Russian referendum: vote on constitutional changes that could keep Putin in power until 2036 begins

The vote, originally scheduled for April 22, was delayed amid concerns about the coronavirus. Election officials said an early vote would be held to help social distancing: Russia still reports about 7,000 new cases each day, according to official statistics. The vote ends on July 1, the officially designated day for the plebiscite, which has been declared a national holiday.

The constitutional changes, introduced earlier this year, will formally seal Putin’s long-term control over the presidency. Putin has been in power for two decades and, under current law, must resign after his term expires in 2024. The amended constitution would effectively restore the count to its term limits.

In an interview broadcast this weekend on state television, Putin strongly hinted that he would run again and made clear his view of opening the presidency to increased political competition.

“We need to continue the work, not look for successors,” he said.

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The proposed amendments passed through the country’s constitutional court and both houses of parliament with little objection. Ella Pamfilova, head of the country’s Central Election Commission, said the changes do not require that a referendum be considered legitimate, but added that Putin insisted that the changes be put to the vote at the national level.

The decision to hold the vote was approved by the country’s health officials, but it received severe criticism from the workers of the electoral committee, who signed an open letter entitled “We are not disposable material”, hoping to alert about the deadly risk of Large-scale voting could pose both voters and organizers.

The Central Election Commission said the stations will be disinfected regularly and that one location will only process up to eight people per hour.

Some voting centers appear to have been creative about social distancing, according to reports released on social media. On Thursday, dozens of posts appeared on Russian social media showing voting booths set up in trunks, makeshift tents, or on regular street benches.

Russian independent media outlets have also reported multiple violations at polling stations within the first few hours of voting. Pavel Lobkov, a television presenter for the Russian independent channel TV Rain, posted a video showing how he managed to vote twice, first with a regular paper ballot and then electronically.

The Central Election Committee said Lobkov committed an administrative crime by voting twice and considered his report “a provocation,” but added that the commissioners who oversee that voting station will be reprimanded.

A man casts his vote in a ballot box in the town of Lugovoye.

Golos, an independent non-governmental organization that tracks elections in Russia, has listed more than 700 reports of alleged rapes and forced voting in the run-up to the vote, posting screenshots of local chiefs, school principals, and bureaucrats threatening to fire or reprimand those who refuse to register to vote.

Forcing people to vote is illegal under Russian law, but it is nevertheless a common fact, widely reported in previous elections. Golos co-chair Grigory Melkonyants said in an interview with The Moscow Times that his organization “has never received so many complaints from people who tell us they are being pressured to vote.”

In addition to resetting the clock in the count of Putin’s presidential term, the set of amendments includes other controversial elements, such as defining marriage as “a union of a man and a woman” and consecrating God in the country’s main law, both seen as tools to propel Russia towards a more conservative path.
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The proposed change in marriage coincides with Russia’s previous discriminatory policies towards the LGBTQ community, which includes the so-called “gay propaganda” law that practically prohibits any public discussion on LGBTQ issues.

On Thursday, the same day that early voting began, the United States Embassy in Moscow displayed the Pride Flag, a move that drew criticism from the Kremlin.

“Today, the United States embassy in Russia displays the LGBTI pride flag,” the embassy said in a statement. “The LGBTI flag was created by the American artist and activist Gilbert Baker and was first raised as a symbol of hope and diversity on June 25, 1978, during the Gay Freedom Day parade in San Francisco. June It is Pride Month and we celebrate that everyone deserves to live a life free from hatred, prejudice and persecution. “

The statement quoted United States Ambassador John Sullivan as saying: “LGBTI rights are human rights. And human rights are universal. It is as simple as that.”

When asked in a conference call with journalists to respond to the flag, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We cannot see the American embassy building from the Kremlin, that’s the first thing. But our Ministry of Relations Foreign can definitely see it, I think the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has paid attention to this. In any case, any manifestation of propaganda of non-traditional sexual minorities, etc. in our country is not acceptable by law. “

The United States Embassy in Moscow referred CNN to the statement posted online in response to a request for comment. The statement made no reference to the constitutional referendum.