This op-ed is written by Nikolai Rybakov, who has been serving as chair of the Russian United Democratic Party Yabloko since 2019. Yabloko is the oldest democratic party in Russia and continues fighting for a modern European state.
In Russia, the shelves in supermarkets are rapidly getting empty, sporting events and concerts are cancelled, as well as opposition rallies. COVID-19 has caused no less panic here than in Europe. It seemed like a quarantine regime was about to be introduced, but the government has been refusing to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic because then it will have to cancel one “mass event” which is very important for the authorities: the so-called All-Russia vote.
The All-Russia vote is currently postponed due to COVID-19 from its scheduled date of 22 April, when, according to the Kremlin’s plans, Russia’s citizens will approve constitutional amendments legitimising the de facto lifetime rule of Vladimir Putin. We at Yabloko want this vote and these amendments abolished altogether.
In recent months, the Presidential Administration has been looking to find legal grounds for prolonging the 20-year rule of Putin. His next presidential term, which by law was to be the last, expires in 2024.
On 15 January, Vladimir Putin unexpectedly proposed to amend the Constitution, which had to imply redistribution of powers between different authorities. It seemed that in this way he was preparing several positions for himself to control the system after leaving the Kremlin. However, he still did not dare.
“For 30 years, Russia has failed to create a state with stable procedures and regulations”
On 10 March, Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut in history and now an MP for the ruling United Russia party, took to the rostrum of the State Duma. She proposed giving Putin the right to enter a new presidential term after the updated Constitution comes into force. An upgrade of the Basic Law was used as an excuse in order not to “count” his presidential terms under the current version of the Constitution. Putin, noticeably, did not raise any objection to this proposal.
And just like that: a constitutional coup took place in Russia. In a short space of time, we witnessed the dismantling of the legal basis of the Russian state in its post-Soviet version. For 30 years, Russia has failed to create a state with stable procedures and regulations. Instead of the state, a certain system has been built, and institutions were finally replaced by the President and the clans around him. The updated Basic Law is Putin’s rather than Russia’s Constitution.
At the same time, Putin does not look like a man who wants to stay in power. It is evident that he is tired, yet hesitant to leave. He clearly does not trust his own environment: personal friends, whom he made powerful oligarchs. After 20 years in power, he does not see anyone whom he could hand over the Kremlin to so that an inter-clan war does not begin at that moment. But he himself destroyed the institutions providing for a legitimate and peaceful transfer of power. The decision on transfer of power has been increasingly postponed. But the farther, the more difficult it will be to transfer it painlessly for the country.
The drop of the government’s and Putin’s ratings has been a steady trend in recent years, a price of an unpopular pension reform carried out in Russia. However, public discontent does not translate into effective political pressure on the authorities.
A significant part of society remains depoliticised and is simply afraid of any changes. The activities of almost the entire opposition part of the political class are reduced to hatred with the only slogan “Putin, leave!”. Only the Yabloko party offers society a positive programme of political change and a vision for the future, insisting that the actions of the opposition take place under political slogans.
“Putin himself destroyed the institutions providing for a legitimate and peaceful transfer of power"
For 15 years, the Russian democratic opposition has had no representation in the federal parliament and has been fighting mainly in the streets. The Kremlin does not consider this tactic dangerous, as it does not carry significant political consequences for it. That is why Yabloko insists on participation in the elections and winning mandates in the parliaments of different levels.
There will be parliamentary elections in Russia before the next presidential election, these elections may give a chance for civil society. The return of democrats to the State Duma may bring a completely different political reality. Recently, this was demonstrated by the oldest Russian democratic party, Yabloko, in Moscow. In 2019, in the wake of growing discontent, the party obtained its largest faction in history of the Moscow City Duma. During six months of work, Yabloko’s deputies have made Moscow parliament’s activity public and put pressure on the Moscow Mayor’s Office. This can happen all over Russia.
Russian history has demonstrated that times of political unrest and dead ends threatening a complete collapse of the country, have suddenly turned into periods of social progress, democratisation and a turn towards Europe. Vladimir Putin’s constitutional coup and his “coming-out” as a quasi-monarch is not so much a cause for despair as a challenge and a chance for democrats.