Putin seeks a new legitimacy in the constitutional plebiscite, but the road to reconfirmation is full of pitfalls

Russia risks being an eternal "I would like but I can't", a regional superpower crushed between China and the West, whose incursions to reaffirm its presumed influence on neighboring and distant countries resemble those of an elephant in a crystal shop

A week-long vote. It is the referendum on the amendments to the Constitution that Putin offered to the Russians during this strange early summer in Moscow. Officially, to avoid queues at the time of the coronavirus , you can vote from home, electronically, by depositing the ballots in containers specifically used for use in districts across the country. The result is uncontrollable, despite international observers on a field trip. The outcome is already written, the only unknown is the level of participation, which will give the measure of the degree of popular disaffection towards the father-master of all the Russias. The amendments can only be accepted or rejected en bloc, without any subtleties whatsoever: if you are in favor of extending the presidential mandates you must also be against same-sex marriage. There is an entirely Putinian logic, at the bottom of all this staging. The referendum is in fact a plebiscite on the figure of the leader , on his aspiration to perpetuate himself at the top of the Federation until (potentially) until 2036. When in January Putin announced the constitutional reform, the cremlinologists strove to see a sincere attempt to guarantee a system of weights and counterweights that would consolidate the long and uncertain Russian transition to democracy: more powers in Parliament, assembly control of the prime minister, a more secluded presidency, clear rules on the succession of the head of state. But on March 10 the mask fell, thanks to an amendment proposed by the ex astronaut Valentina Tereshkova in agreement with the Kremlin: mandates canceled and possibility for the president to reapply for two other six-year terms. Even the most fundamentalist fans of the former KGB agent were left with a bad taste: was it possible that it was just that, that his ambition as a statesman was limited to his permanent position on Red Square?

Despite the ostentatious security of a strong man, who finds a particularly devoted audience in large sectors of Western public opinion, Putin is at this moment the main brake on the affirmation of Russia as a responsible and credible power at an international level. The hiatus between a civil society that looks to the future and a power folded in on itself and unable to escape the grip of Chinese authoritarianism is becoming increasingly evident. Putin does not seem to realize that Russia will survive him and that history will continue without him. If in his vision the option of reconfirmation until 2036 serves to " give stability " to the nation, which otherwise would be immersed in a series of counterproductive struggles for power (evidently this is the idea that has made of democratic alternation ), in reality the mechanism that the plebiscite sets in motion is that of the personalization of state institutions. Not a rule of law based on shared norms and principles but a system based on the constant legitimacy of the authority that at that moment claims to embody its essence: a sort of permanent revolution without revolution, in which the figure of the leader is the center around to which everything else revolves, institutional powers, economic-industrial-military fabric, information and disinformation, government of the regions, public opinion. Putin thus demonstrates that he has no confidence in his closest collaborators or potential successors: he is the elite , he is the state. A short-sightedness fraught with consequences, because society is unlikely to follow it for a long time.

If it is true that it was Putin who returned to Russia part of the national pride lost in the Soviet dissolution, it is equally certain that time passes for everyone, and that of man alone in command risks turning into a caricatural version of a political trajectory from the indisputable merits (although in many respects criticizable). The almost obsessive insistence on the rhetoric of the victory in the Second World War, the only event of the Soviet era that the Russians can legitimately claim as a result of the people, is accompanied by the anxiety of imposing their own revised and correct version of the history of the XX century, mainly for internal and non-domestic use and consumption. Putin has two needs: to compact the ranks in an increasingly complex and multifaceted country and to sit at the table of the greats on the international scene. Russia risks being an eternal " I would like but I can't ", a regional superpower crushed between China and the West, whose incursions to reaffirm its presumed influence on neighboring and distant countries resemble those of an elephant in a glassware. The Ukrainian case is an open wound in the heart of Europe, which the democratic chanceries hope to heal on its own, once again demonstrating their poor foresight. But the Libyan and Syrian dossiers are no less burning. The wave of nationalism that Putin has bet on is a glue that he cannot hold in the long run: military parades for the 75th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War are fine (this year, however, rather subdued due to viruses), articles by propaganda in American magazines, but it is to be expected that the Russians expect more from their ruling class, especially in a moment of general economic crisis which risks seriously undermining the foundations of the system. Even the management of Covid-19 , despite the statements of circumstance, appears uncertain: Moscow reopens, it is true, and it is the Potemkin village where the international press resides, but the situation in the periphery of the empire is more bleak. In St. Petersburg itself, contagions continue to grow, but it is the most isolated regions that worry, those in which it is more difficult to measure the correspondence of official data with reality on the ground. Like other countries, Russia will also emerge from the emergency, but this time it will also be difficult for Putin to sell an image of safety and reliability: the president has seen little in recent months on the epidemic, he has preferred to delegate decisions and responsibilities for focus on world history and the national plebiscite.

The granted approval of his constitutional reform, however, does not mean his automatic reconfirmation at the top of the nation after 2024. And this is what basically does not let him sleep peacefully. As far as the electoral process is directed from above, however much the opposition is relegated to the margins of institutional life, in Russia there are spaces of information freedom and even of political organization unthinkable in other autocratic regimes (see China). Even in the Putinian entourage , where the so-called "modernizers" move, the waters are not as calm as the official vulgate would like: nobody doubts the loyalty of Niabiullina, Siluanov, Belousov, Sobyanin or Shoigu, who owe their career to him, but it is equally certain that this group of technocrats-politicians knows that it represents a potential alternative to the sclerotization that the indefinite extension of the presidential term would imply. Putin himself is aware that the gratitude and convenience of his own may not be enough to keep him in the saddle until old age and that his permanence at the top of the Federation will also depend on the international position he will be able to carve out in the coming months: one of the reasons of Russia's newfound assertiveness outside its borders could be just that, even if relations with the West (and especially with Berlin) today seem to travel more on the gas pipe than on decidedly impervious diplomatic paths. "Putin is using the vote to make the population complicit in extending his role," observes Andrei Kolesnikov for the Carnegie Moscow Center , in search of a renewed majority legitimacy that in a certain sense consolidates that "mythical community" , that union between the people and the president that he has long had in mind and sees on the verge of being fulfilled. "Putin is now an institution, a political entity in himself" , continues Kolesnikov, he heads towards the finish line but it is not said that he will reach it: after all, his base of consensus is at the lowest level ever, while the business world feels "abandoned" and at some point he may even decide to change horses. Putin will certainly win his plebiscite but the history of Russia in the next twenty years is still to be written.

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This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Atlantico Quotidiano at the URL http://www.atlanticoquotidiano.it/quotidiano/putin-cerca-nel-plebiscito-costituzionale-una-nuova-legittimita-ma-la-strada-verso-la-riconferma-e-piena-di-insidie/ on Tue, 30 Jun 2020 04:08:00 +0000.