’re used to it,” he said, describing popular sentiment. Nevertheless, the United Russia member maintained that the new rules and procedures for voting introduced in connection with the coronavirus epidemic will help raise turnout and the level of popular approval.Weeklong voting.
Voting on amending the Constitution will now be spread out over a seven-day period from June 25 to July 1 – six of these days will be set aside for at-home voting. Voters will not have to offer a valid reason for applying to vote from home. Furthermore, electoral commission members will not handle voters’ passports or register their passport numbers, in accordance with the new voting procedures. Every hour, polling stations will close for 10 minutes for sanitization. And according to the CEC, polling stations should limit entry to eight to 12 voters per hour.
During Russia’s most recent single day of voting, the widespread use of at-home voting allowed the Kremlin to increase turnout and give good results to candidates supported by the authorities, some analysts concluded. Meduza’s source from United Russia said that the new rules for the vote on the amendments will definitely be able to raise turnout by 20%-25%. “But there’s no way to get 55% without blatant ballot-stuffing. The loyal turnout base has always been elderly people, and many of them are at [their] dachas now. At-home voting here won’t help,” the source warns.
A political strategist working for the authorities in one of the regions says that the 55% target will not apply in parts of central Russia with traditionally low voter turnout or in regions where protest sentiment tends to run higher. Instead, these numbers will come “at the expense of other regions.” Sources close to the Kremlin say the votes needed to reach targets will be collected through electronic voting in Moscow and St. Petersburg – regions that already account for a significant portion of the total share of voters. The authorities in the North Caucasus traditionally provide a significant share of the overall voting results, as well.
Political strategist Ruslan Modin believes that achieving 55% turnout is possible, since new forms of voting could attract more voters. Not to mention the fact that the vote is taking place on the heels of Russia’s rescheduled 75th anniversary Victory Day celebrations: “Voting will begin immediately after the parade – they will announce the lifting of [coronavirus] restrictions and people will be happy,” he predicts.
According to political consultant Dmitry Fetisov, “many regional heads who need to show results” will see this as an opportunity to falsify votes. “Even if the president sets the difficult task of ensuring legitimacy, they will not give up this opportunity. And this could provide up to 10%-15% of the turnout and votes for the necessary results,” he warns. The way he sees it, allowing voters to cast their ballots without providing passport data creates the “temptation” to use carousel voting – a method of voter fraud where individuals vote several times at different polling stations.Renewed campaigning.
The Kremlin’s political strategists are also reportedly planning a new series of segments (to be filmed at polling stations over the weekend of June 27 to July 1) that aim to persuade Russians that the plebiscite enjoyed a high turnout. Maintaining social distance, as well as other recommendations from Rospotrebnadzor could create lines at polling station entrances, and this is seen as a good thing. “A line is a great visual. It’s proof of high turnout,” says one political strategist who helped organize the Kremlin’s secessionist referendum in the Crimea before Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. In that vote, election officials also closed some polling stations to deliberately create long lines for a photo op.
Sources close to the Putin administration say that a new “brand book” – developed by IMA Consulting, a Kremlin-affiliated political strategy company – will also drive the constitutional amendments campaign. “It is to be presented during the presidential administration’s videoconference on politics with governors and deputy governors today. The current campaign is already outdated. There will be new videos and billboards – a new ideology,” he said.
The propaganda videos that have already appeared on state-run television network RT, as well as the RIA FAN news agency (an outlet affiliated with businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin) are not formally part of the Kremlin’s official campaign.
That said, political strategists who are meant to be supervising campaigning at the local level have yet to receive new guidelines. “We don’t have any freedom at all, we can only do what the top says,” said a political strategist working in one of Russia’s single-industry towns. “There’s nothing the Kremlin hasn’t tried to float in these last two months. [First] it’s one handbook, then another, and then they call back almost immediately to say never mind, don’t do it.”
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Author: Nikolai Patrushev
Does Russia Need Universal Values? Spiritual and Moral Values as the Foundation of a Nation's Sovereignty
By Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 18, 2020, p. 1. Complete text:
The proposed amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation open a new chapter in the history of the Russian state. These changes will protect our basic family values and historical truth. They will help us provide proper spiritual and moral education to our young people. They will help the state support and protect our culture as a unique heritage of Russia’s multiethnic population. They will strengthen the fundamental elements of the welfare state in Russia. This is why adopting these amendments is crucial and extremely significant for defining our country’s goals and development plans.
