Moscow-Russia’s opposition is denouncing this week’s vote on President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reforms as a joke, pointing out that copies of the amended basic law are already on sale in Moscow bookshops.
From liberal reformers to Communists, Kremlin critics say the vote — which started last week and ends on Wednesday — is a thinly veiled attempt to keep Putin, 67, in power for life.
But other than tepid calls to boycott or vote “No”, the opposition has done little to actively fight the changes.
Russia’s top opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who last summer rallied thousands against suspected voter fraud in Moscow, has also shown little interest in combating the reforms.
Experts say deep divisions and shrewd moves by the Kremlin are keeping opponents from mounting any serious opposition to Putin’s plans.
“A lack of resources, a lack of new faces, a lack of excitement, inspiration and faith — that’s what I think are the main reason for the problems,” said Vitali Shkliarov, a Harvard University fellow and political adviser who has worked with the Russian opposition.
“There have been a million opportunities to prove yourself” since Putin announced the reforms, he said. But after years of repression, Kremlin critics feel dispirited.
“The Russian opposition does not believe in itself.”
Putin proposed amending the constitution in January and later approved a last-minute addition that would reset presidential term limits to zero, potentially allowing him to serve two more six-year terms after his mandate expires in 2024.
They also include political changes like strengthening the role of parliament and a series of populist measures such as a requirement to adjust state pensions for inflation and an effective ban on gay marriage.
Opinion polls show a majority of Russians support the social amendments but there is less enthusiasm for the political reforms.
Russian state pollster VCIOM on Monday published an exit poll showing a vast majority of Russians backing proposed constitutional reforms, days before the end of voting.
Some 76 percent of respondents voted for the package of amendments, which range from better pensions and minimum wages to a reset of term limits that would allow President Vladimir Putin to run again in 2024 and potentially stay in power until 2036.
The vote, which the opposition has slammed as illegal and prone to rigging, began last week and is due to end on Wednesday.
VCIOM, which stands for the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, polled more than 163,000 voters in 25 regions, with about 70 percent agreeing to say how they voted.
The co-chairman of election monitoring group Golos, Grigory Melkonyants, told Business FM radio that the publication of figures before the end of voting could unduly “influence the will of citizens”.
This is why the publication of exit polls is banned before the end of voting, he noted.
VCIOM said it decided to publish the figures because of “high demand” for the data and dismissed the idea that it could influence the outcome.
“It’s not against the law to publish,” the centre’s director Valery Fyodorov told AFP in an emailed comment.
Election commission chief Ella Pamfilova said the body had recommended to wait until the end of voting but that the centre did not do anything illegal.
The constitutional vote has to abide by its own special law, rather than Russia’s regular election legislation, which forbids publication of data during a “silent period” immediately before and during voting.
“The law (on the constitutional vote) does not regulate this,” Pamfilova told Business FM radio.
Voting started in Russia on Thursday after a decision to spread the plebiscite over a week to avoid crowds during the coronavirus epidemic.
Advertisements running frequently on television ask Russians to vote without any mention of the clause that effectively “zeroes” Putin’s time in the Kremlin and opens the possibility of him staying on for two more terms until 2036.
The Kremlin reluctantly postponed the vote, originally scheduled for April 22, as coronavirus cases increased and officials imposed restrictions to slow the spread.