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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main political project of the year — a constitutional vote that would allow him to extend his rule until 2036 — is set to wrap up Wednesday.

The nationwide balloting on the amendments that would reset the clock on Putin’s tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms enters its final day.

For the first time in Russia, the polls were open for a week to help reduce crowds and to bolster turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive campaign to get Russia’s voters to say “yes” to the changes. Ironically, however, the plebiscite intended to consolidate his hold on power could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin’s unrelenting push for holding the vote despite coronavirus infection levels remaining high reflects the Russian leader’s potential vulnerabilities.

“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”

The balloting completes a convoluted saga of concealment, deception and surprise that began in January when Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in a state-of-the-nation address. He offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of the Russian government, stoking speculation he might continue calling the shots as parliamentary speaker or as chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.

The amendments, which also emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms, outlaw same-sex marriages and mention “a belief in God” as a core value, quickly sailed through the Kremlin-controlled parliament.

As speculation swirled about Putin’s future, the 67-year-old leader remained poker-faced until March 10. That’s when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, suddenly proposed a measure to let Putin run two more times. In a carefully choreographed show, Putin then arrived in parliament just before the decisive vote to endorse Tereshkova’s proposal.

The maneuver stunned Russian political elites who were busy guessing about Putin’s future and possible successors. Many saw the resetting of term limits as an attempt by Putin to avoid becoming a lame duck and to quell a power struggle in his inner circle.

The Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — said he would decide later whether to run again in 2024. He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants from “darting their eyes in search for possible successors instead of normal, rhythmical work.”

While Putin used his KGB-honed skills of deception to delude both the public and his own entourage, he complicated his constitutional plan by putting it to voters even though parliamentary approval was sufficient to make it law.

The move was intended to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the constitutional changes. But it backfired weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing Putin to postpone the plebiscite originally scheduled for April 22.

The delay made Putin’s campaign blitz lose momentum and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew. Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during Russia’s outbreak have dented his approval ratings, which sank to 59% during Russia’s outbreak, the lowest level since his ascent to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.

Amid the uncertainty, Putin rescheduled the vote immediately upon seeing the first signs of a slowdown in Russia’s infection rate even though the number of new confirmed cases reported daily remains high.

Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin faced a difficult dilemma. Holding the vote sooner would bring accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it further raised the risk of defeat, she said.

“A late vote could have been lost. Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky,” Schulmann said.

She noted that the vote comes shortly after the government’s lifting of coronavirus restrictions helped brighten the public mood.

Schulmann argued that the Kremlin’s focus isn’t so much on boosting overall turnout but rather on increasing attendance by the public sector workers who make up Putin’s base.

The authorities have mounted a sweeping effort to persuade teachers, doctors, workers at public sector enterprises and others who are paid by the state to cast ballots. Reports surfaced from many corners of the vast country that managers were coercing people to vote.

The Kremlin also has used other tactics to increase turnout and support for the amendments.

Prizes ranging from gift certificates to cars and apartments were offered as an encouragement, giant billboards went up across Russia and celebrities posted ads for the “yes” vote on social media.

Two regions with large numbers of voters — Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod — allowed electronic balloting.

At the same time, monitoring the vote became more challenging due to hygiene requirements and more arcane rules for election observers. Kremlin critics argued that these would increase opportunities for vote fraud.

Russia’s weakened and fragmented opposition split into two camps over the amendments: those who called for a boycott of the vote, like the most visible Kremlin foe, Alexei Navalny, and those who advocated voting against the constitutional changes.

Most observers expect the Kremlin to get its way, regardless of the opposition’s strategies.

“People are angry at the government, but they still don’t have any alternative to Putin,” Pavlovsky said.

He noted, however, that the unusual methods used by authorities to boost turnout and get the result Putin wants would undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

“The procedure has been distorted and simplified to the point when it would be difficult to trust the figures,” Pavlovsky said.

Schulmann also warned that the balloting will likely fail to serve its designated purpose of cementing Putin’s rule as the economic pain from the coronavirus deepens.

“I think the vote will not be perceived as the legitimizing one,” she said.

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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Russian constitution change ends hopes for same-sex marriage

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — At the Lagutenko wedding in 2017, the couple exchanged vows, rings and kisses in front of friends and relatives, then took a traditional drive in a limousine, stopping at landmarks for photos.

