As Vladimir Putin surveys his resounding victory in this week’s national vote on constitutional changes that would allow him to rule until 2036, one Arctic region spoils the triumphant map.
The remote Nenets Autonomous Region, an oil-rich swath of tundra about the size of Missouri that’s home to 42,000, was the only one in the official count to reject the proposals, with 56% voting against, a dramatic contrast to the national result showing an overwhelming 78% voting for them.
“People don’t want to admit that the authorities can manipulate them so easily,” said Yuri Tyulyubaev, 47, owner of a travel agency in the regional capital of Naryan-Mar. “These amendments don’t have any meaning, there was no reason to change the constitution on July 1.”
The Kremlin wrapped the plan to allow Putin to run for two more six-year terms in a raft of populist measures aimed at building support. They ranged from guarantees of increases in state pensions to a ban on gay marriage.
But in the Nenets region, not known as a hotbed of opposition to the Kremlin, it was a local issue that loomed larger for voters. Residents were angry about a government plan to combine the region with a neighboring one, according to locals, analysts and officials.
“If it weren’t for the story of the referendum on merging the regions, the residents would have voted for the constitutional amendments,” said Viktoria Bobrova, 57, co-head of a regional civic group. “This was a vote against the actions of the authorities who didn’t take into account the views of the population.”
Local officials didn’t provide the usual pressure on voters that’s known in Russia as “administrative resource” and is widely exerted by authorities in other regions, according to Natalya Zubarevich, head of regional studies at Moscow’s Independent Institute for Social Policy.
“The level of administrative resource in this voting was unthinkable,” she said. But in the Nenets region, “this resource didn’t work because the local elites didn’t try since they were extremely unhappy” with the Kremlin’s plan to combine the regions. “They would have lost money from the merger.”
Election officials denied any significant violations took place. The Nenets results, “confirm once again that the vote was conducted the most transparent way,” Central Election Commission Chief Ella Pamfilova said Thursday, according to RIA Novosti. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the number of no votes cast there was “quite insignificant” compared to the national total in favor.
Putin or No Putin
Still, though the result may confirm the adage that all politics is local, some see a broader message for the Kremlin.
The Kremlin ultimately dropped the merger plan but locals were still seething over it on voting day, according to Tyulyubaev.
“For many years, people didn’t vote since like the majority of Russians, they didn’t care,” he said. “But here they were treated like idiots. A lot of people saw that as a personal affront.”
The government needs to be reasonable with its citizens, he said. “Putin or no Putin.”
— With assistance by Ilya Arkhipov
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