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by John Helmer, Moscow

Despite an order from President Vladimir Putin to arrange a nationwide vote on his proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution, the Central Election Commission and its director Ella Pamfilova are unable to confirm the contents of the ballot paper, the counting rule for voter approval or disapproval, the threshold of voter turnout for the vote to be valid, or even the date of the vote itself.

“This is a true plebiscite”, Putin told a meeting of the Kremlin-appointed working group on the constitutional amendments last week.   “Citizens of the Russian Federation should record their authorship of the law. It will be as the people say. If the people reaffirm during the vote that they support the law, it will enter in force and amendments will be made to the Constitution. If they do not confirm their support for the law, there will be no amendments to the Constitution.”

A press release, issued the next day by the Commission, claimed that “on February 14, 2020, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin signed an order to prepare for the all-Russian vote on the approval of changes to the Constitution of the Russian Federation”. The text of the three-page order combines the obvious with the superfluous;  it omits the important altogether. 

Paragraph 1 says: “State authorities, local self-government bodies, and other state bodies and organizations should prepare for the all-Russian vote on approving amendments to the Constitution”.  Nowhere in the six paragraphs which follow does the President make clear what an “all-Russian vote” shall be or do.  Para.2 says the CEC should be in charge of “introduction, operation and development of automation tools, legal training of voters, professional training of members of election commissions and other organizers of elections, referendums, and publication of the necessary printed materials”. Government officials at all levels “should assist election commissions in preparing for the all-Russian vote, as well as in providing logistical support for its preparation”, according to Para. 3. The remaining paragraphs set out how state budget money should be transferred, banked, and disbursed for the CEC’s expenses.

When officials were asked to clarify the rules of the “all-Russian vote” for valid turnout, voter approval or disapproval, and the law regulating this “all-Russian vote”, as distinct from a constitutional referendum, spokesmen for Pamfilova at the CEC and for Sergei Kirienko, the deputy chief of the president’s staff in charge of the vote, refused to say. “We will answer when we are ready,” a CEC official said. Her telephone is no longer being answered. The Commission is unready because Kirienko has been unable to finalize Kremlin agreement on the instructions. In the meantime, the Kremlin has also ordered the State Duma to delay its second-reading debate on the proposed constitutional amendment law for another month. In his February 14 order Putin omitted fixing the date of the national vote for April 22, which had been reported days earlier. That day, the Kremlin did not realize, is the 150th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth.

The collapse of the Kremlin consensus has not been reported in the mainstream Russian media, though press reporting of the decision to select a working day of the week as the day off for the vote identifies fear of low voter turnout as the reason. Russian parliamentary and presidential elections are fixed on Sundays by statute; the referendum on the current constitution on December 12, 1993, was also held on a Sunday.

“It will be a weekday that will be proclaimed a day off,” Putin told the Kremlin working group on February 13. He also tried to be reassuring to voters that the exceptional vote day will not be cut from their genuine holiday allowance. “This day off should not be taken from the New Year or May holidays. I would like to draw the Government’s attention to this.”

Left: President Putin, at the centre of the table, right, addressing the second session of the Kremlin working group on the constitutional amendments, on February 13, 2020; source -- http://en.kremlin.ru/  Right: Sergei Kirienko with Ella Pamfilova – October 30, 2017

Pamfilova refuses to explain why a weekday was selected this time. Instead, she told a CEC session on February 12: “Why not, I have expressed this position before. Moreover, if it is a weekday, I believe that it will be made a non-working day. It is necessary to proceed from the interests of the people participating in the vote.” Pamfilova acknowledged   she is taking her running orders from Kirienko.

Kirienko was hated by Russians for presiding as prime minister during the financial crash and bank default of August 1998. But he then disappeared from public recognition. His name is not mentioned in the annual  Levada Centre polling of the top-15 Russians whom voters say they distrust most. Putin appointed him to head the state nuclear power holding, Rosatom, between 2005 and 2016; he was then moved into the Kremlin as deputy chief of staff in charge of domestic politics.

