Russians Are Voting On 206 Reforms. The Most Important One Will Extend Putin's Rule "It is very important to him to have this popular endorsement, even if it is a farce, even if it is a travesty of popular will," analyst Masha Lipman says of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russians Are Voting On 206 Reforms. The Most Important One Will Extend Putin's Rule

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Russians are voting today on more than 200 amendments to their constitution. They're being asked to give a simple yes or no answer to all. Here's why it's so high stakes. One of the amendments would allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power for another 16 years. NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The Russian constitution is strangely specific about presidential term limits. It says no person shall serve more than two consecutive terms. Thanks to that wording, Vladimir Putin is now in his fourth term after taking a break and serving as prime minister. Some Russians wondered if he'd try that again in 2024. They got their answer in March.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).


KIM: A member of parliament proposed a constitutional amendment resetting Putin's presidential term limit.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Putin told Parliament it might be a good idea, but only if it got the blessing of the Constitutional Court and the Russian people. Political analyst Masha Lipman says Putin wanted a national vote because it lends him legitimacy.

MASHA LIPMAN: It is very important to him to have this popular endorsement even if it is a farce, even if it is a travesty of popular will.

KIM: The amendment letting Putin stay in power was tacked onto a raft of changes enshrining Russians' faith in God in the constitution, banning gay marriage and elevating the status of the Russian language. Sure enough, the amendments were rubber-stamped by Russia's parliament and the Constitutional Court. But then the coronavirus hit Russia. And Putin reluctantly had to postpone the vote originally scheduled for April.

LIPMAN: He was forced to yield to the power of the virus. Putin never concedes to pressure. I think this is a unique situation in which he had to yield.

KIM: Now the vote is going ahead even though Russia has the world's third highest number of coronavirus infections. The Central Election Commission says all health and safety precautions are being taken, with temperature controls, masks and gloves at polling stations. TV ads have shown Russian celebrities saying why they plan to vote for Putin's amendments.


DENIS MATSUEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Concert pianist Denis Matsuev says culture and language are what make Russia strong and unique and deserve special constitutional protection. The one amendment that's not being advertised is the one that lets Putin run for president two more times. But the biggest headache for the Kremlin is voter turnout amid reports of state employees being pressured to take part in early voting. In a video posted to social media, opposition leader Lyubov Sobol called the vote a disgrace.


LYUBOV SOBOL: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: She said, if Putin wanted to stay on for another term, he should have called a referendum on that one issue instead of bundling it in a package of useless amendments. Masha Lipman says the fact Putin is going through all the trouble of a popular vote is a sign he's concerned.

LIPMAN: He produces the impression that he is no longer as confident as he used to be. And maybe this has to do with this decline of public approval and trust, combined with the fact that Russian economy is not in good shape, to say the least.

KIM: For the Kremlin, the result of today's vote seems to be a foregone conclusion. Copies of the constitution, complete with all the new amendments, have already appeared in Moscow bookstores.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.


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