Observers were quick to read the fine print: The constitutional review would reset the clock on presidential term limits, potentially extending Putin’s grip on power until 2036. A referendum was scheduled for April and Putin seemed to be heading for a life presidency.
What followed instead was an annus horribilis for Russia, and perhaps Putin’s toughest year yet.
As Covid-19 began to spread around the world, Russia briefly appeared to be at the forefront. The country sealed its border with China and Putin boasted that the virus was “under control”, thanks to what he described as robust early steps to stop the spread of the disease.
But this approach was little more than swagger and spin. Shortly after the government announced a nationwide lockdown that began on March 28, it became clear the country was in the throes of a major public health crisis.
The government was forced to postpone the referendum on constitutional changes.
Doubts were growing over how well the Kremlin was handling the pandemic and whether it agreed with the Russian public on the severity of the crisis.
Those suspicions only grew when Russian doctors and medical staff took to social media to sound the alarm over underfunded hospitals and the death toll they said was higher than what was officially recognized. Reports of frontline healthcare workers falling from windows and fires caused by faulty Russian-made fans have further eroded public confidence.
Russia’s economic situation was also dire. The country was mired in a coronavirus-induced recession, made worse by falling global oil prices, a key export.
By mid-year, the World Bank predicted that Russia’s GDP growth for 2020 would decline by 6%, an 11-year low, accompanied by soaring unemployment and rising poverty levels.
Such deep economic tension threatened to derail the political program of the ruling United Russia party by exposing the deep weaknesses of the social pact that kept Putin in power for two decades.
Putin’s political sustainability is often attributed to a simple bargain between him and his citizens: accepting limited political competition in exchange for stability and a steady rise in living standards. But in the midst of the pandemic, that deal started to crumble.
In July, protests erupted in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, where thousands took to the streets in extremely unusual street protests in support of the region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, who had been arrested and charged. for orchestrating the murders of two businessmen in 2004 and 2005. Furgal has denied any involvement in the murders. His supporters viewed the case as a politically motivated prosecution of a regional opponent of United Russia.
Perhaps equally worrying for the Kremlin, street protests swept through neighboring Belarus in August, after outgoing President Alexander Lukashenko, often described as the last European dictator, claimed victory in an election according to observers. , marred by widespread fraud.
Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, refused to step down and his security forces brutalized and detained thousands of Belarusians, leaving the Kremlin faced with the uncomfortable scenario of citizens of a neighboring and closely allied country refusing to play with fictitious democracy Russian way. .
The Kremlin succeeded in organizing the national referendum which guaranteed constitutional changes, with the help of a nationwide voting campaign, a public holiday and the mobilization of the country’s general public sector, which makes up a large part of the workforce.
But Putin’s system of led democracy experienced a new moment of crisis later in August, when opposition leader Alexey Navalny became seriously ill during a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow.
Navalny had run a campaign called “smart voting” – an effort to get the vote for those local election candidates who had the best chance of beating the United Russia candidates.
The Kremlin critic was eventually flown to Berlin for treatment, after Russian medics initially insisted the opposition leader was too seriously ill to make the trip.
The German government later revealed that tests proved he had been poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.
The Kremlin has denied any attempt to harm Navalny, and Russian state television has launched a series of conspiracy theories to explain the apparent assassination attempt.
But the Russian government quickly drew criticism from international leaders, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel declaring: “There are now very serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer. ”
In mid-December, a CNN-Bellingcat investigation uncovered evidence that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) formed an elite nerve agent team that followed Navalny for years.
At his annual marathon press conference, Putin’s comments on Navalny’s reports were as much boasting as denial. “Who needs him anyway?” Yes [Russian agents] wanted, they probably would have finished it, ”Putin said.
The poisoning of Navalny, in effect, demolished much of the goodwill Russia had sought to build internationally amid the pandemic.
In early April, the Russian government marked a coup by sending ventilators and protective gear to New York City to help hospitals on the front lines of the crisis.
It was symbolism over substance: ventilators were the same model that caught fire in Russian hospitals, and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency said they had never been used.
The Russian government has also weighed its weight in efforts to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, a project that has become a matter of national prestige.
In August, Putin announced with great fanfare that the nationally developed Russian vaccine – called Sputnik V, a name inspired by the Cold War space race – had been approved for public use, even though it wasn’t This rush to be the first drew international skepticism, as did the Kremlin’s subsequent recognition that Putin himself would not receive the blow.
It’s no surprise: Putin’s health information is a well-kept secret, and the presidential administration has taken extraordinary measures to protect the head of state from the coronavirus, including installing a Special “disinfectant tunnel” for visitors to his residence outside Moscow and the Kremlin.
The outbreak of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region tested the Russian government’s crisis management capabilities in 2020.
While the brief but intensely bloody fighting ended with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, the ceasefire agreement also highlighted Turkey’s regional weight. Russia is no longer the only indispensable power in the post-Soviet space.
Kremlinology is an inexact science, but as 2020 draws to a close, one wonders whether Putin is reconsidering these apparent plans to remain president until 2036.
After all, Russian lawmakers have hatched a possible escape plan for the Kremlin leader, approving legislation that would give former presidents lifelong immunity from criminal prosecution.
The bill in no way implies the impending departure of the Russian president – after all, Putin is a man who likes to keep his options open.
But for some observers the bill was a reminder of the surprise transfer of power from former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to then Prime Minister Putin on New Years Eve 1999. One of Putin’s first acts as that president was signing a diploma granting immunity to Yeltsin.
The end of this convulsive and difficult year should therefore leave Russian observers on the lookout for any new surprises from Putin’s New Year.