Spiritual and moral values shape people’s worldview, guide them in their daily activities, help people understand each other and inform people’s behavioral patterns and models.
Usually, the question of proper values arises when a nation has to make an important decision regarding its future path.
This year, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our Great Victory and the whole country discusses the proposed constitutional amendments, the question of values acquired particular importance. The West responded to these events in Russia by ramping up its information campaigns and propaganda in an effort to rewrite world and Russian history, downplay the importance of our victory, and deal another blow to Russia’s system of traditional spiritual and moral values.
Yet no matter how hard our “partners” from across the Atlantic have tried to tear down the system of values that Russia has developed over many generations, our values remain largely unchanged.
A very brief and by no means exhaustive description of the Russian system of spiritual and moral values is given in the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation. They include, among other things, the primacy of spiritual matters over material wealth; protection of human life, right and freedoms; family; constructive labor; service to the motherland; moral and ethical standards; humanitarian ideals, mercy and justice; solidarity and collectivism; historical unity of all the ethnic groups living in Russia; and continuity of our country’s history.
An equally important list of our spiritual and moral values is given in the National Character Education Strategy for 2015-2025. It includes values like empathy, justice, honor, good conscience, willpower, personal dignity, positivity and aspiration to perform one’s moral duty to oneself, family and homeland.
The traditional system of Russian values was shaped by centuries of our history. It is the spiritual and moral foundation of our society. It was this system that enabled the Soviet people to achieve victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War – a historic victory of global significance. It is this strong foundation that enables us to maintain and strengthen our sovereignty, and build our future in spite of all the difficulties and contradictions of historical development. Our country has literally brought forth its values through suffering, and now the main task before future generations is to preserve and multiply this wealth.
We must protect the values of our multiethnic, multifaith nation against those aggressively pushing neoliberal values, which often contradict the very essence of our worldview. Our geopolitical foes are actively imposing those values on others in order to control the development of civilization and secure a dominating global position.
They are continuing their attempts to destroy Russia’s multiethnic unity and diminish the importance of traditional spiritual and moral norms as the foundation of our cultural, spiritual, political and, ultimately, national sovereignty.
Undoubtedly, most nations share common fundamental values – i.e., common ideal goals and societal attributes. Everybody likes justice, security and welfare.
When we talk about the values that are dominant in foreign cultures and which are alien to the Russian people, we usually call them “Western values.”
Also, many older and middle-aged people remember the term “universal values,” which was widely used during the so-called perestroika and in the early days of modern Russia.
While I do not deny that there are certain values that humanity has in common, I want to stress that at that particular time, the concept of “universal values” made the “Western world,” which was completely unknown to most people in Russia, closer and easier to understand. At the same time, it helped promote social and moral standards that were not always in line with traditional Russian values.
“Western values,” which have been increasingly promoted as “universal” in recent decades and defined as such in the European Union’s official documents, have become a popular stereotype.
In order to understand their meaning and significance, it is important to trace the history of their interpretations in official EU documents.
The preamble of the Treaty on European Union (Maastricht, Feb. 7, 1992) talks about “the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.” The treaty states that the EU “is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, nondiscrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”
It is worth recalling that certain European values like the eight-hour workday, gender equality and women’s suffrage were only made possible by the 1917 events in Russia. For example, France did not allow women to vote until 1944; Switzerland, until 1971; and Portugal, until 1974.
Unfortunately, real life shows that official declarations about “universal values” are little more than empty words. Once these norms were enshrined, the Western world quickly adopted the neoliberal development model.
Basic concepts like “family,” “mother” and “father,” “man” and “woman,” were intentionally eroded in the West and replaced with artificial surrogates like “parent one” and “parent two.” These surrogates were so unnatural, even from a purely biological viewpoint, that this practice immediately resulted in a civilizational conflict within Western Europe.
Furthermore, these new standards contradict the fundamental tenets of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions, and are absolutely rejected by them.
As far as social behavior is concerned, neoliberalism instills individualism, selfishness, hedonism and consumerism. It insists on absolute freedom of expression, no matter what form it takes. Yet even in the West, there are a lot of people who do not agree with these antivalues.
