MOSCOW — After months of speculation, it appears that Vladimir Putin has finally settled on a strategy that will allow him to retain power beyond 2024. Ever since he announced plans to make a raft of amendments to the country's constitution back in mid-January, discussion had been rife over what exactly the Russian president — barred from running for a third consecutive term — was planning. Was he intending to retire? Was he eyeing a supervisory role in the State Council? Was he plotting a merger with Belarus? In the end, it appears he has opted to start all over again from scratch.
On March 10, during a session of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, cosmonaut-turned-politician Valentina Tereshkova suggested that a new, altered constitution could be the basis for "resetting" the clock on presidential term limits. Putin responded that in principle he agreed, as long as the Constitutional Court gave its approval. Within an hour the amendment had been approved by the Duma. The amendments go to a "public vote" on April 22, the result of which is likely to be a forgone conclusion, as is any ruling by the Constitutional Court. The proposal paves the way for Putin to run again in 2024 if he so chooses, meaning that in theory he could remain president until 2036.
Facing such a momentous political development, how did Russia's state-run and independent media react?
The Kremlin's special operation on the constitution has entered the home straight. With the help of an amendment suggested by a cosmonaut-lawmaker, all the terms served by the current president will be annulled, so that Putin can remain in power for at least another 16 years. The president, of course, is in complete accord … In this situation the country and its people have turned out to be hostages to an adventure organized by people exposed by circumstances to enormous power, but unaware of the adequate responsibility for this power.
New, altered constitution could be the basis for "resetting" the clock on presidential term limits.
These people are guided by fleeting political motives, chief among which is the retention of power and the willful adjustment of the state to their corporate goals and highly dubious ideas about the historical and philosophical essence of Russia, as well as its place and role in the world. These poor excuses for rulers are simply unable to appreciate the nature and scale of the consequences of their actions. With the help of unconstitutional amendments, Putin is attempting to solve his main problem — the transfer of power.
Recall that Vladimir Putin himself — and the representatives of the working group on preparing the constitutional amendments — let us understand on several occasions that constitutional reform did not mean "resetting" the terms of the sitting president, as if he would be running for the first time at the next elections. Putin announced that he had not suggested the amendments in order to extend his powers. Among the recommended amendments is a norm limiting the number of presidential terms to two (without the qualification "consecutive"), and until now the majority of experts were in agreement that this was about imposing restrictions on the future head of state, who was supposed to be elected in 2024.
What is happening is unprecedented in Russian history. The head of state is openly announcing that he is prepared to find a way of staying in the presidential post even after the timeframe set by the law has expired — and that he plans to stay for a long time. Moreover, he is doing that just as expectations that he would depart sooner had become quite intense.
Putin evidently made the decision based on various considerations. He is known to think of the presidential job with reverence, as something akin to an unexpected gift from God. After all, he was elevated to the post while still basically an unremarkable bureaucrat, and then made a success of it.
The mood is almost that of the Crimean euphoria of six years ago. Today we have won a great victory, even if it is an invisible one for a people convinced that this is the way everything should be.
There was already – I'm convinced of this – some kind of court plan to organize some election or other, to persuade Putin to retire to the State Council, to the village council, to wherever, to become the Queen of England, an ayatollah, Pensioner Number One, whoever, as long as things could quickly begin to change. A transition, a transfer – no matter what these never-ending political analysts called it, there was a single idea and a single aim: make peace with the world outside. That is – to surrender.
Nobody is going to offer another world, just as they didn't offer one in 1991, and since then things have gotten worse and far more complicated. And there was already a feeling that a collective Gorbachev was at the door, that just a little more and they'd have us, then we'd be faced with collapse. And then Tereshkova stood up to speak.
Perestroika is cancelled. Life goes on. Thank God.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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