The constitutional change campaign is Kirienko’s miscalculation but Putin’s loss. Expensive too – the Putin order of February 14 requires that the cost of the vote out of federal and regional budgets “may not be less than the sum contained in the report of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation on the expenditure of funds allocated from the Federal budget for preparation and conduct of elections of the President of the Russian Federation in 2018 (taking into account the actual inflation rate for the period from December 2018 to December 2019).” That’s about Rb14 billion ($215 million).

A nationwide poll on the constitutional amendments, taken during the last week of January, reported that voters are evenly split, 47% in favour, 47% against. The majority of voters regard Putin as having contrived the constitutional amendments in order to extend his personal power.

This vulnerability has encouraged other cynical calculations. Patriarch Kirill, for example, has told Putin, and proposed publicly, that the name of God should be introduced in the amended  constitution. This is despite the explicit provisions of the existing charter, Articles 13 and 14, which require that “in the Russian Federation ideological diversity shall be recognized. No ideology may be established as a state or obligatory one… the Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be established as a state or obligatory one.”

Putin has made a long record of conceding in private to Kirill’s demands what he does not admit in public; for the particulars of land and public property transfers to the Church and bank bailouts, read this.    For an assessment of the Communist Party’s backing of the God amendment, read Paul Robinson’s essay.   

A commentary by Pavel Aptekar, published in Vedomosti, discredited the Kremlin working group. “The working group in which constitutional lawyers are not the core and do not set the tone of the discussion distracts society more from a meaningful discussion about amendments that change the balance of power in the country and their goals, than it stimulates it. Prominent cultural figures, social activists, and athletes mostly express the collective unconscious. The recognition of Olympic champion Elena Isinbayeva that she first got acquainted with the text of the Constitution only after becoming a member of the working group…and the comments of the Press Secretary of the President Dmitri Peskov about the non-necessity of knowing its provisions,  reflect the perception of the relationship between the government and the people in the Kremlin.”

A protest rally in Moscow, held on February 15 and authorized by the city,  was a rare display of leftwing sentiment. The official audience count was 300; the organisers estimated 3,000.

Source: https://absoluttv.ru/

The principal demand, according to the speakers and those interviewed in a television broadcast, was for a referendum with separate questions to permit split voting, and rules for turnout and majority approval. There was strong opposition to the Kremlin draft of the amendments which combines social welfare guarantees with changes to the powers of the executive, legislative and legal branches of government; and to Putin’s insistence that voters vote on the combination in a single yes or no ballot. For more details of the proposed combination to be voted, read this.

“There have been no referendums in the country for 27 years. Why?” asked the anonymous reporter of this demonstration.    “Because you can’t ask any questions. Are you in favor of monetizing benefits or against it? Are you in favor of raising the retirement age or against it? Are you in favor of the Labor Code, which makes the employer an autocrat in the enterprise? The answer is too obvious and therefore no one has asked questions for 27 years.”

“But now, for some reason, life made them [the Kremlin] ask a question. Just what kind of question is this? Are you for school lunches? Are you for the indexation of pensions? Yes, we have an indexation of pensions in the Putin Labor Code. How? It doesn’t work. And the reality is that the main question that we are really being asked is hidden behind all these amendments, behind this endless puppet theater, behind all this play, behind all this nonsense. This question is simple: Tell us ‘Yes’ to our right to drive our dogs, to put you in jail just because you don’t have rich relatives who will stand up for you.”

“So our task is to stand up at some point and say, ‘No!’”

These five questions were put to Pamfilova at the CEC and Kirienko at the Kremlin:
1. Is the proposed vote on the constitutional amendments a referendum under Russian law? What law applies to this vote?
2. In the arrangements for the proposed vote on the constitutional amendments, is there a minimum turnout threshold required for confirmation of the vote result?
3. What is the legally binding vote result for approval? A simple majority? 
4. Is it possible for voters to vote against either Yes or No?
5. The December 12, 1993, constitutional referendum was held on a Sunday. What federal vote or election has been held on a week day (if any)?”

Pamfilova and Kirienko refuse to answer.

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