Referendum on Russian Constitutional Amendments Raises Ever More Questions

File Photo of Kremlin Tower, St. Basil's, Red Square at Night

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, April 10, 2020)

Because of the pandemic, the Kremlin has delayed its plans for a constitutional amendment referendum from April 22 to some as yet unspecified date in the future, a delay that has not calmed but rather intensified discussions about it, both political and technical, Yuliya Krivonosova says.

The Moscow journalist says that a decision on rescheduling will reflect a debate between those who think the regime should wait until the coronavirus pandemic over so it can present itself as the victor over this plague and those who believe the longer the delay, the more popular anger will grow and the more difficult a win will be to organize (

But playing into that political decision are three technical questions certain to affect the outcome because they too have political consequences. Indeed, while these have seldom taken center stage up to now, their mere existence ensures that Russians may very well decide on the basis of how these are answered now they will vote.

The first and most obvious question is “how will the universal election law be implemented during the pandemic?” This includes several issues, including how will Moscow deal with voters who are living abroad. Even if the pandemic has passed in Russia, it may not be elsewhere. And Moscow will have to decide what it should and can do about organizing voting.

In 2016 for the presidential vote, the Russian government organized approximately 400 voting stations in 145 countries. An equally expansive effort may be difficult or even impossible to realize now, Krivonosova says.

Moreover, the authorities are going to have to decide how to deal with voters who have been infected. Are they going to be allowed to vote? And if so, how? And if they aren’t, how will that affect outcomes – or the attitudes of the rest of the voters about the referendum. Related to this, how widespread will Moscow allow voting by mail? These are open issues.

The second category of questions involves how the authorities will ensure the security of electoral commission personnel. Many of these people are of pension age or only a little younger and thus are more at risk of death from infection with the coronavirus than are those who are much younger.

Is the regime going to use some other group to man the voting stations? And regardless of that, how is it going to ensure that the voting stations themselves are disinfected and safe? If that can’t be assured, many people will likely stay away, perhaps to the point that a majority of voters won’t take part and the referendum won’t be valid.

And the third set of questions involves the issue of just where will the authorities open polling stations. If it opens fewer, Russians will be faced with having to travel farther and fewer will take part; but if it opens more, there is a risk that someone will the virus may be more likely to infect larger swaths of the population.

These are issues about the polls themselves; but there is also the question of ensuring adequate time and opportunity for agitation and propaganda about voting outcomes, Krivonosova continues. If the regime doesn’t guarantee that, it risks delegitimizing the referendum as a whole and even its own position.

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