In late June of 2020 the Russian government held a nation-wide plebiscite on a series of constitutional amendments proposed earlier this year by President Vladimir Putin. Among a myriad of changes like constitutionally banning same-sex marriage, fortifying instruction in “patriotism” in public schools, banning Russian officials from holding dual citizenship, and placing the RF constitution above international law in precedent, one particularly stood out to Western media: the removal of term limit restrictions for the office of the President.
Specifically, the changes called for the striking of the statute that bars Presidents from serving two consecutive terms and extending a single term from four years to six. This enables Putin to seek reelection in 2024 and, potentially, to stay in power until 2036. The amendments were proposed as a package of over 200 alterations to the constitution. The catch, however, is that the national plebiscite was a formality, in more ways than one.
For starters, the power to amend the constitution in Russia is exclusively delegated to the upper house of the bicameral legislature, called the Federation Council, and the President. The lower house, or State Duma, and the people have no power when it comes to formal changes to the constitution. In spite of this, President Putin insisted that the proposed constitutional changes be put to a popular vote. Putin notably stated that “[t]he opinion of our people, our citizens, our people who are the bearers of sovereignty and the origin of authority, should be the deciding factor [with regard to the constitutional changes.” Yet, the polling conducted on the topic of the constitutional changes could not be considered a ‘referendum’ under Russian law. The results of a referendum have legal repercussions. The questioning conducted for the purpose of passing these amendments was simply a non-binding public opinion poll. This begs the question of the necessity for holding such a plebiscite.
Secondly, arguably the biggest formality is the practice of putting on an elaborate charade of direct democracy and representation. Opposition groups in Russia claim that the act of casting a ballot in Russia is an empty gesture because the total counts are consistently falsified. Most prominently, Alexei Navalny, a political activist and founder of the non-profit Anti-Corruption Foundation, accused the government of handing down election results and stuffing ballot boxes. An independent researcher, Sergei Shpilkin, released statistical findings about the results of the constitutional plebiscite, finding that the levels of fraud in this particular election was unprecedented even by Russian standards. Specifically, he notes that the rate of “yes” votes reached nearly 100% in election districts with abnormally high turnout rates. In other words, regardless of whether or not the plebiscite was legally meaningful, it certainly was not democratically meaningful.
While it’s no news that Russia is not the standard of a functioning democracy, scoring 3.11/10 on the EIU Democracy Index, recent happenings are a prime example of the autocratic practices of stealth authoritarianism. Stealth authoritarianism is characterized by the usage of democratic institutions to legitimize and hide authoritarian tendencies. Governments that employ these methods use democratic credentials to achieve non-democratic ends, subverting political processes that appear to be practices of normal democracies. Political scientist Ozan Varol identified six mechanisms stealth authoritarians employ to undermine democracy while maintaining legitimacy: judicial review, libel lawsuits, electoral laws, charges for non-political crimes, surveillance laws and institutions, and bolstering domestic and global legitimacy.  In the case of the 2020 Russian plebiscite, Putin has employed most, if not all, of these methods to deal damage to Russian democratic institutions and his opposition.
In an attempt to shroud autocratic practices in some semblance of legitimacy, Putin contended that the constitutional changes must be approved by the electorate, even though this is not formally required by law. In doing so, he spotlights how committed he and his government is to democratic ideals and transparency. He appears to push for democratic reforms such as introducing amendments that will allow the Constitutional Court to rule whether or not subsequent changes to the Russian constitution are themselves constitutional. Though this may, on the surface level, appear to be a positive change that strengthens democracy in Russia, in reality it is a way of legitimizing his rule. By shifting the focus to the national Constitutional Court, Putin implicates the judiciary in affirming his claim to power. Relying on an institution traditionally regarded as independent, he is able to present the image of political legitimacy.
When forced to reckon with his opposition, Putin employs a variety of mechanisms such as surveillance, the complication of electoral laws, and a ceaseless stream of libel lawsuits and convictions for non-political crimes to keep anyone outspoken at bay. In the aftermath of the national plebiscite Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, effectively removing him from challenging the government for a little while. His organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, was blacklisted by the government as a ‘foreign agent’ and charged with money laundering, a move that Amnesty International considered to be an attack on political freedoms. Others are removed in less savory ways; Boris Nemtsov, Putin’s biggest challenger, was assassinated in 2015 sheer meters away from the Kremlin walls. In a continued assault on civil liberties and access to the ballot, Putin has made election rules more restrictive, signed anti-protest laws, and prevented international election observers from entering polling locations. Superficially, every action and reform by the Putin government is undertaken in an official effort to strengthen democratic institutions. Each law is drafted neutrally. Each court case seems authentic. Yet when the intent, consequences, context, and application of the law is considered, the opposite becomes clear.
In fact, Putin’s anti-democratic practices are so egregious that it becomes difficult to justify categorizing him as a stealth authoritarian. It becomes worthwhile to ask ourselves just where we draw the line between democratic leaders with authoritarian tendencies and autocrats. One thing is clear, however, his actions remain a cautionary tale of democratic erosion so long as he continues to hide behind a shroud of democratic legitimacy. Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100 (n.d.): 1673–1742