Over an illegal coffee in central St Petersburg, Alexander Konovalov explains how he cheered for Vladimir Putin for 20 years of his life.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户Sitting at a teak table in his hipster coffee shop, open to the public in defiance of the president’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions, he says that now for the first time he has lost faith in the Russian leader who was born and raised just a few miles away.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户“I’ve always voted for Putin,” he tells The Sunday Telegraph. “But now I’m ashamed to admit that I had no idea what was happening in the country before I personally ran into trouble.”
His loss of faith comes on the eve of a referendum this week to allow Russia’s president to rule at least until 2036 when he will be 83, the biggest constitutional change in the country since the Soviet Union fell.
Mr Putin’s approval ratings last month dropped to a historic low of 59 percent, and support appears to be waning significantly in his hometown of St Petersburg where the Covid-19 crisis has bitten hard.
Nevertheless, there is little chance his new powers to rule for at least two more terms will not be granted. The president's broad support - coupled with alleged vote-buying and ballot irregularities - is likely to be enough for a comfortable victory.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户A graduate of the city's most prestigious law school, Mr Putin made a career in the KGB but swiftly joined the office of the reformist St Petersburg mayor after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The 67-year old leader was born in then Leningrad, less than a decade after the deadly siege of the city during the Second World War, and grew up in a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood in the former imperial capital that grew shabby and destitute by then.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户In the two decades under Mr Putin, the city of 5 million people got an expensive facelift, with boutique hotels, local designer shops and organic food cafes at former warehouses popping all over town.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户St Petersburg now boasts not only world-class art at the Hermitage museum but also contemporary art venues, sailboat tours and fine dining at glitzy restaurants dotting its iconic canals.
But the lockdown that began in March threatens to wind back the clock in Russia’s second-largest city, famous for its spectacular palaces and the so-called White Nights in summer when the sun barely goes down.
Hundreds of thousands of people reliant on the hospitality industry2020欧洲杯体育投注开户 were largely left to their own devices in the absence of any significant government aid.
Mr Konovalov, who witnessed the boom of Russia’s economy in the 2000s, has now lost faith after promises of help in the middle of the epidemic turned hollow.
“I can’t stand all these lies: He used to say he wouldn’t run again, and now he’s canceling the (presidential) term limits,” the businessman said.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户On the city’s web of rivers and canals, typically thronged with boats, it is eerily empty this year at the height of the travel season. Nikolai Predtechesnky, 33, who has been running a company which owns 120 boats and smaller yachts, said the lockdown and the lack of government aid has changed attitudes to Mr Putin to the worse.
“My friends, my own grandmother, my acquaintances who work for the government… everyone is beginning to understand that this system is broken,” he said. “Society needs profound changes.”
The amendment that resets the clock on term limits for the sitting president2020欧洲杯体育投注开户 is one of a myriad of constitutional changes that is up to vote including a pledge to keep increasing state pension payouts and boost the protection of the environment and the Russian language.
Many voting in this week’s nationwide vote are likely to be unaware that they would be essentially allowing Mr Putin to rule for life since state media and election officials have been touting the amendments promising better living standards2020欧洲杯体育投注开户 but have largely stayed away from discussing Mr Putin’s potential rule for life.
Mr Putin's current term expires in 2024, and analysts say the Russian leader of 20 years has become irritated by Kremlin insiders who started looking for a possible successor.
Opposition activists have unearthed videos of Mr Putin’s remarks from as much as a decade ago when he vehemently pledged that he had no intention of breaking the law or re-writing the Constitution to suit his needs.
“Putin would have been genuinely shocked if someone had shown to him back in 2000 what he would be up to this year,” said Ms Stanovaya at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户“But people change, and 20 years is a long time. The closer he gets to the end (of his term), the scarier it is to leave.”
Veteran political analyst Lilia Shevtsova who rang the alarm about the former KGB officer’s uncontrolled rise to power two decades ago now warns about the danger of letting Mr Putin stay in office as long as he pleases.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户“By cementing its authority today, the Kremlin is planting a bomb under the future,” she wrote in a blog. “The state is merging with the leader whose potential departure should evoke a threat of annihilation in people’s eyes.”
The vote was postponed in view of the growing Covid-19 epidemic and is now scheduled to run for a week, ending on 1 July. Coronavirus has claimed nearly 9,000 lives and infected more than 600,000 people, according to official statistics, but critics fear the real numbers are far higher.
The vote is going to be held under new, lax rules, criticised for leaving much room for rigging, analysts say.
Reports of potential vote buying as well as numerous complaints from public servants and state firms’ employees about being coerced to vote in the middle of the ongoing epidemic materialised as soon as the vote began on Thursday when several journalists documented how easy it was for them to vote twice - in person and in electronic voting.
An opinion poll conducted by Russia’s only independent pollster Levada Centre showed that 44 percent would support the amendments, and 32 percent would vote against. But many people are hesitant about going to polling stations, which would benefit Kremlin supporters.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户Boat owner Mr Predtechensky, a graduate of the St Petersburg law school like President Putin, has no illusion about his vote making a difference but he still intends to cast his ballot:
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户“I’ll have to put on a mask, latex gloves, bring a sanitiser and some cognac to get over this monstrosity.”