I can give you a lot of examples. For instance, we all remember the mass protests in France in January 2013 against legalizing same-sex marriage. Over 300,000 people took to the streets in Paris. When voting on the “Marriage for All” bill, France’s National Assembly was divided practically 50-50 – 225 lawmakers out of 565 voted against the law [sic; 229 out of 558 – Trans.]. Given how polarized France was at the time, one cannot help but wonder whether these values are truly “universal” or whether they are being imposed artificially.
The COVID‑19 pandemic exposed the negative consequences of these newly imposed Western values – primarily, increased individualism and selfishness, indifference, and inability to mobilize and cope with a looming threat.
All this was further compounded by another process that Western countries pretend not to notice: the quickly vanishing middle class. And it is the middle class that has always formed the conservative majority and preserved traditional values.
This process was triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. When this geopolitical disaster happened, the Western neoliberal elite realized that their primary ideological foe was gone, and they were free to do whatever they wanted. Prior to that, they needed the middle class for ideological purposes – to demonstrate the supposed “superiority” of the Western system. But once the situation in our country changed, the middle class became unnecessary.
In turn, the disappearance of the middle class along with migrant crises triggered the resurgence of barbaric nationalism, which is practically endorsed by the US and the leading nations of the “united” Europe in countries like Ukraine.
Right-wing and nationalist parties are on the rise in Europe, as well. New Western values resulted in, among other things, torture in Guantanamo Bay and Afghan prisons. It is because of these values that [young people] refuse to serve in the military and protect their homeland. The countries that refuse to accept these values are often punished with blanket sanctions that target their entire population. The entire system of traditional Western values has been overhauled to such an extent that its current “universal” standards have very little in common with the customary values of European civilization, which are more familiar to us.
This is not just one set of values being replaced with another. Rather, it is a new ideological system that seeks to destroy all traditional religious and moral values as the foundation of a country’s cultural and political sovereignty.
New Western values impose an alien worldview on people. Western ideologues force entire nations to make a choice: either accept the “universal values,” or have their own values denounced as wrong and immoral.
Thus, any attempt to conform Russia’s – or any other country’s – values to the official “universal” ones is in fact an act of social and cultural aggression, and its purpose is to destroy this country’s traditional system of values.
Today, with society increasingly relying on digital technologies, with the system of international relations and international security deteriorating, the West is seeking to indoctrinate Russian citizens and ethnic Russians throughout the world with neoliberal dogmas. It is not only attacking traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, but also values that are truly universal and common to all of humanity, undermining the foundations of states. To this end, it actively uses various ideological formulas like “culture wars.”
The new standards have had an equally devastating effect on the international security system. Attempts to replace international law with the “might makes right” principle, attempts to spread “freedom and democracy” with bombs and missiles in countries where the Western interpretation of freedom and democracy is unacceptable for a variety of historical, religious, ethnic and other reasons have resulted in real tragedies in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The barbaric bombings of Yugoslavia will forever remain a shameful chapter in the history of all the NATO countries.
In this “hybrid warfare,” our opponents attack us on all fronts at the same time. Their primary objective is to erode the centuries-old traditions of various nations, as well as their languages, religions and historical memories. Russia is a multiethnic state, and its people will under no circumstances accept such standards and values.
In this context, it is important to understand what Russia offers the world instead.
Unlike the West, Russia essentially offers a new civilizational choice, which includes equality, justice, noninterference in [countries’] domestic affairs, and mutually beneficial cooperation between states without condescension or preconditions.
Russia is proposing to make national sovereignty – including cultural, spiritual and moral sovereignty – the supreme value and the foundation for civilization-building. There is no doubt that the number of those who makes this choice will keep growing in the world, which will create an increasingly favorable environment for various nations to develop and prosper.
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Author: Irina Khalip
A Holding Cell for Every Candidate
By Irina Khalip. Novaya gazeta, June 22, 2020, p. 8. Complete text:
Minsk – Apparently, when [Belarussian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko jailed all [other] presidential candidates 10 years ago [see Vol. 62, No. 51‑52, pp. 1‑6], he was the picture of restraint.*** After all, back then he didn’t lost his nerve until election day. Until then, he seemed almost normal – at least for those who didn’t live in Belarus. But that’s hardly the case now.
