The Referendum: President Putin 2036

Media manipulation, employer pressure to vote on Russian constitutional reforms

Welcome back to another edition of “From Russia With Mila.” In Russia, the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll, with reported cases rising past 634,000 and the death toll escalating to 9,073.

People have had to adapt to the pandemic, and that has already meant postponing the May 9 Victory Day parade until June 24. The pandemic has also meant that the referendum — voting for the constitutional changes that would allow Putin to run for another two six-year terms — had to be delayed from April 22 until July 1, which Putin declared a national holiday to make it easier for Russians to be able to go to the polls. The vote is taking place over seven days, having started June 25, to reduce the spread of the virus.

Independent election monitoring organization Golos (Voice) warns that the voting procedure is not free and that many are already complaining of being forced to vote. Grigory Melkonyants, a Golos co-chairman, said: “We’ve never had this many complaints from people telling us they are being pressured to vote.” (The Moscow Times) And, if you’re familiar with Russian elections, “feeling pressured to vote” is a common complaint, so let’s look at how the process is going this time around.


Bribing voters and tracing them with QR codes

The referendum requires more than 50% ‘yes’ votes to pass the amendments that would tack on two more six-year presidential terms to Putin’s reign that began in 2000 and would have ended in 2020.

Putin’s approval rating is the lowest since 1999 at 59%, according to Levada Center, an independent pollster whose research the Kremlin has said “it is not inclined to trust” (Reuters).

So, in order to ensure enough Russians are heading to the polls to boost turnout, the Kremlin has adopted strategies like providing informational materials about the referendum to companies for their employees.

Reuters reported that, per the Kremlin’s order, large Russian companies are mobilizing their employees to vote via internal information campaigns.

The documents, sent to at least three large private companies to help them explain the reforms and voting procedures to employees, also show a prize draw will be held near polling stations to attract voters, offering those who vote the chance to win a car or apartment. (Reuters)

In past Russian elections, prizes such as new iPhones were also dangled in front of voters to lure them to polling places for a more convincing show of public support. This time around, voters are additionally being traced by their employers (polling-station selfies were requested in Putin’s 2018 re-election campaign).

Though encouraging turnout is legally permissible, the draw will enable companies to check which of their employees has voted, as those who enter the draw will receive a unique QR (quick response) code that means they can be traced. (Reuters)

Opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman tweeted a picture of a receipt that includes text to remind people about the referendum, and says the information campaign to vote doesn’t “have any meaning” without “mass turnout.”

Healthcare workers on the pandemic frontlines are among those feeling pressure to vote in the referendum, reports The Moscow Times, and in one hospital, a WhatsApp message was sent to employees: “Colleagues, on Friday, June 19, representatives of the election commission will come to the polling station for early voting. All employees should be present with their passports.”

The coronavirus death toll among emergency doctors in Russia is higher than in other countries with similar outbreak numbers overall, and medical professionals are reportedly “‘frustrated’ about being told to vote after working for weeks with coronavirus patients,” according to The Moscow Times. “This isn’t right. We shouldn’t be told what to do after all we have done,” said a nurse at the Arkhangelsk Republic Infectious Diseases hospital.


Using the pandemic to make it harder to detect voter fraud

Golos co-chairman Melkonyants said there is concern the authorities are using the pandemic to their advantage, according to The Moscow Times, because people’s faces will be covered and difficult to properly ID, and the polling locations will be open over the course of seven days — meant to inspire social distancing, but ultimately making it challenging for independent observers to detect voter fraud.

Additionally, independent observers are typically volunteers and need to ask for time off work, but “those that work at state-run companies have reported having their requests denied.” (The Moscow Times)


Anti-gay Russian referendum ad banned from YouTube

Another issue with the fairness of voting in the referendum is that there are multiple unrelated amendments being proposed (like enshrining God into the Constitution, defining marriage as heterosexual, and adding social protections like a guaranteed minimum wage) — but voters are unable to vote ‘yes’ for some and ‘no’ for others.

Critics have said that the numerous amendments are a smoke screen to obscure the fact that the main purpose of the referendum is to give Putin the opportunity to run for president again in 2024 and 2030. (The Moscow Times)

In all of the advertisements leading up to the referendum, the focus is on the other amendments — not keeping Putin in power, so as The Moscow Times points out, some Russians might not actually be aware they are voting to allow the president to run again in 2024 and 2030.

Here is a look at one of the anti-gay referendum ads that was taken down from YouTube after facing criticism:

The voiceover at the end of the original ad says: “Will you choose such a Russia? Decide the future of the country — vote for amendments to the constitution.”

Below is a subtitled parody of the referendum ads set in 2035 Russia, complete with homophobia, references to NATO, God and the Constitution, and — Pikachu (!!):


Reach out with any questions or comments, connect on Twitter for the latest, and stop back for more on media and Eastern Europe!

— Мила (Mila)

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