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Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow on July 1, 2020.

Alexei Druzhinin/The Associated Press

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For a moment they lay on Red Square, eight people using their bodies to form the number 2036 – the year until which Vladimir Putin can remain in power, under changes to Russia’s constitution that were approved Wednesday in a stage-managed referendum.

It was a small gesture of protest on a day that made it clearer than ever that it will be Mr. Putin’s authoritarian, abrasive Russia that the world will have to deal with for the foreseeable future. The amended constitution clears the way for Mr. Putin, already the country’s longest-serving ruler since Joseph Stalin, to approach the 43-year reign of Peter The Great.

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In a reminder of the kind of state Mr. Putin has built since he first moved into the Kremlin on Jan. 1, 2000, the activists on Red Square were arrested within seconds. A few hours later it was announced – even as voting was still taking place in Moscow and other western regions of the country, and despite widespread reports of irregularities – that the constitutional changes had been passed by a majority of more than 70 per cent.

Mr. Putin’s long reign has already shaken the geopolitical world order, from the 2014 annexation of Crimea, to Russia’s military support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, to reports this week that U.S. intelligence believes Moscow authorized cash payments to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan who killed American soldiers.

While nothing fundamentally changed with Wednesday’s referendum result – the 67-year-old former KGB agent is no more or less in control of the country than he was beforehand – it was a declaration of intent. By opening the door to remaining in power for another 16 years, Mr. Putin slammed shut the discussion of who might succeed him.

The message to opponents, at home and abroad, is that there’s no point looking ahead or guessing at potential successors. Unless something shocking happens, it will be Mr. Putin with whom the West will have to contend.

It’s a message that delighted Mr. Putin’s staunchest supporters. “We should elect Putin as president for life,” said Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally who rules the southern region of Chechnya through an alliance with Russian security forces. “Who is there today to replace him?”

The economic sanctions that Canada, the United States and the European Union imposed after the annexation of Crimea were supposed to create resentment in Russia, to make ordinary Russians question the direction that their leader was taking them in. But while the sanctions have created economic hardships in Russia, they have yet to generate any perceptible threat to Mr. Putin’s grip on power.

Small groups of protesters took to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg as the results were announced, but they were heavily outnumbered by police. “Putin forever?” read one sign held aloft by a demonstrator on Moscow’s Pushkin Square.

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The small-scale protests were the only flickers of dissent on the streets – although there was plenty more online – during the referendum, which saw Russians asked to vote “Yes” or “No” to a package of 206 amendments. The result was such a foregone conclusion that bound copies of the new constitution have already been on sale in bookstores for more than a week.

The key change resets the clock on Mr. Putin’s time in office, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms as President, instead of having to step aside at the end of his current term in 2024. Other new clauses include a prohibition of gay marriage and a ban on top politicians holding dual citizenship – a measure seen as targeted at dissident Russians who have gone into self-imposed exile.

While Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have fallen in recent months to the lowest level of his two decades in power – they are at a still-high 59 per cent, according to Russia’s lone independent pollster – a state-run exit poll predicted a 76-per-cent “Yes” vote in the referendum. (Early official results showed just over 73 per cent had voted “Yes,” after a quarter of the ballots had been counted.)

Mr. Putin said the constitutional amendments were needed to ensure stability in the country and to protect it from Western influences.

“We are voting for the country … we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren,” Mr. Putin said in televised remarks Tuesday that were filmed with him standing in front of a newly built monument to Soviet soldiers who died during the Second World War. “We can ensure stability, security, prosperity and a decent life only through development, only together and by ourselves.”

State television showed Mr. Putin arriving to vote early Wednesday, dressed in a dark suit and no mask. He used a disposable pen to mark his ballot, while the polling-station officer wore a white mask and black gloves.

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Russia has been one of the countries worst-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 650,000 cases, but just over 9,500 deaths. Several Russian doctors have accused the government of systematically suppressing the death rate, by attributing coronavirus-related deaths to other causes.

The pandemic forced the referendum to be postponed (it was originally scheduled to take place on April 22), but it was rescheduled after Mr. Putin declared on June 22 that the virus had been brought sufficiently under control, despite thousands of new cases being reported every day. There were 6,516 new cases reported on Wednesday and 216 deaths.

The Kremlin is believed to have wanted to hold the referendum as soon as possible, before the full consequences of the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic take hold.

Voting was carried out over seven days to reduce crowding at polling stations, and online voting was allowed for the first time, making it harder than ever for observers to verify the official results. Despite calls from Alexey Navalny, the country’s most recognizable opposition figure, for a boycott, turnout was reported to be 65 per cent.

Golos, an independent election-monitoring group, said it had tabulated at least 1,500 irregularities during the first six days of voting, including evidence of people casting more than one ballot. There were also claims that employers at state-run companies had put pressure on staff to vote. “The way in which the election is run is contrary to both the Russian constitution and the international voting standards,” Golos said in a statement during the voting on Wednesday.

Mr. Navalny posted a video on Twitter of a man arriving with his family to vote outside Moscow, only to be told by polling-station staff that someone had already voted using their names. In another video, David Frenkel, a journalist with Mediazona news website, was shown being roughed up by police at a St. Petersburg polling station after he arrived to investigate reports of electoral fraud. Mr. Frenkel was later diagnosed with a fractured arm.

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Mr. Navalny’s boycott call looked to have been defeated by the temptation of a little extra cash. Those who cast their ballots in Moscow were entered in a lottery, with the chance of winning a shopping spree in the capital. Voters in other cities were lured by the possibility of winning latest model iPhones, or even a new car or apartment.

Reuters reported that the Kremlin also authorized one-time cash payments of 10,000 rubles (about $192) to all families with children on Wednesday morning – just as many Russians were pondering whether and how they should vote.

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