But because they were both women, the wedding wasn’t legal in Russia.

If Irina and Anastasia Lagutenko had any hopes they could someday officially be married in their homeland, the possibility vanished on July 1 when voters approved a package of constitutional amendments, one of them stipulating that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

Unlike many LGBT people in Russia who keep low profiles because of pervasive enmity against nontraditional sexuality, they live openly as a same-sex couple with a 21-month-old boy, named Dorian, who was born to Irina.

They lack, and probably never will receive, those rights accorded to heterosexual couples. They won’t be allowed to refuse to testify against their partner in court, they won’t automatically inherit from each other, and they can’t see each other in hospitals that only allow visits by family members. Anastasia is not a legal guardian for Dorian and can’t become one.

“I want to have the same legal rights for the child,” Anastasia told The Associated Press as Dorian played in her lap in their apartment.

“I planned this child. We went all the way of the pregnancy and the childbirth together, and now, I am 100%, 200% involved in the process of upbringing, and I consider him mine,” she said.

Although Russia decriminalized homosexuality decades ago, animosity against gays remains high. In 2012, the Moscow city government ordered that gay pride parades be banned for the next 100 years. The following year, the parliament unanimously passed a law forbidding “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships” among minors.

Attacks on the gay community persist. Last summer, the murder of Yelena Grigoryeva, an LGBT activist in St. Petersburg, made national headlines. Dozens of other activists received death threats from an obscure anti-gay group that claimed responsibility for the killing of Grigoryeva, who was stabbed repeatedly and showed signs of strangulation.

In 2017, reports of extrajudicial arrests, torture and killings of gay men in the republic of Chechnya drew international condemnation.

Last year, Andrei Vaganov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, a couple raising two adopted children, had to flee Russia after a doctor reported them to police and authorities opened a criminal case. Adoption by same-sex couples is banned in Russia, but Vaganov had applied as a single father.

Max Olenichev, a lawyer with the Coming Out gay rights group, said there are instances of tolerance by some courts. He said he has worked on seven custody cases in which judges refused to take away custody, saying that sexual orientation doesn’t play a role in a child’s upbringing.

But he is concerned that the constitutional changes will encourage anti-gay views.

Previously, “the state had to create equal opportunities for all people that live in Russia, both for LGBT people and non-LGBT people. When these amendments come into effect, then in fact the state will only support conservative values and promote them. LGBT people will be left behind,” he said.

“Our society really looks up to what the government does, so any kinds of public actions promoting homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, many people may perceive as a call for action. And we believe that there will be more hate speech and hate crimes, and that LGBT people will suffer more violence,” Olenichev said.

Pyotr Tolstoy, a parliament member who supported the changes to the constitution, says Russia is “a stronghold of traditionalism,” reflecting the widespread view that the country is under siege from decadent foreign influences.

The amendments will allow Russia “not to repeat the mistakes that exist in the West,” he told the AP. “These mistakes, in my opinion, are fundamental, when certain people — the LGBT community or certain race groups — are being given additional, special rights. More rights than the majority.”

President Vladimir Putin has rejected criticism of the constitutional amendments and the gay propaganda law.

He said that in some countries, “criminal law provisions still exist under which people of nontraditional sexual orientation can be persecuted criminally, as it was in the Soviet Union. We don’t have anything similar to that.” Putin’s remarks came after passage of the amendments package, which also allows him to seek two more terms in office.

Tolstoy, who is a deputy speaker in the lower house of parliament and heads the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, rejects the idea that the provision outlawing same-sex marriages in the constitution promotes intolerance.

“In our country, people are tolerant to all communities, as long they don’t demand any special rights,” he said.

For Irina and Anastasia Lagutenko, it is not about any kind of special rights. Anastasia says she just wants basic rights given to every parent — the “reassurance” that she is “a lawful parent, like parents in a traditional family.”

“When you have a legal right for a child, you feel safe,” she said.

“I want people who think that families like ours don’t exist to see us — (to see) that our family is complete, we have an excellent child, and to accept this fact.” Irina said. “We don’t have a fear of living in the open and we won’t hide, because we are the same people and we have the same rights.”

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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