God and money: Putin offers sweeteners to ease path to prolonging power

MOSCOW (Reuters) – When Russians vote this month on whether to allow President Vladimir Putin to potentially stay in power until 2036, they will decide on a bundle of measures from economic sweeteners to political reforms for traditionalists.

They include inflation-adjusted pensions, a fairer minimum wage, enshrining a reference to God in the constitution, and defining heterosexual marriage as the only true form of wedlock.

Authorities have highlighted those changes in their campaign rather than the reform that would let Putin run again for president twice after his current term expires in 2024.

Voters will only answer one question: if they approve or reject the entire bundle of constitutional changes.

Critics see this as a crude but effective Kremlin ploy to win support for a move that could keep Putin in power for longer than Soviet dictator Josef Stalin by lumping it in with reforms that have mass appeal or mobilise certain groups.

Polls by the independent Levada Centre opinion pollster show Russians are divided over letting Putin extend his rule. But they also show overwhelming support for the economic benefits.

“They included what people actually wanted,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at Levada, who said some voters recognised the tradeoff. “You give us on the economic side and we’ll support your political amendments.”

Many Russians remain embittered over a 2018 pension age hike and frustrated by years of falling incomes and living standards that have slipped again due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Overall, 44% of Russians support the amendments against 32% against, according to Levada’s latest polling data, with those who oppose much less likely to vote.

Voting will run from June 25 to July 1.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier this month there were many reforms on offer and it was not possible to single out one. Most Russians and the country’s main political forces back the changes, he said.

“It’s a smokescreen,” countered Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician. “They’re trying to conceal Putin’s real intention of getting a mandate to rule forever.”

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