Day 6·Q&A

By this time next week, Vladimir Putin will probably be president for life, says Bill Browder

This week Russians are voting on proposed changes to the country’s constitution which, among other things, would allow Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036. The opposition has been calling this week's referendum a constitutional coup. Bill Browder calls it business as usual.

The results of Russia's constitutional referendum will be tallied on July 1

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends an awarding ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 24. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)
Listen8:10

The results of Russia's national vote on a series of proposed changes to its constitution will be announced next week.

But there's one question in particular that stands out: will Vladimir Putin be allowed to stay in power after 2024?

Putin has governed Russia — officially or otherwise — since 1999. The opposition has been calling this week's referendum a constitutional coup.

Bill Browder calls it business as usual.

At one time, Browder was the largest foreign investor in Russia, but he was expelled from the country after he started speaking out about widespread corruption.

Bill Browder has dedicated much of his life to exposing Russian corruption and avenging the 2009 death of accountant Sergei Magnitsky. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

He tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that Putin's goal is clear: to be president for life. Here's part of their conversation.

Is there any doubt about the outcome of this referendum?

There is no doubt. Putin is 100-per-cent risk-averse. He only does things in advance, when he knows the outcome.

That outcome is that the presidency will be effectively extended into perpetuity for him. It may not say that exactly on the documents, but that's the intention.

And then when he runs for president — which will also be a predetermined outcome — he'll then be re-elected and will serve as president for life.

And yet this government is so desperate to secure a high voter turnout in order to lend more legitimacy to this referendum. Why is that so important to Putin, if he's got it all sewn up anyway?

Well, what does he have sewn up? He can cheat — change the numbers if he wants. He controls the television stations. He can put pressure on people.

But people do have to vote in a referendum, and if the outcome is so dramatically different — or if people think that the outcome is so dramatically different — than what they intended to do, people could rise up.

That's his fear. He doesn't fear courts or parliaments or media, but he fears 142 million Russian people who — you know, all you need is a million people rising up and then he's going to hightail it to some friendly state that will give him asylum.

He doesn't fear courts or parliaments or media, but he fears 142 million Russian people.- Bill Browder

If he stepped down or if he lost power, what do you think his fate would be?

Well, it's clear he's committed so many crimes — he's stolen so much money — that if he were not in power he'd be arrested by his successor, put in jail, stripped of all of his money, and possibly worse.

This is happening as there are indications that Vladimir Putin is more unpopular inside Russia than he's ever been.

The coronavirus is hitting the country hard, the economy is tanking. In the end, does winning this referendum inoculate him from any of the problems associated with these issues?

No. But he's constantly on edge because he's afraid of a revolution; he's afraid of people rising up. He's created his own presidential guard which has literally half a million people to protect him in the case of people rising up.

He doesn't have to be afraid of almost anything else. There are no institutions other than the raw will of the people that could knock him out of power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Victory Day Parade in Red Square in Moscow on June 24. (Sergey Guneev via Reuters)

Putin is now poised to cement his hold on power for the rest of his life. What do you think about the way that he has prevailed here?

Well, it's a terrible tragedy for the Russian people, first and foremost. Putin is a very corrupt individual. He has stolen unbelievable, unimaginable amounts of money from the Russian government and from the Russian people for his own personal benefit.

As a result of all that stolen money, the average Russian person is destitute. So when you have a health crisis like COVID-19, there's not enough ambulances, hospital beds, ventilators.

A small number of people have taken everything from the country and everyone else lives in destitute poverty. It's a terrible, terrible blight and he wants to keep it that way.

You have lots of Russian friends and contacts. And you said that this was a tragedy.

But is there not also an element of farce to the fact that there is this referendum with the inevitable outcome that will end with Putin being president for life?

It's totally farcical. And I'm sure we'll find all sorts of abuses and crimes committed and ballot boxes stuffed, and all sorts of stuff like that.

But they don't really care about that in Russia. What they care about is a binary thing: was the referendum passed, yes or no? Yes, it was.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the Victory Day parade in Moscow to harness patriotic zeal to help him win a referendum that would effectively keep him in power for life.    2:07

Vladimir Putin can then go on the international stage and show up at international events and continue to be thought of, or treated, as legitimate.

And I guarantee you that no Western government will treat him as an illegitimate head of state, because he'll say: "Look, we went through our democratic process like you do yours."


Written and produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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