Russia, Explained Extra

A Tsar is born. Decoding Putin’s ultimate power move

By Peter Sarukhanov / Novaya gazeta
By Peter Sarukhanov / Novaya gazeta

It took Putin six months to complete his ultimate power move. On July 1st, 2020 he finally solidified the extension for his rule until 2036 by rewriting Russian Constitution and ‘nullifying’ his previous terms. It was Putin’s solution to safeguard himself from waning popularity and build-up of public frustration over the lack of reforms and declining living standards in resource-rich Russia.

But it didn’t go entirely as planned.

First, it turned out to be extremely dirty. Following a week-long nationwide referendum, the officials reported overwhelming support for constitutional amendments proposed by the Russian President — almost 80%. State-controlled media (and even some foreign journalists) call it ‘an absolute triumph.’) However, we most likely will never find out the real tally. Russia hasn’t had free, fair, and transparent elections since at least 2004 and this vote was compromised, as well. We’ve been reporting about forced and coerced voting, mass ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and usual untransparent count.

Second, it failed to gain legitimacy. This is not the first power grab by Putin in his two-decade rule over Russia. But this is the first one that leaves him with a severe legitimacy deficit. Russian President thought that the chaos of deadly pandemic would allow the plan to have a smooth sail. But it faced a surprising pushback — Russians have managed to consolidate the most vocal protest vote to date. None would be possible without the pandemic's impact and the accumulated anger over the botched response by the incompetent and corrupt government.

A lot to unpack, huh?

Luckily, we’ve got you covered with the ultimate brief, sourcing the best indigenous opinions and analysis of Putin’s ultimate power move, courtesy of Novaya Gazeta.

Want to get the full story? Click the links below for full-length articles in Russian.

8 Key Takeaways

Our politics editor Kirill Martynov shares 10 most important results of Putin’s power-grabbing move.


The side that voted against the constitutional changes was more vocal and better mobilized than during previous elections. The split will exacerbate the internal political divisions. This is extremely inconvenient for the Kremlin as it eats away from the image of Putin’s ‘solidified’ rule.


It is hard to call it ‘a triumph’ when the state had to use unprecedented coercion measures and forced a vote out of state employees, teachers, and even doctors, who are still battling severe Covid-19 outbreak.


The erosion of Putin’s legitimacy will only exacerbate now as the results failed to secure the uncontested status of his power over the country.


Amid damaged legitimacy, the future of wealthy Russian elites doesn’t look so bright anymore. The two-decade symbiotic relations between the Kremlin and super-rich oligarchs will get less stable as the anxiety about prospects of their fortunes and rents increases. That will lead to more power and influence infighting within Putin’s circles.


Starting from now on, maintaining a facade of fair elections will be harder and more expensive for the Kremlin. Investments in more effective rigging, figuring out less apparent ways to ‘hack’ early voting and making sure there’s no slightest hint of alternative candidates. Upcoming local elections in September are the ones to watch.


An effective facade of a democratic vote was an essential instrument for Putin to create an illusion that public opinion matters. Now this illusion is damaged and will contribute to further public frustration about the inability to have a say in the national matters. Majorities in big cities voting against the constitutional amendments (according to independent exit polls) is a key indicator of the erosion of Putin’s grip over the country.


Less than optimal results of this referendum will reinforce the already existing trend of the growing influence of the security-military establishment surrounding Putin. With a high degree of probability, it means that by the end of this year, the Kremlin will make a move against the remnants of independent media, NGOs, and opposition political organizations.


The ‘smart vote’ strategy that yielded the country’s opposition surprising victories at last year’s local elections is of no use anymore. It was only possible with the Kremlin willing to simulate a competitive electoral process. This referendum marks the end of it with authorities realizing that even ‘managed competition’ proves to be too threatening for Putin and his waning popularity.

Read Kirill Martynov’s full breakdown of the constitutional vote resultshere.

Putin’s Legitimacy Problem is Now Hard to Ignore

We've also asked our favorite political observers for their takes on the referendum results. 

TACIT PUBLIC CONSENT. Falsifications or not, only the Russian public holds the power to give or take the legitimacy from this referendum, warns a political commentator Ekaterina Shulman:

'We cannot pinpoint the biggest fraud, but I cannot help this feeling that this whole vote was a fake. But on the other hand, there's a counterargument by the ruling elite: if nobody minds the fraud, then there's none. So if Russians won't be protesting the results publicly, it will seem like they just accept them. There's a profound legal problem with this argument. Still, it also signals the nation's lack of desire to rally around the current ruler.'

TSAR IS NAKED. Putin's approval ratings have been dropping for months, so political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov points out that the Kremlin had to rely on bribes, threats, and force to lure Russians to the polling stations:

"This vote shows that Putin does not have any authority. These results were obtained by administrative methods, direct distribution of money, lotteries, pressure, threats — in any way possible. Voluntary vote out of convictions was rare. They got their result at the cost of putting all administrative resources under incredible pressure, vote-buying, and other tricks and manipulations. What happened at the Russian polling stations was simply a disgrace."

MATH DOESN'T ADD UP. Figuring out the actual results of the vote is an impossible task. However, the independent counting suggests that the official number are way off, says an opposition politician Lyubov Sobol:

"I think even the authorities are not satisfied with the way things went down in this vote. It was a circus. Putin has lost more than third in public support in just two years. The real turnout rate was probably not 60%, but around 40%. Out of those showed up, around 65% voted for the amendments, but you must include all the unprecedented coerced votes that we have just witnessed."

WATCH BIG CITIES. Losing support of big cities is a major red flag for Putin, warns political analyst Alexander Kynev:

"Everyone understands that the vote has been falsified. [It appears] large cities voted very close to 50/50. And this suggests that support for authorities has narrowed down to only those territories where they can mobilize state apparatus to coerce and rig the vote.

Russian cities no longer want to support this regime. Putin doesn't have fans, no honest supporters, none of this has remained. This power is based only on coercion - that's the primary outcome of the vote. It can only be won through scams, pressure, and falsifications."

MASKS ARE OFF. Russia is moving towards an openly authoritarian state. The Kremlin doesn't bother to play a 'facade democracy' anymore, says Andrei Kolesnikov, program manager at the Moscow office of the Carnegie Center.

"Voting on constitutional amendments completely discredits the electoral process in general. It is quite obvious that elections, technically and meaningfully, don't exist in Russia. This is manipulated data, fully imagined. Russia enters the stage of authoritarianism, where election results have no link to reality… There are questions to the Russian opposition and their failure to consolidate. It is not them who are protesting against Putin these days, but Russian civil society. An organized opposition simply does not exist at the moment."

Check full commentary of Russian independent political observers regarding the constitutional referendumhereandhere.

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  • — The Novaya Gazeta Team
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