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by John Helmer, Moscow

The first independent national opinion poll to measure Russian interpretations of President Vladimir Putin’s proposals for changing the Constitution has been reported by the Levada Centre in Moscow.   The results show a sharp decline in Russian confidence that the Constitution protects their rights and freedoms. On the meaning of Putin’s proposals for the division of power between executive and legislature,  the country is split down the middle. Half believe the proposals are a sincere reform; half believe they are a cynical power grab. This has not yet produced a measurable change, up or down,  in the national approval rating for the President. That was  reported last week by Levada at 68%. The polling was done in mid-December.  

The constitutional proposals were announced by the President in his Federal Assembly speech on January 15.  They were reported and analysed here.

A group of Kremlin appointees to consider the proposals and report to the President convened on  the afternoon of January 16;  the 75-member working group did not meet on the weekend. On Monday January 20, the Kremlin draft of legislation enacting the proposals was sent to the State Duma.  The Duma voted unanimously to accept the draft in a first reading vote on January 23. Two more reading votes are required. An all-Russia popular vote will then be scheduled.

The Levada Centre conducted its survey of public opinion on the constitutional proposals between January 23 and 29. Across the country 1,603 people, aged over 18, were surveyed; each respondent by personal interview at home. The results were published in Russian on January 31. Click to read. No English translation has been published by Levada yet.

Three questions were asked:
Which of the following views on the role of the Constitution in the life of the country do you prefer to agree with (respondents were shown cards and could choose only one)?
– Have you heard of Vladimir Putin’s initiative to amend Russia’s Constitution?
– There are different opinions on what Vladimir Putin’s proposals to amend the Russian Constitution are primarily related to. Some say that these amendments are adopted primarily to improve the system of state administration and to the benefit of the population of the country. Others say these amendments are primarily taken in Vladimir Putin’s own best interests to expand his powers and allow him to remain in power beyond 2024.

At the time the pollster arrived at the door, 20% of the nationwide sample reported themselves well-informed on the constitutional proposals; 58% said they had heard a little; 20% said they were hearing about the issues for the first time.

According to the published results, there has been a sharp decline since 2016, when a comparable question was last asked,  in those who believe the Constitution protects individual rights (column 1),  and sharp increases in those who believe the Constitution represents Putin’s power to control parliament (column 3) or to expand his own power (column 4).  

There is an almost even split of national opinion – 47% versus 47% —  between those who think the constitutional proposals represent genuine, substantial change (row 1 below), and those who think them Putin’s stratagem for expanding and prolonging his presidential power (row 2).

Column 1 represents the average of all responses; column 2 is the group who said they were already familiar with the proposals; and column 3, the group which has known nothing until the pollster arrived to ask the questions. Knowing less and then learning appear to make no measurable difference to the division of opinion. Thus, the Russian assessment of Putin’s intentions are already entrenched in the general public.  Among the decision-making elites, it is the same.

In his Federal Assembly speech Putin proposed holding a national ballot for Russians to vote their approval or disapproval. He added this vote should be an all-or-nothing proposition. “I believe it necessary to hold a vote of Russian citizens on the entire package of the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The final decision must be made only on the basis of its results.”

There is still no clarity on what turnout will be required for the referendum outcome to be binding; whether a simple majority will be decisive; and whether, if there is no clear majority,  the vote can be ignored. In the current Constitution, Chapter 9, Article 136, and the transition provision for a national referendum in 1993 are ambiguous on what can be arranged lawfully now.    The 2008 amendments to the Constitution to extend the presidential and State Duma terms were adopted at top-speed, between November 5 and December 30 of that year,  not by referendum but by votes of the Duma, the Federation Council, and regional legislatures. There has been no referendum under the present constitution.

Left to right: Vyacheslav Volodin, Speaker of the State Duma; Anton Vaino, chief of the Kremlin staff; Sergei Kirienko, deputy chief of staff.

Right now, if the latest poll results are translated into a national vote on Putin’s proposals, they would fail. The drafters of the constitutional plan, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, and the two chief Kremlin staff men, Anton Vaino and Sergei Kirienko, appear not to have made this calculation. 

NOTE: After this report was published, a second nationwide poll on the constitutional proposals was published on February 3 by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), a state-funded pollster. This reveals survey rigging by the use of remote telephone interviews for a sample of 1,600 conducted on a single day, January 24.  VTsIOM also reveals the Kremlin plan to include in its all-or-nothing ballot a total of 12 proposed constitutional changes, including several for which high approval is certain  – mandatory indexation of pensions and of other social benefits, and fixing the minimum wage above the subsistence wage. “The absolute majority of Russians (90-91%),” the pollster reported, “welcomed the proposals to establish in the Constitution regular indexation of pensions, benefits and other social payments, as well as to fix the SMIC [minimum wage] not lower than the subsistence minimum.” VTsIOM placed the proposal for the appointment of the prime minister by the State Duma, instead of the President, last on the list. The positive response was least, negative response greatest at 61% to 39%. Respondents were not asked to interpret the political purpose of the President’s proposals. The VTsIOM report, in Russian only, can be read here, along with tabulation of responses.   

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