1. Opinion

Russians are saying ‘nyet’ to Putin | Column

Here's what is really going on in Putin's Russia, writes a Russia expert at USF.

There is an election happening in Russia now and everyone knows what the manufactured outcome will be: Putin will claim popular support for his desire to remain leader for life.

Golfo Alexopoulos is a professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida and is director of USF’s Institute on Russia. [ Courtesy of USF ]

The weeklong vote, which ends on Wednesday, involves numerous constitutional amendments including the reset of Putin’s term-limit clock. After his current presidential term expires in 2024, he will be able to run again … and again. He can remain president until 2036 or until he’s 84 years old.

No one doubts the published outcome of this tremendously hyped yes-or-no vote. Citizens, especially those employed in Russia’s large state sector, are under pressure to vote yes. Russia’s parliament has already approved the proposed constitutional amendments, so the election itself is merely a way for Putin to represent his power grab as the will of the people. The Russian opposition has insisted that the election is illegitimate and unconstitutional, and has urged citizens to boycott, vote no, or express their dissent in other ways.

They have. The government has banned protests during the pandemic, but popular opposition to Putinism-forever is visible. Younger Russians are wearing T-shirts and masks that say “NYET” (no) and posting other signs of dissent on social media. The Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who has repeatedly stated that he is boycotting the “fake vote,” has urged his followers to take photos and videos of polling irregularities.

A citizens' protest, posted on Instagram by Russian opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He states that such prominent displays of dissent are more significant than dozens of quiet actions, like voting no or boycotting the vote and sitting home on your couch. The hashtags at the bottom are “No to the amendments” and “No to Putin.” [ Courtesy of Golfo Alexopoulos ]

People have documented on social media many makeshift polling sites – the trunk of a car, a table on a sidewalk and in a field—to demonstrate the impossibility that this election can produce a truly accurate tally of voters’ preferences. The Kremlin is expected to claim more than 70 percent popular support for the proposed amendments. Yet in a recent poll by the independent Levada Center, only 44 percent of those polled indicated that they would vote in favor.

The fact that Putin is pushing this vote now, just two years into his current six-year term, suggests that he distrusts both his ruling entourage and his own citizens. The West should pay attention. Our mantra has been that Putin’s popularity ratings are high, that Russian citizens strongly support him, and that there are no real alternatives to Putin.

But as Bob Dylan famously said, the times they are a-changin'. Putin’s approval ratings have fallen dramatically in the past three years, and over 40 percent of respondents are courageous enough to tell pollsters that the country is on the wrong track. Years of economic stagnation have made vulnerable citizens recall the high oil prices of the 2000s and ask, “Where did those windfall profits go?”

The pandemic has shined the spotlight on the government’s decision to severely underfund the nation’s healthcare system year after year. Meanwhile, Putin has provided meager help to struggling businesses and families during the pandemic. Even the recent success of NASA/SpaceX prompted domestic critics to note the regime’s lack of recent achievements in a field where the country was once dominant. In the 1980s, Russians struggled to get by and were incensed by the lavish lifestyles and incompetence of the communist party elites. It seems like déjà vu all over again.

This Soviet-style election with its predetermined outcome is wholly incompatible with the times. Most Russian citizens want to live in a democratic and modern country. Many, especially young people, are fed up with Putin’s authoritarian and corrupt system and have little interest in crowning a leader-for-life. Americans should pay more attention to Russia’s courageous citizens who want to build a better future.

Golfo Alexopoulos is professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida and is director of USF’s Institute on Russia.