The collection of signatures [in support of presidential hopefuls in the 2020 race] is not even over yet, and two potential candidates have already wound up behind bars, along with members of their initiative groups. On June 18, former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babariko and his son Eduard went to the Central Electoral Commission to register, but never made it [see Vol. 72, No. 25, pp. 12‑13]. They were detained and brought to financial investigation department of the State Oversight Committee (SOC). Lawyers were not allowed to see the detainees – they were told training was under way. When journalists arrived at the SOC, a person in a suit showed up and locked the door from the inside. In the evening, the father and son were transferred to a KGB pretrial detention center.
Criminal cases against them had been launched a week earlier. On June 11, about 50 SOC employees conducted a search at [Belgazprombank]. In the evening, it turned out that two criminal charges had been filed: tax evasion and money laundering. Arrests began the next day, but Babariko remained free.
First, several members of the initiative group who worked at Belgazprombank were arrested. This was followed by the arrest of Svetlana Kupreyeva, a Babariko family friend. Svetlana is a retired accountant who lives in a modest apartment with her 81-year-old mother and does bookkeeping for some small businesses to supplement her income. She never worked at Belgazprombank – she just happened to be a longtime friend of Viktor Babariko’s wife Marina (who died three years ago). The SOC officers who detained Svetlana Kupreyeva left a warrant in her apartment that states she is suspected of tax evasion with damages to the state estimated at 8,950,222 Belarussian rubles (almost $4 million).
Following Babariko’s arrest on June 18, [Belarussian] Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei invited European Union ambassadors [to a meeting]. Of course, Makei was merely providing a platform – the talking head was SOC chairman Ivan Tertel. He went on for a long time about how Babariko is a criminal who siphoned half a million dollars abroad, and that even in Europe you get a prison sentence for that and things don’t get politicized.
On Friday [June 19], the SOC was joined by the prosecution system and, naturally, the KGB. Belarussian Prosecutor General Aleksandr Konyuk stated that because Babariko headed a criminal group, another criminal case has been launched under Art. 285 (“creating an organized crime group”). And since the banker’s actions as head of this organized crime group damaged national security interests, the case is being handed over to the KGB. Given this slew of charges, Babariko is clearly going to remain in jail not just until the election, but after it as well.
While Viktor Babariko and members of his initiative group are in a KGB pretrial detention center, another candidate and his associates are being held in Minsk’s Pretrial Detention Center No. 1 – namely, Sergei Tikhanovsky (a popular blogger who runs the “Country for Life” YouTube channel) and 10 other people. At first, the authorities refused to even register Tikhanovsky’s initiative group – he was thrown in jail for 15 days and refused registration under the pretext that he needed to sign in person. Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana then registered the group as hers, and appointed her husband as director. That helped, but not for long: Tikhanovsky was arrested on May 29 at a rally to collect signatures, together with 10 others in the initiative group. They have all been charged under Art. 342 (“organizing activities that grossly violate public order”).
On Thursday and Friday – the last days to collect signatures – Belarussians held rallies in solidarity with the political prisoners: They lined up, ostensibly to give signatures, and the queues went on for miles. In Minsk, they stretched from Yakub Kolas Square to Independence Square. Similar rallies took place in Grodno, Brest, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Lida, Pruzhany, Molodechno and Soligorsk. People stood on the streets until late into the night without any kind of posters (after all, this was a line to submit signatures, and everyone stuck to that format). Only occasionally, they would shout, “Let [them] go!” Passing cars honked in support, and Viktor Tsoi’s song “We Want Change!” – what else! – could be heard from open windows. It was clear to everyone that at that moment,“3% Sasha” (Belarussians’ only nickname for Lukashenko at that point [after online polling showed that Lukashenko had support from only 3% of voters – Trans.]) was losing his last 3%.
[Lukashenko] can still leave voluntarily or hold the election and finally lose honestly. He can even flee the country, taking along the paintings stolen from Belgazprombank. But for some reason, he’s not doing that. He’s probably pinning his hopes on the siloviki [defense, security and law-enforcement officials – Trans.]. But even they may lose their nerve. Lukashenko likes to recall how [former Uzbek leader Islam] Karimov and [Tajik President Emomali] Rakhmon shot their own people. “My friend Rakhmon entered Tajikistan’s capital with a machine gun to establish order.” Of course, Lukashenko’s memory is spotty: He remembers Rakhmon, but for some reason has forgotten about [Romanian leader Nicolae] Ceausescu.
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