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Russian voters appear to approve constitutional changes that could extend Putin’s reign

Initial results from Russia’s election indicate it will pave the way for President Vladimir Putin to retain power until 2036. Polls closed Wednesday after seven days of voting on a package of constitutional changes, including those that could allow Putin two more terms in office. But election monitors say the contest has been neither free nor fair. Special correspondent Lucy Taylor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The polls closed in Russia today, after seven days of voting on constitutional changes. One would allow President Vladimir Putin to stand for two more terms in office.

    Early indications were that 70-plus percent voted in favor.

    As special correspondent Lucy Taylor reports, Russia's preeminent leader for two decades may be around for years to come.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    It is a vote on Russia's future, and the higher the turnout, the more credible it will look.

    And to bring voters in, drive some good old electioneering. Each ballot paper comes with a lottery ticket, with prizes from cash to cars. But the biggest winner will likely be President Vladimir Putin, with a chance to rule into his 80s. And many of his supporters don't need incentives.

  • Man (through translator):

    He is the best president of all the presidents. With him, Russia will survive.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Even though many people dislike him, I think he's right, and our country is flourishing.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    Voters like Tatiana Prokofieva have spent most of their adult lives under Vladimir Putin's leadership. She was just 30 when he came to power in the year 2000. But she also remembers what came before, in the 1990s, when Russia's economy collapsed, and she credits Putin with its recovery.

  • Tatiana Prokofieva (through translator):

    People live well now. The standard of living has increased. Now each family has at least two cars. That is an indicator he was able to do it. We had a good Olympics in Sochi, and, after that, I went to Sochi and saw how it was transformed. Work is under way. You can't deny it.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    The campaign for the constitutional changes has played on national pride. Vladimir Putin led a military parade on the eve of polls opening, and says the changes would reinforce Russian values, like truth, justice and respect for the homeland.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    We are not just voting for amendments clothed in clear legal rules. We vote for the country in which we want to live, with modern education and health care, with reliable social protection of citizens, with effective power, accountable to society.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    One amendment would outlaw same-sex marriage, with campaign videos portraying gay people as bad parents.

    Others would guarantee the minimum wage and pensions. And one would give President Putin criminal immunity for life.

    And yet, with all that, there's been very little discussion about the amendment that could extend his time in office. The changes all come as a single package.

    There's just one question, yes or no, but this national vote takes in hundreds of amendments to the Russian constitution. Critics say it's designed to minimize the focus on Vladimir Putin's power and executed in a way that gives them almost no chance to argue.

    Rallies and protests are banned because of the pandemic. And campaigners like Tatiana Usmanova say Russia's state media doesn't give them a fair hearing.

  • Tatiana Usmanova (through translator):

    We are not allowed to express our position to those who are against this vote. Everything that is happening now is an absolutely strange, illegitimate procedure to recognize results that are simply impossible.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    But Russia also has a troubled history with outright fraud and ballot-stuffing. Election monitors say they have witnessed multiple violations. Officials even took the unprecedented step of announcing early results hours before polls closed, something which would usually be banned.

    Russia under Vladimir Putin has been involved in messy military interventions in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, and suffered under international economic sanctions.

    His approval ratings have slipped in the last year, but remain high. So far, he has played coy, and has yet to say if he will stand for another term in office, even if he is allowed to.

  • Ekaterina Schulmann:

    It's necessary to preserve this option, this possibility, in order to prevent the elites from looking around in search of the successor. These were his words.

    So, what he was basically planning to say is that he can't afford to be a lame-duck, because it's dangerous, because he is surrounded by whom? By people he can't trust.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    But not everyone who remembers the 1990s is voting for the amendments.

    Sergei Mitrokhin led a liberal opposition party. And he says, just as Russia had its first chance at democracy, Vladimir Putin led it in a different direction.

  • Sergei Mitrokhin (through translator):

    We understood that those mistakes and crimes that were committed then would inevitably lead Russia to an authoritarian, corrupt regime, and so it happened.

    Unfortunately, we foresaw this. We already understood that at the beginning of the century.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    For an older generation of voters, this poll is about whether the relative stability gained in Putin's Russia has been worth it.

    And if the amendments are passed, as expected, their children may live most of their lives knowing nothing else.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lucy Taylor in Moscow.

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