A newly unveiled World War II monument towered behind Vladimir Putin as the Russian president made a final pitch for a July 1 vote on a raft of constitutional changes that include a ban on same-sex marriage and an affirmation of Russians' faith in God.
"We are not just voting for amendments," Putin said on state TV on Tuesday. "We are voting for the country in which we want to live, with modern education and health care, reliable social protections and an effective government accountable to the public."
Putin said the proposed changes will cement Russians' values into their constitution. What he didn't mention was the amendment that will reset his term limits — allowing him to stay in power until 2036, when he'll turn 84.
Putin's political future has been a subject of intense speculation ever since he won a fourth term in 2018. The Russian Constitution currently permits a limit of two consecutive presidential terms, six years each. At the completion of his second term, Putin stepped aside to be prime minister and let a protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, serve one presidential term.
Having first been elected president in 2000, Putin is laying the groundwork to become Russia's longest-serving ruler since Peter the Great three centuries ago.
Putin's plan to hang onto power took shape in January, when he abruptly fired his cabinet and announced the need for sweeping constitutional changes. Exactly how they might affect his own rule became clear only in March, when a senior lawmaker proposed an amendment making it possible for Putin to run two more times.
Both houses of parliament, Russia's 85 regional assemblies and the Constitutional Court all rubber-stamped the package of amendments. But Putin insisted they also get the blessing of the Russian people in a national vote.
"To stay in charge, Putin needs the support of the majority, even if it's a formality," writes Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Putin is using the public vote to make ordinary people his accomplices in extending his rule and sanctioning the domination of an ultraconservative ideology."
Putin planned for the vote to take place on April 22, followed by a giant military parade on May 9 marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II. As the coronavirus pandemic hit Russia, Putin reluctantly postponed the vote and then the parade.
"He was forced to yield to the power of the virus," says Masha Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow. "Putin never concedes to pressure. I think this is a unique situation."
Even though Russia has the third-highest number of coronavirus infections, after the United States and Brazil, regional leaders loosened lockdown restrictions this month. Putin's Victory Day parade was rescheduled for June 24 and the constitutional vote for July 1.
The two events are linked because both aim to strengthen Putin's legitimacy, says Alexander Titov, a historian at Queen's University Belfast.
"There is very little beyond the victory in World War II which unites Russians," says Titov. "Putin's whole idea is to bring back continuity between old czarist Russia, the positive aspects of the Soviet Union and blend it in together with his own rule."
Originally Putin had invited President Trump and other Western leaders to the Victory Day parade. In the end, the dignitaries who attended hailed mostly from former Soviet republics.
"It must be hugely disappointing for Putin that this great anniversary — which also was supposed to be a kind of crowning of him as a president for life — turned into a very small-scale affair," says Titov.
The day after the parade, a week of early voting began on Putin's ballot measure. Voters are being asked to approve a package of 206 constitutional amendments with a single yes-or-no answer.
The Central Election Commission says all necessary health and safety precautions are being taken at polling stations, with temperature measurements of voters and the availability of face masks and gloves.
Television ads have featured Russian actors and athletes endorsing Putin's amendments.
Pianist Denis Matsuev, a regular at New York's Carnegie Hall, appears in one such ad.
"Our culture and our language are what make us strong, unique and unite us," he says. "The constitutional amendments will preserve and protect our unique cultural code."
The Kremlin has emphasized that the amendments will strengthen Russia's sovereignty and independence and the government's social obligations to its citizens.
Critics say the vote bundles so many amendments together that its true purpose — securing Putin's reign for years to come — is being obscured. They say that six days of early voting, electronic balloting in two regions and the lack of independent observers open up the possibility for widespread fraud.
In a video posted to social media, opposition leader Lyubov Sobol called the vote a "disgrace."
"If you think Putin is our national leader and should rule for more than 20 years, then why not just call a referendum with one question: Do you agree that Putin should have a fifth term?" she says. "But they didn't call one."
The fact that Putin is going through the trouble of a national vote is a sign that he's concerned, says 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," she says. "He produces the impression that he is no longer as confident as he used to be, and maybe this has to do with the decline in public approval and trust, combined with the fact that the Russian economy is not in good shape, to say the least."
On Monday, a state-run polling agency published an exit poll showing 76% of voters who had cast ballots early supported the amendments.
For the Kremlin, the result of the vote seems to be a foregone conclusion. Copies of the constitution — complete with all the new amendments — are already being sold in Moscow bookstores.
NOEL KING, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
KIM: A member of parliament proposed a constitutional amendment resetting Putin's presidential term limit.
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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.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
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.
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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.
(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.