The people of Moscow received text messages this week telling them they had been registered to win "millions of prizes". The catch? They have to vote on constitutional amendments that include allowing Vladimir Putin to remain in the Kremlin potentially until 2036.
Organizers of Russia's pseudo-referendum to amend the constitution – originally scheduled for April 22 but delayed owing to the coronavirus outbreak – appear to be making up the rules as they go along, the Guardian reports.
In a single vote, Russians must choose whether to support a package of amendments that include pension and minimum wage boosts, a modest reorganization of government, a constitutional mention of "faith in god", a ban on gay marriage, exhortations to preserve Russian history, and a ban on top officials holding dual citizenship.
Ads for the vote barely mention that it will also reset term limits for Putin, who has ruled since 2000.
It is not an official referendum and the rules are custom-designed. Unlike in normal elections, voting is allowed online and takes place over a week, between June 25 and July 1. As Russia continues to grapple with the coronavirus, some voting officials have decided it is safer to collect ballots outdoors, planting ballot boxes on tree stumps, in the boots of cars, in public buses and on plastic patio furniture.
The referendum is both momentous and absurd. Russians can endorse (or oppose) a plan to let Putin run for two more terms, potentially prolonging his rule beyond that of Stalin, and then win a washing machine or a hairdryer.
"It looks like a gameshow but I'm telling everybody I know to take this seriously, it's enough to make you lose your mind," said Oleg Kharlamov, a laboratory technician from Moscow who said he intended to vote against the amendments. The vote would help determine "who's in charge for the next generation, and if we complain, they will say … 'you voted for it'," he said.
The raffles and prize giveaways are just part of a broad get-out-the-vote effort endorsed by the government. Companies have authorized their own prize giveaways that could allow them to track employee voting, while government workers such as teachers and doctors – some of whom are busy fighting the coronavirus outbreak – are reportedly being urged to cast ballots, in systematic attempts to boost turnout.
Meanwhile, Instagram and TikTok influencers claim they have been offered millions of roubles by shady middlemen to urge their young followers to vote.
Analysts say the Kremlin has concluded that the rescheduled referendum had to happen now, after Russia had declared victory over the coronavirus (despite more than 7,000 new cases a day still being reported) and before the effects of a battered economy or a potential second wave further sour public opinion.
There are broad concerns that the results will be manipulated, particularly with limited scope to monitor polling places and online voting. Pavel Lobkov, a reporter for TV Rain, managed to vote in person at a polling station and then online on Thursday as the polls opened, effectively casting two ballots. Election officials said his extra vote would be discounted.
There is almost no likelihood the vote will fail. Weeks before the vote, publishers had begun stocking Moscow bookstores with copies of the amended constitution.