The Theatrical Method in Putin’s Vote Madness

MOSCOW — Russia’s seven-day national plebiscite, intended to keep President Vladimir V. Putin in power until at least 2036, delivered the expected verdict on Wednesday: Early results showed that three-quarters of voters had given their endorsement.

Less clear, however, was why Mr. Putin even needed voters to approve a raft of constitutional amendments that, already ratified by the national parliament in Moscow and regional legislatures across the country, entered into law months ago.

“From a juridical point of view, this whole exercise is insane,” said Greg B. Yudin, a sociologist and political theorist at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. But, he added, “it is not at all a meaningless procedure,” because Russia’s system under Mr. Putin depends on the appearance of popular support to confer legitimacy on decisions he has already made.

“It is theater, but very important and well-played theater. The system needs to stage displays of public support even when it doesn’t have it,” Mr. Yudin said. “This vote is putting Putin’s theatrical techniques to the test.”

In a final melodramatic flourish on Tuesday, Mr. Putin addressed the nation against the backdrop of monuments to Soviet soldiers killed fighting Nazi Germany, assuring voters that their voices mattered, no matter that the scores of amendments they were being asked to consider had already been enacted and the amended constitution had been published and put on sale in book stores. “The voice of each of you is the most important, the most significant,” Mr. Putin said.

Voters, in theory, could have rejected the amendments, and Mr. Putin pledged to honor their decision. But the chances of that happening always seemed minuscule, not least because of what Golos, an independent election monitoring organization, described on Tuesday as an electoral process rigged from the start.

Golos said the vote, unfairly skewed by a noisy one-sided propaganda campaign by state-controlled media and blatant pressure from a sprawling galaxy of state-funded companies and organizations, did “not allow us to talk seriously about the possibility of the will of the people being expressed.”

The state’s vast reach and resources allowed it to mobilize people like Lyudmila Savinkina, the editor in chief of Yegoryevsk Today, a small state television station in a town southeast of Moscow. In a recording obtained by Golos, she ordered her staff not only to vote but to make sure they voted in the town of Yegoryevsk, no matter where they are usually registered. (Local officials risk losing their jobs if they fail to mobilize enough voters in their own districts.)

For those who disobeyed, the editor told her staff, there would be consequences. Those, she said, “may vary, I’m just warning you. And this concerns both you and me. I will not even explain it to you. Everyone can lose jobs, bonuses — and this amid a pandemic, when many people have already lost their jobs.” Ms. Savinkina did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.

For weeks, a long parade of prominent Russians who depend on the state for their positions and income — from actors and musicians to the head of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church — have paraded across state television urging people to vote.

Curiously, none of them mentioned the core of the exercise: an amendment to allow Mr. Putin to crash through constitutional term limits in place since 1993 and stay in power virtually for life, rather than step down at the end of his current term in 2024. They instead focused on other changes, like enshrining the protection of pensions, family values, animals, the Russian language and the memory of Russians killed in World War II.

The yes-or-no vote was a package deal, which meant that anyone who believed in the sanctity of Russia’s war dead — a huge number in a country that lost more than 20 million lives during what was known as “the Great Patriotic War” — would most likely tick yes and, in doing so, endorse the idea of letting Mr. Putin, now 67, stay in the Kremlin at least until age 83.

Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, denounced the exercise as a “shameful farce” that had been “specially designed to cheat and deceive the public.”

Mr. Navalny fired his most vitriolic comments at the mostly over-the-hill celebrities who, reliant on state-funded gigs, had joined a feverish campaign to get out the vote. He called them “revolting, vile and disgusting people” who “are lying, cheating the public for money.”

One of his targets was Oleg Gazmanov, a singer often hired to entertain officials, including Mr. Putin at a celebration honoring secret police officers. In his pitch to voters on television, Mr. Gazmanov made no mention of Mr. Putin staying in power for 16 more years but stressed the importance of voting to prevent “trampling on the memory of our heroes, desecrating the graves of our ancestors.” He recalled that his own father had fought all the way to Berlin in 1945.

By contrast, many bloggers, “influencers” and other internet celebrities turned down payments to mention the amendments, fearing that any hint of praise for Mr. Putin would ruin their image with their young audiences and crush ad sales.

The Central Election Commission reported on Wednesday morning, at the start of the final day of voting, that 55 percent of Russia’s 108 million registered voters had already cast their ballots. The turnout alone validated the success of Mr. Putin’s extravagant show.

By late Wednesday, with 98 percent of ballots counted, 78 percent of voters backed the constitutional amendments, election officials said. That nearly matched earlier exit poll results from the state-controlled Russian polling organization, VTsIOM, that showed 76 percent of voters backing the amendments.

The foregone nature of the outcome, in Mr. Yudin’s view, reflects Russia’s “plebiscitary democracy,” a system that revolves around a single, unchallenged leader but still requires regular cries of “public acclamation to give it legitimacy.”

The Kremlin’s primary objective, he said, was less to get public approval for amendments that had already been ratified than to give Mr. Putin a fresh jolt of legitimacy at a time when, with Russia’s economy severely damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, his approval rating has slumped to its lowest level since he came to power 20 years ago.

To ensure that happened, the Kremlin pulled out all the stops. Voters were lured to polling stations by prize lotteries, grocery vouchers, clown shows and other attractions.

There were scattered reports of outright fraud, but more significant was the forced mobilization of the large number of voters whose livelihood depends, one way or another, on staying on the Kremlin’s good side.

Employees at state-funded libraries in St. Petersburg complained that they had been ordered by their institutions to vote and on which day. Boris L. Vishnevsky, a St. Petersburg academic and opposition member of the local council, described this as a “gross violation of labor law,” saying that “employees have no obligation to vote if they don’t want to.”

Some people balked, like Vladimir Zhirinov, a young journalist who said this week that he was resigning from a state television station in the Siberian city of Krasnoyars, because “what is happening is beyond my comprehension.”

“I cannot just nod: ‘Yes, everything has already been decided, nothing depends on us,’” he said.

In the final days of the vote, officials and state media outlets went on the offensive against claims of fraud posted on social media, some of which were clearly fake. One of those showed ballot papers pre-marked with invisible ink that later became visible. The clip was filmed during an election years ago in Kazakhstan.

More plausible accounts of jiggery-pokery came from opposition members of local election commissions, including one in the Moscow district of Ramenki, who reported a suspicious surge in undocumented voting from home. In the Lefortovo district of the capital, a man and his wife turned up to vote at their local polling station and found that they and their two children were registered as having already voted.

For those unwilling to play their allotted roles, the television editor in Yegoryevsk had some simple advice: “I’m sorry, we live in this country. As I have said earlier, if you don’t like it, move to other countries. And that’s it, all issues will be solved at once.”

Sophia Kishkovsky and Oleg Matsnev contributed research.

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