Congrats and grumblings pour in on Putin victory in Russian constitutional vote

The Kremlin celebrates as overwhelming support is seen for President Putin in a national vote on constitutional reforms. Meanwhile, there have been equal congratulations and concerns aired in the wake of Putin's victory, as the United States grumbles over the conduct of the elections. This could point toward more tensions between the US and Russia.

Russian constitutional vote

The Kremlin on Thursday hailed as a “triumph” overwhelming backing in a Russian constitutional vote on reforms to extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule. The Central Elections Commission announced that 77.92 percent of voters had backed the reforms with a turnout of 67.97 percent after all votes had been counted.

Final results after the week-long vote showed that nearly 78% of voters had backed changes to the constitution allowing Putin potentially two more six-year terms after his current one ends in 2024.

Russian constitutional vote: a triumph for the Kremlin

The results mean that the 67-year-old former KGB officer, who has ruled Russia for over two decades as either president or prime minister, could be in power until he is 83. Already the longest-serving leader in modern Russian history since Josef Stalin, Putin says he has yet to decide on his political future, though critics say they are sure he will try to stay in the Kremlin for as long as he can.

Some analysts believe he may however be keeping his options open so as not to become a lame duck before 2024.

The Kremlin “definitely considers this as a triumph,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, describing the vote as a “referendum on trust” in the Russian president.

Read more: Aftermath of NYT story: US firm on Russia but door open for Putin, says Pompeo

“Thank you very much for your support and trust,” Putin said in televised remarks during which he also warned that modern Russia was still in the process of being formed.

Other amendments strengthen presidential and parliamentary powers, enshrine traditional values including an effective ban on gay marriage and guarantee better minimum wages and pensions. “Now that Russians have given such support for changes to the constitution, this will all become the foundation for a better future for our country,” Peskov said.

“It was very difficult to predict the extremely high turnout and the extremely high support.”

The result was seen by many as a foregone conclusion, however, and copies of the new constitution were already on sale in bookshops weeks ahead of the ballot.

India congratulates Putin on Russian constitutional vote

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday “warmly congratulated” Russian President Vladimir Putin after a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms, in contrast to expressions of unease in Washington and Brussels.

In a phone call Modi “warmly congratulated President Putin on the success of celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Second World War, and also for successful completion of the vote on constitutional amendments in Russia”, a statement said.

The constitutional reforms approved in a nationwide vote by 77.92 percent of Russian voters could allow Putin to extend his rule until 2036.

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The US State Department said it was “troubled” by reports of government efforts to manipulate the result and “especially concerned” about the provision in the reforms potentially extending Putin’s rule by a further 16 years.

India, the world’s largest democracy has long walked a delicate tightrope in its relations with the United States and Russia.

In February Modi hosted US President Donald Trump at a huge “Namaste Trump” rally before agreeing a raft of defence deals even as they failed to see eye-to-eye on trade.

In 2018 Modi and Putin hugged in New Delhi as they signed an accord for Russia, India’s biggest arms supplier, to supply its S-400 missile system despite the threat of US sanctions.

United States voices concerns 

The United States on Thursday voiced concern over Russia’s constitutional referendum, pointing to reports of voter coercion and reiterating alarm that President Vladimir Putin will be able to extend his rule.

“We are troubled by reports of Russian government efforts to manipulate the result of the recent votes on constitutional amendments, including reports of voter coercion, pressure on opponents of the amendments and restrictions of independent observers of the vote,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

The European Union also Thursday called on Russia to investigate reported vote irregularities.

Russia’s Central Elections Commission announced that 77.92 percent of voters backed the constitutional reforms that would let Putin, already Russia’s paramount leader for two decades, run for additional terms after his mandate ends in 2024.

Read more: Trump debunks Russian attacks on troops stationed in Afghanistan

“We are especially concerned with a provision in the amendments that would potentially allow President Putin to remain in power until 2036,” Ortagus said.

“Around the world, as a matter of principle, the United States opposes constitutional amendments that favor incumbents or extend their terms in office, particularly in contexts where necessary conditions for free and fair democratic processes are lacking,” she said.

Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun said on the eve of the vote that Putin, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping, “seem intent on putting themselves into office for life.”

 ‘A record in faking votes’: opposition slams Russian constitutional vote

Only the autonomous region of Nenets in the Russian Arctic came out against the reforms, with 55.25 percent of voters opposing the changes to the constitution.

The isolated and sparsely populated region where reindeer herding is the traditional way of life is facing unification with the neighbouring Arkhangelsk region in a move that has sparked a local opposition movement. “You can’t rule out that the topic of merging regions… influenced the result” Peskov said, while stressing that the region’s voters were “an absolute minority.”

Russia’s two houses of parliament previously approved the amendments but Putin said they would only take effect if supported by a majority of voters.

Read more: Putin may be invited to G7 summit – despite Russian bounty hunters

Leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny condemned the poll, tweeting that it set “a record in faking votes” and the result had “nothing in common with people’s views.” The Golos election monitoring group said Thursday it had received more than 2,100 complaints over possible election violations, including reports of employees being forced to vote.

The organisation described the vote as “unprecedented” in terms of violations, saying it would go down in history as an attack on the sovereignty of the people. Election commission chief Ella Pamfilova rebuffed criticisms, saying in televised comments that “there is no doubt that the vote is valid and legitimate”.

An 83 year old president: lack of a successor 

Russians have voted to pass 206 constitutional amendments, most of which ostensibly serve to limit presidential power. But among them is one that could keep President Vladimir Putin in power until 2036.

This amendment resets the clock on incumbent presidents’ tenures — meaning presidents like Putin, who has already served two terms, can bypass the current two-term limit and run again right way. The amendment was proposed hours before the parliamentary vote in March by Valentina Tereshkova, a member of the Russian State Duma and former cosmonaut who was the first woman in space.

Read more: Despite lofty claims, Trump is unable to mend chasm in US-Russia relations

Evgeniy Somov, member of a patriotic organisation in the central Russian republic of Udmurtia, said Putin would not necessarily stay in power until 2036, describing the vote as a “safety net” in case no one emerges who could replace him.

“Running such a country is very difficult and apparently there is no worthy successor yet, or they are just not ready,” he said.

Others said they had no doubts at all that Putin would be staying in the Kremlin for many years to come.

GVS News Desk with additional input by AFP and other sources 

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