Why Putin is turning left as he seeks to extend his rule

The Kremlin's lofty promises of a Russian welfare state will prove difficult to fulfil. 

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On Wednesday 1 July, Russia will sign off on Vladimir Putin staying in power until 2036. Barring an electoral upset of historic proportions, a set of constitutional amendments waiving term limits for the man who has dominated Russian politics for 20 years will be approved by an overwhelming margin, perhaps more than 75 per cent.

Announcing the constitutional fixes in January, Putin put an end to speculation that he would leave office in 2024 (the end of his current term). Much commentary has suggested that the goal of the amendments is to allow Putin to rule until he is a geriatric 86, which would beat Joseph Stalin’s previous record of 30 years in the Kremlin by about half a decade.

Yet a possibility is that in the absence of an obvious successor, the president engineered the vote to allow him ample time to plan a transition of power on his terms, unhurried by a deadline looming in just four years’ time. It is far from a given that Putin will remain in office for the entirety of the period permitted by the amendments.

The full gamut of Russian high society, from classical pianists to Instagram models, has publicly endorsed a Yes vote, mostly steering clear of mentioning the man who will benefit from it. Instead, their endorsements stress how the amendments will protect Russian sovereignty and culture. Even the president himself has kept an uncharacteristically low profile, limiting himself to occasional addresses to the nation on daytime television.

On paper, Wednesday’s referendum has nothing to do with Putin. The Russian electorate is nominally being invited to vote on a 9000-word tranche of constitutional amendments, governing everything from animal rights to the state meteorological service. If approved, the rewritten constitution, now swollen in size by about 40 per cent, will see the president’s four terms reset to zero – as if by accident.

So far, appearances have been kept up admirably. Though the real purpose of the amendments is no secret, the Yes campaign has stuck to its script. With Putin nowhere to be seen, voters are being offered a say on popular new clauses banning gay marriage and denigration of the Soviet role in the Second World War.

With no campaign against the amendments to speak of, public advocacy of a vote against the amendments is limited to online missives from opposition-leaning celebrities. There are no televised debates setting out both cases. Opposition figures are split, undecided about whether to oppose the changes within the system or boycott the referendum as illegitimate.

On the street, however, the constitution’s material promises are front and centre. Above all, the pro-amendment messaging goes, a Yes vote means higher pensions, better healthcare and a living wage. According to Mikhail Turchenko, a professor of politics at St Petersburg’s European University, this emphasis on boosting welfare provision is “pure populism”.

“There’s no reason any of these policies has to be written into the constitution to be enacted. Some of them are already in effect," he told the New Statesman. "The main reason for these amendments is that it is not absolutely clear that a straightforward vote to annul Putin’s term limits would succeed."

[See also: The State transformed: as Putin grabs more power, the pressures on the Russian state are mounting]

He may have a point. With Putin’s approval rating at 59 per cent – historically low for Russia, though still high by international standards – the Russian president is an unusually hard electoral sell these days. Voters are being asked to rubber stamp the possibility of 16 more years in office amid the deepest recession in centuries, subterranean oil prices and a deadly viral pandemic. Even before the present crisis, polling showed Russians narrowly split over whether Putin should remain in power after 2024. A public focus on populist economics neatly sidesteps the issue while wrongfooting the opposition.

However, the Kremlin’s leftward shift is not just electioneering. Though Russia has been kept on a tight fiscal leash for much of Putin’s presidency, with welfare spending scaled ever backwards, more recently the president’s offering has taken on a populist twang. After his re-election in 2018, Putin announced that his government’s primary focus would be on what he calls National Projects: a string of social democratic-sounding goals for improving healthcare, education and living standards. Between them, said Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin earlier this year, a new constitution and the National Projects would lay the groundwork for a new “Russian welfare state”.

This pitch resonates with many Russians, who remain attached to the generous social guarantees the Soviet Union offered. After the patriotic euphoria surrounding the 2014 annexation of Crimea gave way to economic stagnation and squeezed living standards, bread and butter anxieties have reasserted themselves.

Today, the same polling that shows Putin’s popularity on the decline also shows Russians fretting about pocketbook issues of rising prices, poverty and corruption. Economic concerns have become a trigger for open dissent. In 2018, a move to raise Russia’s pension age sparked unprecedented nationwide outrage, forcing the Kremlin to announce a partial climbdown.

[See also: How Covid-19 is transforming Russia's power structures]

As the referendum approaches and the economic crisis deepens, the need to appear in touch with the public on the economy as only got more urgent. Barely a week before the vote, Putin announced the surprise scrapping of the 13 per cent flat tax he himself had introduced two decades ago. In the spirit of pre-referendum solidarity, the highest earners making over $73,000 a year will now pay 15 per cent of their income in tax. The fiscal impact may be limited, but the symbolism is clear.

It’s these types of gestures that have sold the constitutional amendments to the majority of Russians. However, a resounding vote in favour of what has been sold as the Russian welfare state has created expectations of future prosperity that will not be easily met.

“If I believed a totalitarian or authoritarian regime was preferable,” President Putin told journalists in 2012, “I would have simply changed the constitution. It would have been relatively easy to do.” He may now find that satisfying his supporters’ economic aspirations is rather more difficult than rewriting a constitution.

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