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Volume 72, Number 23 (June 1-7, 2020)
FEATURED NEWS STORIES
Upcoming Plebiscite Polarizes Russia
Is Trump Courting Russia or Using It?
THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Belanovsky: Poll Shows Russians Abandoning Putin Amid Frustration Over Pandemic
Nikolskaya: Russians Increasingly Fed Up With Putin Regime, Want New Leadership Click here to read more
Salikhov: Russia’s Measures to Support Economy During the Pandemic Insufficient
Russia Publishes Nuclear Deterrence Policy Document For First Time
Moscow’s Newly Released Nuclear Deterrence Policy Document Raises Questions, Offers Answers
Diesel Fuel Spill at Norilsk Heat and Power Plant Goes Unreported for Days
OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES
Lukashenko Leaves Law-Enforcement Bloc the Same During Partial Cabinet Reshuffle
Khodasevich: By Persecuting Opposition, Belarussian Leader Risks Alienating Both West, Russia
Russia Decries US Government’s Accusations of Meddling in Wake of George Floyd Killing
Lukyanov: Partisan Divide Growing More Pronounced, Culminating in Divisive Trump Presidency
Author: Vladislav Inozemtsev
Russia's Confused Coronavirus Response
By Vladislav Inozemtsev. The Moscow Times, May 6, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/05/06/russias-confused-coronavirus-response-a70197. Complete text:
In the last few days, there has been a growing sense that Russia is firmly losing the “war” on the coronavirus. The number of infections continues to rise every day, and it won’t be long before we see an increase in the number of deaths.
The main question now is: Why is this happening? The answer, in my view, is simple and has its roots in the nature of Russia’s power structure.
Over the course of the last two “glorious decades,” the Kremlin has withdrawn into itself and has become captive to the statistics and memos brought to senior officials by specially trained people, while the trust of the population in the words and orders of the authorities has sunk to zero.
This epidemic has made abundantly clear how confused everyone is.
In a normal country with a responsible government and a high level of social trust, the response looks conventional. The authorities tell the truth about the scale of the epidemic. Tests are done when symptoms first appear. Nobody tries to pass off COVID‑19 as pneumonia, or record diabetes or heart failure as the cause of a death resulting from coronavirus infection.
The population is not told fairy tales, but is informed of the real death statistics. Citizens are advised to stay at home, and in cases where this is impossible, they are asked to observe precautionary measures. It is forbidden to enter institutions, stores or public transport without a mask. People themselves demand that their friends and relatives maintain social distancing. This is what is happening in the US, Germany and the UK.
In those anomalous countries with a dictatorship and a society with herd-like tendencies, the response is rather different. The truth about the scale of the outbreak is kept hidden but at the same time the authorities conduct general diagnostic measures, identify epidemic hot spots and completely isolate them from the outside world, tightly restricting movement within quarantined zones (in Wuhan, only one member of each family was permitted to leave the house/apartment for a maximum of an hour once every three days).
No self-isolation is prescribed for those diagnosed as sick – everyone is sent straight to the hospitals. Part of the economy essentially operates under martial law, with all regulation coming from the state. That is how China fought the epidemic.
In Russia, the authorities think they can act as if they are in China and that the people will behave as they do in Europe. All levels of government are slow to admit the scale of the epidemic, yet [officials] naïvely want people to fear the consequences. At the same time, while making noise about the outbreak soon reaching a plateau, the government is introducing restrictive measures of a harshness unparalleled either in Europe or in the US.
In Moscow alone, fines totaling 160 million rubles ($2.2 million) have already been issued, amid pointless and degrading instructions, but the city has not got close to the levels of self-isolation seen in Milan or Madrid, which were achieved without fines or police heavy-handedness.
The authorities themselves are provoking large-scale outbreaks of the epidemic: The increase in the number of infections in recent days correlates with the fiasco in the Moscow subway on April 15, and the regions with Easter celebrations on April 19.
The complete impotence on show as large numbers of people celebrate the May holidays will come back to haunt the government in the middle of the month, destroying hopes for an end to self-isolation and the beginning of a “restart” for the economy.
