‘Putin is obsessed with the idea of legitimacy,’ opposition activist says of ‘sham’ referendum

The World
A man walks along a street

Vladimir Kara-Murza arrives for an interview at the offices of Reuters in Washington, DC, March 13, 2017.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

The polls are closing on Wednesday after a week of voting in Russia. More than 200 different constitutional amendments are on the ballot.

And people get a single vote — yes or no on the entire package of changes. Among them is a provision that would get rid of term limits, potentially allowing President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036. Preliminary results show that the changes will indeed take effect. 

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Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza has been following the vote closely. He spoke with The World's Marco Werman about what this means for the future of Russia.  

Marco Werman: Exit polls show these amendments are passing with flying colors. What does this mean for Russia?

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Before I start answering your question, I think it is very important to state that half of what you just said in this sentence should be put in quotation marks. You know, "exit polls," "voting results." This sham procedure that Vladimir Putin has organized has nothing — and I want to stress, nothing to do with a genuine Democratic vote. Had there been a real referendum on whether Putin can stay in power beyond 2024 when his current and supposedly final mandate runs out, he would have lost that referendum. That much is absolutely clear from trends in Russian public opinion.

And so the Kremlin, you know, having realized full well that they would never win an honest vote, they are holding this sham exercise, the sham plebiscite. As you just said, there was weeklong voting. Of course, you know, every night those ballots are stored in the offices of electoral commissioners with no kind of independent oversight control. There are no international observers being invited. The only so-called international experts present are representatives of far-right parties in Europe, from Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria. You know, the far-right seems to be the biggest allies of Vladimir Putin abroad.

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So, for you, the outcomes of this "referendum" — it sounds like they've already been settled on. Why even hold it?

Well, because I think Vladimir Putin is obsessed with the idea of legitimacy. Otherwise, he would not have gone through this sham exercise, and I think here is where the international aspect is very important. You know, Vladimir Putin clearly wants to be accepted and recognized as a fellow legitimate leader. He wants to be invited to G-8 summits, he wants to have those high-level meetings, he wants to have this red-carpet treatment. This is why, you know, for all those years before, even while violating the spirit of the law of the rule of law, Vladimir Putin has been careful about, you know, keeping the pretenses and sort of adhering to the letter.

We know that Russia hasn't had a real democratic election in a long time now. All the genuine opponents of the regime are removed, disqualified from the ballot, like Alexei Navalny was, for example, in 2018, who wanted to run against Vladimir Putin. But there was sort of an election, quote-unquote. So, up to now, Vladimir Putin has been careful to follow the letter of the law, even while violating its spirit. What's happening this week is substantively different. He chose the most unsophisticated, the most banal way that was used by our dictators all over the map, from Venezuela to Egypt to Uzbekistan to Burkina Faso in previous years and simply waving term limits, subverting constitutional term limits to stay in power beyond the end of his mandate. And I think it is very, very important that the international community, that the democratic nations of the world, what we call the free world, led by the United States, takes a very clear position that it is not accepting this power grab, that even though Vladimir Putin has now been an illegitimate de facto for a long time, he now, as of today, becomes illegitimate de jure.

That is a very important stance I think that the international community, including the United States, should be making now. And what it means for the Russian domestic context, I think, again, you know, it's been clear for a very long time that in the system — in the authoritarian system that Vladimir Putin has created — political changes in Russia will not be decided at the ballot box. They will be one day decided on the streets. It will not happen today, will not happen next week, and it will most likely not even happen next year, but it will certainly happen much sooner than 2036.

From 2017: Putin critic Alexei Navalny given five-year suspended jail term 

So, what was Putin's reason for having this referendum held in the first place? I mean, surely he didn't telegraph his desires to stay in power to the whole world?

Well, he actually did, and he said publicly on Russian state television that he is, quote-unquote, “considering” which, as you know, in his language, means that he has decided to run again in 2024. And in fact, you know, you mentioned at the outset of our discussion that there are 206 constitutional amendments in this package that are being offered for a supposedly yes or no vote.

Well, out of those 206, I mean, there are different types of amendments. Some of these are harmful. Some of these are meaningless. But all of them, well, I should say 205 out of the 206 are a smoke screen. And the only real amendment, the only reason for all of this exercise is one amendment not, by the way, abolishing term limits, but waving them specifically for one individual, for Vladimir Putin personally and allowing him to remain in power after the end of his mandate in 2024.  

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So, I know this referendum is a yes or no vote. Have you actually seen a ballot and the list of all these 206 amendments? And where does the term limit one set in all of that? Like is Putin literally trying to hide that one among all these others?

They are actually trying to hide it. There was the official website set up by the Central Electoral Commission, which kind of outlines all of these amendments. They didn't mention that one — the most important — and only after it was pointed out by the media. And, you know, the opposition groups said that they had to include it on the list. But to answer your question, I haven't seen the ballot and I haven't voted yet myself. I'll go in a couple of hours, so as of the time of speaking to you now, I've not yet taken up my own ballot. I will do that because I just, you know, this is emotionally important for myself to know that I went and said no to Putin's dictatorship.

