When Russian LGBT activist Alexey Nazarov voted against president Vladimir Putin’s constitutional overhaul this week he was not just rejecting a redrafting that would allow the president to extend his more than 20-year long rule.
He was also opposing a slew of social initiatives — including a ban on his right to marry — from being enshrined in Russia’s fundamental laws.
While Mr Putin’s move to reset his presidential terms and potentially remain in office until he is 83 has dominated criticism of the new constitution, that is just one of more than 200 amendments that will tighten the Kremlin’s control over Russian society and bolster its efforts to suppress liberal values.
The new constitution specifies that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, affirms the importance of God and mandates the teaching of patriotism to children. It also calls for Russia to resist efforts to “falsify” the country’s history and designates Russian the “language of the state-forming ethnic group” in a state boasting dozens of minority languages.
“The amendments will both make Putin irremovable and reinforce discrimination,” said Mr Nazarov, who is gay. “These amendments represent the destruction of the constitutional system of Russia.”
“[Putin] has been playing the homophobic card for more than 10 years,” he added. “Homophobic state politics and legalised violence reign in Russia. And the adoption of this amendment is the signal for a new stage of discrimination.”
The referendum, which Mr Putin arranged in a bid to lend a veneer of public support to changes he had already passed into law, is the latest move by the 67-year-old to promote nationalist, conservative and traditionalist policies and legislate against what he has described as “obsolete . . . liberal ideas” prevalent in western countries.
“We are not just going to vote on legal amendments,” Mr Putin said in an appeal to all citizens on Tuesday, the day before polls closed. “We are voting for the country in which we want to live.”
Vladimir Putin votes in the referendum on changes to the Russian constitution © Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/EPA/Shutterstock
“The country . . . that we would like to pass on to our children and grandchildren,” he added.
The slate of amendments was supported by 77.9 per cent of voters on a turnout of 68 per cent, according to government figures, after months of heavy support from state-run media, and a week of voting using pop-up polling stations in car boots and on park benches.
Citizens were offered the chance to win vouchers, washing machines or even an apartment in a raffle if they voted, and state-run companies leaned heavily on employees to participate, in a bid to ensure turnout was high. Independent monitoring organisations noted widespread irregularities and reports of ballot-stuffing.
Human rights groups have warned that many of the amendments will increase censorship and reduce freedom of speech, restrict the rights of minorities and citizens whose lifestyles are deemed in breach of “traditional family values” promoted by Mr Putin.
Last weekend Russian police arrested more than 30 people who took part in individual protests against the detention of a pro-LGBT and feminism activist accused of publishing pornographic photographs.
One amendment endorsed this week enshrines the supremacy of Russian courts over international tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights, hitherto the last hope for citizens seeking to overturn Moscow’s judicial decisions. Another increases the government’s power to dictate how people get access to the internet.
Tanya Lokshina, Moscow-based associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, said that the amendment banning all but heterosexual marriages “continues the trajectory of homophobic discrimination the Kremlin has stoked since the 2013 anti-gay ‘propaganda’ law”, referring to legislation that banned actions deemed to “promote” homosexuality.
An advert produced by a pro-Kremlin group urging support for the amendments showed an orphan’s sadness at being adopted by a gay couple, prompting an elderly woman to spit in disgust.
“Is this the Russia you will choose?” says a voiceover. “Decide the future of the country.”
Another amendment that codifies the upholding of “traditional values” raises “ample grounds for concern that this could be used to further counter women’s rights, including by thwarting efforts to adopt a law against domestic violence”, Ms Lokshina said.
Eleanor Bindman, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that the traditionalist thrust was partly aimed at whipping up popular support for the referendum, which only offered voters the ability to either support or oppose all the amendments at once.
“[Mr Putin’s] campaign against liberalism is fairly meaningless — the main purpose of the reforms (and of his campaign against liberalism and liberal values) is to keep him and his circle in power,” she said. “So the conservative thrust of these reforms is just a cover for the changes to presidential term limits which are the really important issue.”
The referendum was first scheduled for April but was postponed as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Russia, and at one point made the country the world’s second-most affected. The vote began last week despite the country recording more than 6,000 new Covid-19 infections daily.
Planning for the overhaul coincided with a fall in Mr Putin’s popularity ratings to record lows, amid sustained economic gloom. That drove a sense of urgency inside the Kremlin to ram through the amendment to ensure the potential continuation of his regime past 2024, when he was obliged to step down under the previous constitution.
“This was not a referendum, it was like a military operation,” said Alexey Sergeyev, a LGBT campaigner from St Petersburg. “But it has also activated LGBT people. Many of my friends who never went to the polls went to vote . . . in the future, there will be much more politicisation.”