ALMATY -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's rescheduling of the country's annual Victory Day parade was a calculated move aimed at bolstering constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power essentially for life, say observers in Central Asia.
The Kremlin, citing the coronavirus pandemic, postponed the annual May 9 celebration of Victory Day to June 24 and also moved the final voting day from April 22 to July 1.
This year's parade, which marked the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, involved the participation of 14,000 troops from 13 former Soviet countries, as well as vintage equipment and Russia's latest military hardware, AFP reported.
The day after the parade, polls opened for several days of early voting on controversial constitutional reforms.
Among other changes, the reforms would reset Putin's presidential term-limit clock to zero, allowing him to run two more times and potentially stay in the Kremlin until 2036.
Under current law, Putin's term should end in 2024. He became president for the first time in 2000, but he was also prime minister from 1999 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2012. He assumed the presidency for the second time in 2012.
Some 76% of respondents voted for the package of amendments, according to an exit poll published by Russian state pollster VTsIOM on Monday (June 29).
Cynicism in Central Asia
Putin made a meticulous calculation in postponing the date of the parade to about a week before the referendum, said Nur-Sultan international relations analyst Ruslan Nazarov.
"Putin spent the [rescheduled] Victory Day holiday pumping Russians with endorphins and a sense of unity and immediately launched a vote for the constitutional reforms he needs. As a result, many people, filled with a sense of patriotism, will support the amendments," Nazarov said.
"It is cynical to use the Victory Day parade for your own political purposes," he added.
In his two decades in office, Putin has harnessed the legacy of the Soviet victory to boost patriotic sentiment and support for his government, AFP reported.
Both the referendum and parade took place despite more than 8,000 recorded deaths and more than 600,000 confirmed infections of COVID-19 in Russia at the time.
The Kremlin said safety precautions were observed in the lead-up to the parade, but crowds along the parade route mostly ignored social-distancing advice, with only a fraction of the spectators in masks, according to AFP correspondents.
The danger associated with the large-scale event became evident as Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was forced to self-isolate after two staffers who flew with him to Moscow tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival on June 23.
Some Kyrgyz citizens said that Jeenbekov should have strengthened preventive measures, while other were convinced that the Kyrgyz leader should not have agreed to attend such a crowded event during the pandemic.
Bishkek-based activist Siymik Kolbayev expressed sympathy for the Kyrgyz troops forced to participate in the parade in Moscow.
"Why should our soldiers put their health and their lives at risk for Putin's political interests?" he said.
The parade in Moscow was also notable for its technical problems.
A video posted on Twitter on the day of the parade showed a Bumerang infantry fighting vehicle spewing out smoke and breaking down.
Located on the side of the vehicle was a star and a St. George ribbon, which in Central Asian countries is associated with the Tsarist suppression of a Central Asian uprising in 1916.
"I guess that's why they call it Bumerang; they [Russian armoured personnel carriers] all have to turn back for repairs," one wit joked on Twitter.
Putin's invented territorial claims
On top of resetting Putin's term limits, the reforms are meant to enshrine conservative values that the Kremlin hopes will resonate with voters and attract a large turnout.
They include a mention of Russians' "faith in God" despite a long history as a secular country, and a stipulation against gay marriage, which the law presently prohibits.
His comments were broadcast by state-owned Russia-1 TV as part of the "Russia. The Kremlin. Putin" programme.
The treaty establishing the Soviet Union (founded in 1922) articulated the right to exit it but did not outline the procedure for doing so, he said.
"So the question arises: what if a republic joined the Soviet Union but received a massive amount of Russian land that was ancestral, historic Russian territory and then decided to exit the Soviet Union? In that case, it should have left with what it brought -- not take along the gifts from the Russian people," he said.
A day after the interview aired, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin's comments were aimed at pointing out "systemic errors that were permitted earlier in the [Soviet] constitution" and thus were highlighting the need to reform the Russian constitution.
Kazakhs sharply rebuked Putin's comments.
Putin's words embody aggressive nationalism, said Miras Shekenov, a member of the Nur-Sultan city council.
"This is precisely the type of ideology he’ll promote among his people -- idealisation of life in the Soviet Union, glorification of the victory in the war against Germany, and so on," he said.