Mass protests have come over in Russia: the Russians were outraged by the “all-Russian voting” on amendments to the Constitution in a single set that allowed Putin to legitimize the usurpation of power in the Russian Federation. All forces were involved in this. In the so-called “referendum”, the opportunities for systemic violations that could affect the results, were much wider than under the usual voting regime, this time – because of quarantine. The organizers did not hesitate to falsify and openly disrupt the election process. This is both a restriction on the functionality of observers and an indirect deterrence of the protest electorate: Putin’s supporters were urged to come to the polls, and the rest were intimidated. Here they voted anywhere: on the trunks, in parks, terraces, benches and even online, and abroad one person could vote in several consulates at once.

Russia’s blatant disregard for laws has received a response in the world. As voting on “zeroing” was carried out even in the occupied Crimea, and from the territory of illegal formations of “LDNR” all wishing were organized by buses to the territory of the Russian Federation.

The Delegation of the European Union to Ukraine, in agreement with the heads of missions of the EU member states in Ukraine, also criticized the voting on amendments to the Russian Constitution in Crimea and with the participation of Donbass residents with Russian passports. EU Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Peter Stano said the voting was illegal in annexed Crimea and the occupied territory of the so-called “LDNR”. Accordingly, the EU does not recognize Russia’s voting in the territories that are part of Ukraine.

The United States is “deeply concerned” about the voting on amendments to the Russian Constitution in the occupied Crimea, as well as the involvement of ORDLO residents (those who have obtained Russian citizenship). According to Permanent Representative of the USA in the OSCE James Gilmore, “this only uncovers Russia’s blatant disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”. And the co-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, American Republican politician Michael McCall, spoke sharply about Russia’s actions: “Vladimir Putin held a fictitious voting that had no legal basis, using voter coercion and ballot stuffing to legitimize his authoritarian regime. Only a weak leader can do anything to stay in power. Free and open societies around the world will not be deceived by Putin’s shameless attempt to give his dictatorship a democratic look”.

In turn, the Majlis of the Crimean Tatar people made a statement in connection with the crime committed by Russia in the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. The Majlis believes that illegal voting is a violation of its international obligations to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other states, contained in the Charter of the United Nations, the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Final Act), the memorandum on security guarantees in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Budapest Memorandum) and in a number of other bilateral and multilateral international treaties”.

It should be noted that political prisoners from the number of convicted Crimean Tatars, who were forced to vote by pressure and threats, flatly refused to do so, stating that they are citizens of Ukraine and will not participate in any Russian affairs.

Natalya_Belitser expertNatalia Belitzer, Institute of Democracy Named after Pylyp Orlyk

If the amendments to the Constitution were considered by the State Duma separately, and not as a whole set, it is possible that some deputies from the conditionally “opposition” parties would vote against at least some of them.

Voting for all more than 200 amendments in a wide range of areas, from social protection for the poor to protection of animals, from interpreting history to marrying only heterosexuals, from language and remembrance of God to the prohibition of encroachment on territorial integrity, in the first reading has already ensured unanimous support and fast passage through the second and third readings. As well as approval by the Federation Council and the Constitutional Court.

In turn, on 12 and 13 March, 2020, the parliaments of the Federation also approved a set of amendments. At the same time, 3,917 regional deputies voted “for” and 67 – “against”. Such a scenario of changing the Basic Law is in itself legal nonsense, which calls into question the legitimacy of the whole process.

The same applies to the “popular voting” for the amendments, after which the new Constitution came into force on 4 July. In fact, there was no need to organize “popular support”, as all legal formalities had already been completed. Moreover, in June, an updated constitution was issued and went on sale. However, the voting was originally scheduled for 22 April, but was postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic. Although it was untimely to talk about overcoming the pandemic, to put it mildly, the voting was scheduled without delay and took place throughout the week, from 25 June to 1 July. It took place in the most unexpected locations, including the trunks of cars, with all possible violations and in a way that made it virtually impossible for observers to participate and record these violations.

