Foreign Policy

Putin’s Russia Will get Voters’ Rubber Stamp

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Russia’s constitutional referendum means that President Vladimir Putin could remain in power until 2036, the assassination of a popular Ethiopian musician inflames ethnic tensions, and an investigation exposes the Chinese government’s use of forced sterilization in Xinjiang.

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 It’s Official: Putin Could Rule Until 2036

I distinctly remember the moment in 2009 when, sitting in a restaurant in Tver, Russia, a friend told me that recent changes to the constitution would enable Vladimir Putin to return to power for another 12 years once then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s time was up. Putin had cracked down on the independent media and presided over a brutal counterterrorism campaign in Chechnya, and the thought of him remaining in power until 2024 was then a daunting prospect for both Russia and the world.

Over the past week, Russian voters overwhelmingly approved new changes to the constitution that will now let Putin, already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin, run for two more terms in office. He could remain in power through 2036. The vote, which was delayed by the pandemic, took place over a week to prevent crowding at polling stations. It was seen as a foregone conclusion. At least two weeks before the vote, Russian bookstores were selling recently printed copies of the constitution that included the new amendments.

Russian lawmakers approved the changes earlier this year, and there was no legal requirement to hold a referendum. But the plebiscite gives an important veneer of legitimacy to Putin, who has long sought to avoid the appearance of an unseemly power grab. It also comes after the president’s approval ratings reached a record low of 59 percent in March.

A raft of changes. Voters were asked to vote yes or no on a single package of over 200 measures, the biggest shake-up to the constitution since it was adopted in 1993. Many of the changes will serve to gird the conservative and nationalist turn taken under Putin’s leadership, including a ban on same-sex marriage, measures to prevent senior officials from holding foreign passports or bank accounts, and a move to constitutionally enshrine the “historical truth” of World War II. (Putin has been accused of rewriting history of the war to both foment patriotism and throw mud at neighbors.) Another provision prevents the surrender of any Russian territory, a bid to cement Russia’s authority over Crimea.

Credible turnout? According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, 78 percent of voters supported the changes, with turnout at around 65 percent. In a statement published Wednesday as polls closed, the independent election watchdog Golos detailed severe shortcomings with the way in which the campaign and referendum were conducted, including accusations of ballot-stuffing, voter coercion, and double-voting. The European Union has called for an investigation of reports of irregularities.

 Violent clashes in Ethiopia. More than 80 people have been killed this week in Ethiopia’s Oromia region after violent clashes were triggered by the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular musician, in Addis Ababa on Monday. Haacaaluu was a vocal advocate for the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who have historically been marginalized economically and politically. The killing has inflamed long-standing grievances. On Wednesday, the military was deployed to the streets of the Ethiopian capital.

Haacaaluu’s music galvanized the anti-government protests in 2015 led by the Oromo and the Amhara ethnic group that culminated in the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018. The appointment of Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, as prime minister the same year brought an end to almost three decades of dominance by the hard-line Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front party. Abiy has embarked on an ambitious program of reforms, but analysts fear they may have lifted the lid on simmering tensions between religious and ethnic groups.

Cultural genocide in Xinjiang. The Chinese government is routinely subjecting Uighurs and other ethnic minorities to pregnancy checks, forced birth control, forced abortion, and sterilization in a bid to slash birth rates among the country’s Muslims, according to an investigation published by the Associated Press on Monday. In the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has waged a campaign to stamp out Uighur cultural identity, birth rates have plummeted since 2017—falling 24 percent in 2019.

This population control has coincided with the abolition of the one-child policy for the rest of the Chinese population, lucrative offers intended to lure more people from the Han majority to move to Xinjiang, and efforts to encourage interethnic marriages. “These findings indicate that Beijing is complementing its pursuit of cultural genocide in Xinjiang with a campaign of ethno-racial supremacy,” Adrian Zenz writes in Foreign Policy.

Billion-dollar drug bust. On Wednesday, police in Italy announced that they had intercepted a $1 billion stash of the synthetic drug Captagon en route from Syria to Europe. They found more than 84 million tablets, the largest seizure of the amphetamine drug in history. Captagon is known to be used by Islamic State fighters to keep them alert during battle, while the terrorist organization’s production and sale of the drug has brought in crucial revenue streams.

“We believe that, during the COVID-19 lockdown, the production and distribution of synthetic drugs in Europe practically ground to a halt and therefore many traffickers have turned to Syria, where production does not seem to have slowed down during the pandemic,” Col. Domenico Napolitano, the commander of the Guardia di Finanza of Naples, told the Guardian.

1 million displaced. Since the year began, 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to ongoing violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said on Tuesday. Agency spokesperson Babar Baloch said that there had been an alarming increase in the number of attacks by armed groups on displaced people: as they fled, in hosting areas, and as they have tried to return to their homes.

Conflict has raged in eastern Congo since the mid-1990s, making it one of the most protracted and complicated humanitarian crises in the world. More than 5 million people have been displaced within Congo since 2017, and 1 million more have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Government control in the region is weak, with dozens of armed groups vying for power and territory.

A mystery elephant die-off. Since the beginning of May, more than 350 elephants have died from unknown causes in Botswana in what scientists have described as a “conservation disaster.” The bodies of the elephants have been found intact and with their tusks, ruling out poaching. An outbreak of the bacteria anthrax, found naturally in soil, killed over 100 elephants in the country last fall, but it has also been ruled out. Other possible causes are poisoning or an unknown disease. Authorities in Botswana, where ecotourism contributes to 10 to 12 percent of GDP, have been criticized for not responding quickly enough.

The illegal fishing industry. A fleet of Iranian vessels is engaged in one of the world’s largest illegal fishing operations off the coast of Somalia, according to analysis released Monday by the nonprofit Global Fishing Watch and the NGO Trygg Mat Tracking. Tracking information revealed that some 200 Iranian vessels are operating in the exclusive economic zones of Somalia and Yemen, depleting the fishing stocks of countries with chronic food insecurity.

That’s it for this week.

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