Morning Brief

Russia Begins Vote to Extend Putin’s Rule

The one-week referendum has citizens vote yes or no on a whole set of amendments, including one to restart the president’s term limit clock.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on on Red Square on June 24 in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on on Red Square on June 24 in Moscow. Sergey Guneev - Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russians begin voting in a monumental constitutional referendum, Kosovo’s president is indicted for war crimes—undermining a scheduled White House summit, and Latin America records more than 100,000 coronavirus deaths.

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Will Putin Be President for Life?

Voting begins today in a nationwide referendum on changes to the Russian constitution that could allow President Vladimir Putin—whose term limit is up in four years—to hold onto power until 2036. The plebiscite will close after one week, on July 1. Citizens will vote either yes or no on the package of proposed amendments, including a provision that effectively restarts the term-limit clock for Putin in 2024. The proposal passed the lower house of parliament in March.

The measures are expected to pass, but the Kremlin is concerned about credible voter turnout—at least 55 percent. Some critics plan to boycott the vote, and the coronavirus pandemic could keep people away from the polls. Russians have seen weeks of brochures, posters, and online propaganda urging them to vote. Few of them mention the amendment that would extend Putin’s rule, the Washington Post reports.

Victory parade. On Wednesday, Russia held military parades marking the 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The parades, initially set for May 9, were postponed due to the pandemic—and rescheduled by Putin for June 24 to boost patriotism ahead of the referendum. Still, at least 12 Russian cities refused to hold parades on the day due to the coronavirus.

Russia’s confirmed COVID-19 cases reached over 600,000 on Wednesday, though the increase in new cases in the country is the lowest since April. Many regions, including Moscow, have lifted restrictions. But it’s possible that the government has warped the official statistics in its attempt to control the narrative, as Leonid Gozman wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this month.

Putin’s 20 years in power. Putin has now spent two decades as either president or prime minister. In May, FP asked 11 experts about how Putin has transformed the country—and what is to come between now and 2036.

What We’re Following Today

Kosovo’s president won’t make U.S. talks. Hashim Thaci, the president of Kosovo, was indicted for war crimes during the country’s 1998-99 independence war with Serbia on Wednesday by a special prosecutor in The Hague in a surprise announcement. Hours later, the U.S. Balkans envoy Richard Grenell announced that Thaci wouldn’t make it to the White House on Saturday for a planned meeting with Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic. (Kosovo’s new prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, apparently won’t be attending either. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that Hoti and Vucic would both be meeting with her in Brussels.)

U.S. President Donald Trump still hopes to broker a deal between the two countries—Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence—and score a diplomatic victory. But even before Thaci’s indictment, the meeting was not likely to lead to a settlement. That’s because Grenell has skewed the negotiations in favor of Serbia, and the U.S. insistence on mediating alone undermines Western unity, Edward P. Joseph argues in FP.

Is Latin America the next coronavirus hotspot? The COVID-19 death toll in Latin America passed 100,000 on Wednesday—a figure that could reach 390,000 by October, according to researchers at the University of Washington. Outbreaks have been exacerbated by high poverty and a large proportion of informal workers across the region, along with inadequate access to health care. The number of coronavirus cases in Brazil alone already exceeds 1 million, with the country’s poor disproportionately affected.

Many Central American deportees are testing positive for COVID-19 after leaving the United States. Despite an agreement to deport only those with medical certificates showing a negative test, Guatemalan authorities say that at least 28 migrants have tested positive upon their return since May 4, the Wall Street Journal reports.

U.S. sanctions Iranian ship captains. The United States has imposed sanctions on five Iranian ship captains for delivering oil to Venezuela, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday at a press conference reaffirming support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The sanctions freeze the assets of the ship captains and tick two boxes for Trump: disrupting Iran’s energy trade and putting pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

The move comes days after the Trump administration introduced a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to extend an arms embargo against Iran set to expire in October. That measure is not likely to be adopted by the 15-country council, as FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report.

Keep an Eye On

Journalists on trial in Turkey. Seven Turkish journalists charged with revealing state secrets went on trial on Wednesday. The reporters are accused of revealing the identities of two intelligence agents in their coverage of the deaths of personnel serving in Libya, where Turkey provides military support to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Turkey is among the top jailers of journalists in the world.

Hong Kong’s disappearing freedoms. The Chinese government’s new national security law is likely to be implemented before the end of the summer, curtailing civil liberties in Hong Kong. But the final version of the legislation is not yet known. There are several possible effects to watch for once it takes effect—including penalties for journalists and news outlets and declining digital freedoms, Sarah Cook writes in FP.

Odds and Ends

A three-minute face-to-face conversation with Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is threatening Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s election plans after the athlete tested positive for COVID-19 this week. Plenkovic, who has tested negative, is nonetheless facing calls to self-isolate or postpone the July 5 vote. Until the meeting, Plenkovic’s ruling party had hoped to capitalize at the polls on its relative success in confronting the pandemic.

Silifke, a town in southern Turkey famous for its yogurt, is hoping that an ancient rock formation will draw new tourists: It bears a strange resemblance to Trump’s silhouette, including the comb-over. A photo of the rock recently appeared on social media and curious visitors have already followed, according to local officials.

That’s it for today. 

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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