Although the vast majority of political commentators and analysts pay the most attention to the point concerning the so-called “zeroing” the terms of Putin’s presidency, not less important, in my opinion, is to make those amendments that effectively abolish the priority of international law over national law in accordance with conventions, treaties and agreements ratified by parliament.

In this context, it should be recalled that in April, 2014, Russia was deprived of the right to vote in the PACE due to the annexation of Crimea, and since Moscow did not comply with any of the requirements of the relevant Assembly resolutions, sanctions against Russia continued several times. But in summer, 2017, Moscow stopped paying contributions to the Council of Europe budget; there was even talk that Russia would leave the organization. And on the night of 25 June, 2019, the PACE adopted a resolution that allowed the Russian delegation to return with full rights. The main argument in favor of this decision was that Russia’s non-participation in the PACE restricts the rights of Russian citizens, especially the possibility of appealing Russian court decisions to the ECHR (despite the fact that there was already a precedent of “rejection” of Strasbourg court decisions by the Constitutional Court of Russian Federation according to the “priority” of national law – ed.). But now this argument of the PACE has lost all meaning, because nowadays the Constitutional Court has legal grounds to refuse to implement “inconvenient” decisions of the ECHR and other international courts (not only ad hoc, but also on a permanent basis – ed.).

It is also noteworthy that all this happened contrary to the position of the Venice Commission, to which the PACE appealed in January, 2020. In turn, on 18 June, the commission issued a decision that recommended amending or completely abandoning the proposed amendments to Article 79 of the Constitution that give Russia the right not to comply with “decisions of intergovernmental bodies adopted on the basis of the provisions of international treaties of the Russian Federation”.

These changes are especially relevant in light of the Dutch government’s lawsuit against the European Court of Human Rights to bring Russia to justice for the deaths of passengers and crew of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft on 17 July, 2014.

The projected reaction to this whole “constitutional process” was outrage, calls (completely unrealistic) for the repeal of the amendments, sometimes sarcastic articles by journalists and bloggers, and a heated discussion on social media.

The Russians are facing difficult times, especially in the case of the expected criminalization of new articles of the Constitution. For example, the State Duma has already proposed a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for calling for the alienation of Russian territory, which would be equal to extremism. Olexandr Morozov, a researcher at the Boris Nemtsov Academic Center, believes that the Kremlin will face international isolation.

Liliya Brudnitska expertLiliya Brudnytska, Expert of the Center for Structural Political Science “Vybir”

Amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation were voted in one set for three reasons. First reason: the set format is usually used when you need to stretch unpopular solutions. Then they vote together with the popular ones during and after the organizing campaign, emphasize the popular components of the set, silencing the unpopular ones. This is a legitimate way to deceive.

Second: the set guarantees the decision, because arithmetically more votes of support are collected under the set. Therefore, the Kremlin did not take any risks.

Third: Vladimir Putin needed to probe the sentiments of the leadership of the regions – the subjects of the Federation, and the key issue was loyalty to Putin. As the vertical in Russia is quite rigid, the leader has an influence on the results.

At the same time, on the general bravura background of the astonishingly high results of Putin’s support, the fact of Russia’s de facto crackdown at the regional level receded into the background precisely because of the support level of the Russian President. Some regions (east, south) gave moderate results. This is already in favor of the version about the regional opposition – the detention of the governor of the Khabarovsk Krai and a number of journalists and public figures.

At the same time, if Putin acts so decisively, he is in a hurry to intercept the blow from the regional ruling (!) opposition and “appoint” LDPR to the role of opposition. As soon as strong regional oppositionists find themselves, there will be new arrests and new trials. The very fact of the popular voting indicates the weakening of Putin’s positions, in order to strengthen them it was necessary to confirm the legitimacy of the Russian president in this way.

Natalia Tolub

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