Small businesses are being shuttered under the pretext of the danger posed by the epidemic, but at Gazprom’s Chayandinskoye field, almost half of the 10,000 rotation workers have fallen sick. Such a concentration of people was not regarded as a problem – after all Gazprom is a “vital enterprise.” The list goes on.
In short, it’s the same as always. The authorities pretend that they are leading, while the people try to pretend that they are following orders. The president is sitting all this out in his bunker. And catastrophe is drawing inevitably closer.
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Author: Vladimir Ruvinsky
(Editorial) – Fatal Medical Statistics
By Vladimir Ruvinsky. Vedomosti, May 19, 2020, https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2020/05/19/830607-smertelnaya-statistika. Complete text:
Public data on the deaths of doctors in Russia point to a distortion of official coronavirus statistics and major public health problems.
At least 186 medical workers have died from COVID‑19 in Russia, Mediazona estimates based on data from the Memorial List project. According to official statistics, doctors account for almost 7% of all coronavirus fatalities in Russia. That is an average of 16 times higher than in six countries comparable to Russia in terms of the scale of the epidemic, Mediazona writes.
There are three possible reasons for this. Either our doctors are poorly protected, or the overall coronavirus fatality figures in the country are significantly underreported. Or both.
The first hypothesis is confirmed by various doctors from various regions: They are complaining that hospitals and clinics lack or are experiencing periodic shortages of PPE: masks, suits, gloves and disinfectants.
Regions report statistics that, as a rule, meet the federal center’s preferences, providing it with figures [that please Moscow] in exchange for resources, says public opinion researcher Simon Kordonsky. This system was established under Putin, but after the May Decree [see Vol. 70, No. 18‑19, pp. 3‑6], it kicked up a notch. And manipulations of medical statistics for the sake of rosy reporting and figures released from above have even sparked scandals.
The coronavirus crisis seems to have precipitated a major breakdown of this system and revealed its true nature. Now, local doctors must decide whether to factor the clinical picture, CT data, and laboratory tests into coronavirus statistics. Pathologists, too, must decide which deaths will be included in the coronavirus statistic. Without laboratory confirmation of COVID‑19, a pathologist can very well attribute the cause of death to other diseases, and Russians do not have very good health. According to a 2017 study by the Higher School of Economics, only 42% of citizens rated their health as good or very good.
Thus, there are tools for massaging various statistics. There are signals from Moscow, too, but contradictory ones: On the one hand, hospitals get 200,000 rubles in federal funds for each COVID‑19 patient they are treating (that is a lot, but not always enough for critical patients); on the other, the president has ordered the regions to prepare to end self-isolation. On the one hand, the federal center is saying we need to worry more about people, so they don’t get sick; on the other hand, they are saying that the spread of the coronavirus in Russia has been halted.
Vladimir Putin described this paradoxical situation: Running ahead is reckless, but you can’t sit back and do nothing.
Disoriented by the signals from above, the regions have probably started to underestimate COVID‑19 deaths. Meduza collected evidence of underreporting of coronavirus deaths in several regions and discovered that it is mainly pathologists who are manipulating death statistics on oral orders from local authorities, considering them to be directions from Moscow. As a result, in Russia, the COVID‑19 death rate has consistently stayed below 1%, although [death rates] usually steadily rise during epidemics.
The public record of doctor deaths that Mediazona wrote about are significant: It is an independent indicator showing, within a certain margin of error, the general coronavirus death rate in Russia. Yes, medical professionals face a higher risk of infection, but they also tend to have more access to medical assistance.
We can assume that the death rate of doctors approximately indicates the true nature of the spread of the infection in Russia and, quite accurately, the effectiveness of medical care. To get the full picture, it would be worth comparing the number of physicians infected and killed by COVID‑19, which would show a mortality rate that could be compared with the mortality rate of Russians in general. But the authorities do not disclose national coronavirus statistics about doctors, although they know them (Rospotrebnadzor collects them).
Coronavirus statistics in Russia have been scant and controversial; the Russian Foreign Ministry has even demanded rebuttals from The Financial Times and The New York Times, which reasonably suggested that [coronavirus] deaths are underreported [see article under World Politics, below]. Statistics that don’t add up are clearly not a project unique to COVID‑19, but are seen as a symbol of state governance: [Russian officials] are not allowed to simply hand over data, even those that are not in the least bit secret; they need special instructions. Before the epidemic, almost no one paid attention to death statistics, but now it turns out that the doctors who sacrificed their lives for Russians’ health are tarnishing the international reputation of a great power.
