Putin Plan to Extend Rule Played Down in Kremlin Vote Pitch

(Bloomberg) -- Plans for the most sweeping changes to Russia’s constitution since it was adopted nearly 30 years ago include one big one: an amendment that could allow President Vladimir Putin remain in power until 2036.

Russian voters could be forgiven for not noticing.

In a nationwide ad campaign and the official website that explains the proposed amendments, which are subject to a national vote on July 1, there’s barely any mention of a clause that will allow Putin to reset his term-limit odometer to zero even though he’s already served four.

Instead, the ads and site -- funded mainly by the government -- focus on amendments that will enshrine family values and make Russian the official state language in the country’s basic law, as well as add a mention of disabled people and even animal rights.

In another possible sign the government is gearing up for the vote, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin in a blog post titled “Returning to Normal Life” announced the end of an unpopular lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 that required people to receive digital passes when traveling around the city.

Sobyanin, who as recently as last week said it would take a year to get back to pre-crisis life, emphasized that the easing that starts Tuesday also applied to the key demographic of 65 and up. The capital, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in Russia, has rescheduled a massive military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II from May 9 to June 24.

“Well that’s that, we vanquished coronavirus,” Kira Yarmysh, the spokeswoman for opposition leader Alexey Navalny, wrote on Twitter. “Just two weeks before the parade and vote, what a lucky break!”

A spokesman for city hall didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The referendum initially seemed to be a formality after parliament and the Constitutional Court in March rubber stamped the changes that will let Putin serve two more six-year terms when his current one expires in 2024. However, the coronavirus epidemic and related crash in oil prices caused an economic slump that hit the president’s approval ratings, according to polls from the independent Levada Center.

‘Dissatisfied People’

“They are downplaying it because there are a lot of dissatisfied people at the moment,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said of the move to keep Putin in power. “The Kremlin’s strategy is to try and rally pro-government voters with traditional values.”

A May poll by Levada found only 44% of Russians said they would vote for the plans, while a survey state-run pollster Vtsiom released June 4 put support at 61%. The amendments must be approved by a simple majority, with turnout of at least half of voting-age Russians.

Saying the vote “is extraordinarily important for the president,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a majority of Russians support the plan. He brushed off the omissions in advertising and said “technical problems” may have been the reason there was no mention of Putin’s term limits on the website.

“Surely there are some initiatives that aren’t mentioned in the advertisements,” Peskov said Monday on a conference call with journalists. “You can’t call any one amendment most important. It’s a package.”

Some prominent opponents to the referendum have come under pressure from the authorities. Sociologist Nikolay Platoshkin, a politically active socialist who has called for people to vote against the changes, was arrested last week for encouraging mass unrest and disseminating false information. Authorities didn’t provide details on the charges, but Platoshkin blamed them on his opposition to the referendum.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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