Let's start with the purpose of the plebiscite. The key driver of the vote in 1991, just as now, was an attempt by a Russian leader to consolidate his power amid a rapidly changing world around him. In 1991, Gorbachev was hoping to use the referendum to fend off the pressure from his main political rival, Boris Yeltsin. We now know that the referendum in fact only helped to accelerate Gorbachev's political demise.
In 2020, 205 of the constitutional "innovations" appear to serve as wrapping paper for the 206th: The opportunity to remain as lifelong leader, father of the nation, and the only figure capable of making Russia a strong power at home and abroad. Twenty-nine years after Russian people voted for change from the Gorbachev era, Russia now has a President eligible to remain in power until 2036. If he serves until that date, his term of Russia's de-jure and de-facto leader would be 36 years, longer than any Soviet leader, including Stalin. It is long enough to fully vindicate Speaker of Parliament Volodin's famous phrase that "there is no Russia without Putin."
Putin's gamble to hold the referendum in these challenging times has paid off so far. It has strengthened his grip on power after several difficult months, which clearly exposed and magnified the limitations of his "manual management" (ruchnoye upravleniye). This system, which relies on decisions of one man at the expense of any independent and well-functioning institutions, has proven to be a poor match for a global pandemic. The challenge came not only from the health and economic effects virus, but from the fact that several governors who led their local fights against it (often with little effective backing from the Kremlin) have in effect sown the seeds of institutional growth. Given time and resources, effective local leadership could have emerged under a less centralised system. Instead, the referendum result shows that these institutional green shoots are likely to be suffocated by the Kremlin's paranoia. All signs indicate that their fear of challenge will continue, even now that the "lame duck" threat hanging over Putin is over. We can look forward to renewed demands for unwavering loyalty from governors, parliamentarians, and media talking heads alike.
But can this strength be sustained in the long run? In 1991 Gorbachev's victory in the referendum marked the beginning of the end of his power. It provided him a false sense of security. The secondary question of that referendum (the introduction of the directly elected post of the President of the Russian SSSR) proved to have a far greater impact than the main question about preserving the Soviet Union.
Could the same happened again? The new constitutional changes do grant Putin the opportunity to run again in 2024. They also set in motion the most significant redistribution of power between different branches of government, while introducing new economic and geopolitical pressures on the government. Perhaps most important, they clearly expose Putin's ambitions for all to see, including to the new generation of Russians who have grown up in the internet age and have known no other leader. Many provisions of the Constitution remain too vague to analyse, but are difficult to ignore. What will be the role and powers of the State Council? How will the "federal territories" affect the already tense center-regional relations? Have the new amendments just expanded the number of contenders for a piece of Russia's rapidly shrinking economic pie? All these factors make the outcome of the 2024 election much less certain than the referendum backers might wish to believe.