Russians will head to the polls in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic between June 25 and July 1 for a national referendum on changes to the country’s constitution. Ahead of the poll, our initial findings from an ongoing survey of 3,000 young, urban Russians found they associate the referendum primarily with the social guarantees that are also being promised, such as a minimum wage, rather than changes to the country’s political structure, notably the presidency.
Asked whether Vladimir Putin should step back from any leadership position, more than two-thirds of our respondents think that he should.
The total number of COVID-19 infections in Russia is the third highest in the world after the US and Brazil. According to official Russian statistics, the absolute number of cases continues to increase steadily. A belated but very strict lockdown has now been lifted in order to generate a feelgood atmosphere ahead of a military Victory Parade on June 24 and the week-long referendum on far-reaching constitutional reforms, which had originally been scheduled for April 22.
The military parade, originally scheduled for May 9, will mark the 75th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, which occupies a central place in the state’s identity discourse. Both the parade and referendum have become critical tools for President Vladimir Putin to shore up his declining popularity ratings.
According to a poll by the independent agency Levada in April, Putin’s popularity dropped below 60% for the first time since he assumed office. While that’s still a high percentage by western comparisons, it’s a warning signal in an authoritarian system. A subsequent poll in May asked respondents to name politicians they trust. Only 25% chose Putin, which is his lowest rating, although still higher than that of other politicians.
The plebiscite was meant to add public approval from below to the constitutional amendments from above, which were railroaded through by Putin in the first few months of 2020. The amendments give Putin different options for when his current term in office ends in 2024, and also include a new clause giving all presidents immunity after leaving office. For now, Putin has made it clear that he will remain at the heart of Russian politics. He could either do this by staying on as president based on a tailor-made amendment allowing him to serve for up to two further terms, or by standing down and taking on less direct responsibility – but continuing influence – as the head of the State Council.
Putin embarked on the path of constitutional reform in response to a diffuse societal wish for change. This has become evident in opinion polls and in frequent smaller protests about the mismanagement of local issues, but has not yet crystallised into a concrete political alternative.
What young Russians think
As part of a series of online surveys conducted by the Centre for East European and International Studies, which we’re also both affiliated to, we’ve been investigating how young Russians think about the constitutional reform process and to Putin himself.
Youth has played an important role in Russian politics in recent years. The Kremlin continues to actively mobilise the loyalty of young people through patriotic education and militaristic youth movements, such as Yunarmiya. But young Russians have also been very visible during social and political protests.
Following annual online surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, in mid-April 2020 – just before the referendum was postponed – we reached 3,000 young Russians aged 16-34 for the 2020 round of our survey. The respondents were based mainly in Russia’s largest cities with over one million inhabitants but also smaller cities from about 250,000 inhabitants from across the country.
Asked what they considered to be the most important constitutional amendment, more than half of the young Russians we surveyed mentioned the social guarantees now anchored in the constitution which include the indexation of pensions and a minimum wage. By comparison, only 13% mentioned the changes to the political order including an increase in presidential powers.