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Author: Dmitry Kamyshov
Russian President Keeps Parade Obligations
By Dmitry Kamyshov. Vedomosti, May 27, 2020, https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2020/05/27/831307-prezident-rossii. Complete text:
Vladimir Putin kept the promise he made to Russians on May 9 in a televised address at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: The parade in honor of the 75th anniversary of Victory [in World War II], postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, will be held on June 24. And a month later, on July 26, Navy Day, a procession of the Immortal Regiment is planned; although, depending on the situation with the epidemic, it could be postponed, the prudent president warned.
Actually, I think Vladimir Putin has much more reason to be offended by friendly China in general and his “dear friend [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping]” in particular – much more so than, for example, [US President] Donald Trump, who is demanding compensation from Beijing for concealing the truth about the Wuhan coronavirus. The US president, like a real businessman, cares more about the trillion-dollar damage to the American economy. The pandemic has ruined Putin’s entire well-tuned ideological concept of 2020, which is impossible to put a figure on.
And everything was so well thought-out!
In January, we had the president’s Message to the Federal Assembly and the launch of the constitutional reforms [see Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 3‑8]. In February, the State Duma unanimously adopted the president’s amendments with the key addition of the resetting of [Putin’s] term limits, that respected [State Duma Deputy] Valentina Tereshkova stumbled upon [see Vol. 72, No. 10‑11, pp. 8‑11]. March saw the equally unanimous endorsement of the constitutional reform by regional parliaments and a lively discussion of the amendments by ordinary Russians with the assistance of federal TV channels [see Vol. 72, No. 12, pp. 3‑7].
April was to be the triumphant national vote on the amended Constitution with a result nearly identical to candidate Putin’s 2018 presidential triumphant election returns.
Finally, May! A grand Victory Day celebration in the company of numerous foreign allies and even some so-called partners (you never know!).
This well-tuned plan was supposed to bring a jump in patriotic sentiment, a de facto revival of the Crimean consensus on a new basis, a convincing demonstration of Russia’s steadily increasing role in world politics and, ultimately, the belated but inevitable recognition by Western leaders of the inappropriateness of anti-Russian sanctions. At the same time, the government’s ratings were finally going to take off. The Kremlin is probably sick and tired of fending off independent pollsters and their harmful polls, as well as the independent media that gleefully tout those poll numbers.
What was there instead?
The solemn and measured adoption of the constitutional amendments was at first fast-tracked (in hopes of finishing the process before the virus rampage), and then it was dragged out to the point of indecency because it was impossible to wrap up all of the finishing touches amid the epidemic. Staff propagandists had to switch to explaining the authorities’ sage coronavirus mitigation policies. And the people quietly began to forget about the “Putin Constitution,” despite the worn-out TV clips.
The parade that was moved to June 24 will still be perceived as something secondary – and not just because the fly-over portion of the parade still took place on May 9. It’s just that the holiday’s special atmosphere is largely tied to the historical date, and just tank columns rolling through Moscow do not create a similar aura. What’s more, in the best-case scenario, only the heads of the CIS countries will attend the parade – and maybe not even all of them. It seems the decision was made to not even invite Western “partners,” to avoid any snubs. So the message about “finally getting up off our knees” will have to be streamed to an exclusively post-Soviet audience.
There are major doubts about whether turning June 24 into a “day of victory” over the pandemic is a good idea. Yes, the soldiers who march through Red Square could be followed by a column of doctors, scientists and waiters, who would throw their protective suits, coronavirus test tubes and “Closed for quarantine” signs down at the foot of the Mausoleum. But how would those celebrations look if a couple of months later a second wave of the epidemic breaks out (facilitated in part by the fervent desire to hold Immortal Regiment marches no matter what)?
So despite all the promises, Russia will not be able to celebrate this year’s anniversary of Victory the way it intended. And we probably just need to come to terms with that and start preparing for new celebrations, which, God willing, will take place under less extraordinary circumstances. Especially since, thanks to the Tereshkova amendment, Vladimir Putin may well live to see several more Victory Days in his current post.
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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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