There is a kind of split opinion in the Russian opposition of how to approach this exercise. Many of my colleagues — and I fully respect their view — advocate for a boycott because, you know, it's not a meaningful procedure. It's a sham. It's a farce. It's a spectacle. And so why participate in it? That's one position that I fully respect that. I subscribe myself more to the view that we should use every opportunity we have as Russian citizens to say no to this corrupt and dictatorial system. And so personally, I will in a couple of hours, go and take up my ballot and vote no. I know it will not change anything this time. Again, as I already said, you know, these types of authoritarian regimes, real political changes is made on the streets, not at the ballot boxes.

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Help us understand something — because Russia does have an opposition movement. You're one of the more vocal people in it. But leading up to this vote, there hasn't been a wave of protests or strong movement to boycott the vote. Why is that?

Well, first of all, when you say that Russia has an opposition, you know, Russia had a leader of the opposition whose name was Boris Nemtsov. He was the former deputy prime minister, he was the most prominent and the most effective and most vocal political opponent of President Vladimir Putin. A little more than five years ago, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated, gunned down by five bullets in the back as he walked across a bridge right in front of the Kremlin in Moscow.

So, when we talk about the opposition in Russia, let's be careful about terminology. We do not have a democratic system of government. We haven't had one for almost 20 years now. And our most prominent leader of the opposition is dead because he was killed in the middle of Moscow and to this day, five years on, the organizers and masterminds of his murder continue to be fully shielded and fully protected by the highest levels.

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You would call it an opposition, but not a movement?

No, I mean, you're right to say, of course, we are the opposition. As Boris Nemtsov himself said in one of his last interviews before his death, we should be better referred to as dissidents than opposition leaders. You asked why there are no public protests. Well, first of all, because they are banned, because several times when the opponents of these amendments have tried to organize street rallies in Russian cities, they were forbidden to do so by the authorities — of course, under the pretext of the pandemic.

So, there's no trouble withholding a vote with tens of millions of people because of the pandemic. There's no problem there. And somebody tries to organize a rally against these amendments? Oh, no, no, no. That's going to be dangerous. No rallies allowed. Actually, as we speak now, there is a spontaneous street protest happening on Pushkin Square right in the middle of Moscow, where people are being dispersed and attacked and arrested and led away by the police, as usual. So, let's watch what happens in the next few months.

I guess I'm scratching my head because last summer, municipal elections prompted big demonstrations. So, why is something as consequential as this raft of constitutional amendments, including waiving term limits for Putin — why is that not pushing people out into the streets for the nation?  

Well, first of all, it is, as I mentioned, now as we speak, there are demonstrations breaking out in Moscow. But again —

Well it’s a small one —

— and again, I think it might be sort of obvious for me as a Russian citizen, but I think maybe it needs to be spelled out again for our audience in the United States that, you know, when people go and demonstrate in the US that they are constitutionally protected. They have the right to demonstrate and that right is generally respected by the authorities. You know, in Russia, when you go to demonstrate against the government, you can be beaten up, you can be detained, you can be arrested, you could get several years' term in prison.

You know, you mentioned those demonstrations last year in Moscow. There are still people in prison today, a year after the fact, for having gone out to those demonstrations to exercise their rights of freedom of assembly. So, first of all, let's not take this lightly. It's not just why don't people go out and demonstrate. People have to calculate that they can end up 10 years in prison if they go and demonstrate.

But I think the astonishing fact is, that even despite this repression and despite this danger and despite the fact that people can face real prison terms for going out to demonstrate, there are still a lot of people in Russia today who are prepared to publicly voice their opposition against the Putin regime. Again, let us see what happens in the next few months, especially as these quarantine measures will be eventually lifted.

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Do you believe Putin will stay in power until 2036?  

No, I do not believe that for a second, and speaking to a lot of people and my friends and colleagues in Russia, I have yet to meet a single person who actually believes that Putin will stay in power until 2036. I want to remind you —

But what would stop him?

— not just would, but what will stop him will be organized public resistance from Russian society. The same factor that stopped authoritarian regimes that other countries where dictators also wanted to stay in power for life or for a long time — [Slobodan] Milošević in Serbia, [Viktor] Yanukovych in Ukraine, [Serzh] Sargsyan in Armenia. And I can long continue this list of would-be strongmen and dictators who wanted to stay in power for life until their citizens, their people told them otherwise.

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You've lived through a lot in Russian politics and public life. Some listeners may know that your life was in danger on multiple occasions and you were poisoned twice and miraculously survived. Vladimir Kara-Murza, after a day like today, how do you refocus? How do you retain hope as a Russian opposition activist?

Well, in a way, nothing changes because I think it's been clear to many of our colleagues and many Russian citizens since at least 2003 — so for about 17 years now — that Vladimir Putin wants to remain in power as long as he remains physically alive. So, there's sort of nothing new in this. And going back to what you asked a few minutes ago, the only thing that can, and the only thing that, in the end, will stop Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian regime from realizing these plans is organized public resistance from Russian citizens.

But it is also very, very important to have a strong and principled position of the international community, of the free world, led by the United States, that should not allow Vladimir Putin's regime to get away with this power grab. They should not accept this constitutional coup d'etat. No more invitations to the G-8, no more high-level visits, no red-carpet treatment. Vladimir Putin from this day de jure, belongs to the same league of rogue authoritarian regimes as you know, in their day, [Hugo] Chávez in Venezuela, [Blaise] Compaoré in Burkina Faso, [Islam] Karimov in Uzbekistan and many, many others. And this should be said publicly and clearly from the highest rostrum in the Western world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.