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In the 2020 Russian constitutional referendum, official reports state that Russia-wide, 78% of voters approved and 22% rejected the new constitution. I noticed that in one federal subject, according to official results, a majority of voters rejected the referendum. An act of defiance by voters, or by local authorities cheating less than elsewhere, if widespread allegations of cheating are indeed true, or maybe a higher-up decision to make the referendum look more legitimate by letting one region show a majority opposed?

In Nenets Autonomous Okrug, 44% voted yes and 55% voted no. This remote district has about 44k inhabitants 66% ethnic Russians, 19% Nenets, and an economy dominated by natural resources. It is the richest federal subject with a GDP per capita of $110,320. For comparison, Russia-wide GDP per capita is $11,290, and poor areas near the Caucasus have GDP per capita of less than $3,000 (partly less than $2,000); those poor districts along with Crimea otherwise dominate the federal subjects with the highest approval rates.

Neighbouring Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug is similar in many aspects, but 89% voted yes and 10% voted no. This remote district has about 539k inhabitants, 61% Russian and 6% Nenets, and an economy dominated by natural resources. It is the second richest federal subject with a GDP per capita of $90,640.

On first glance, the two autonomous okrugs are very similar. They are neighbours, both are large and very sparsely populated, with a majority of ethnic Russians but not overwhelmingly so. Both are very rich, in particular by Russian standards, due to the oil and gas industry. Neither region is connected to the Russian road network, although a road to Nenets Autonomous Okrug is under construction and there are passenger trains to Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Yet despite their similarities, official referendum results differ widely.

Does this difference reflect an actual difference in people's attitudes to the new constitution? If so, what factors can explain the differences? Or is the difference in official results rather explained by some officials being more “creative” in “producing” election results that the Kremlin appreciates? Although recently, Nenets Autonomous Okrug has reportedly been hit hard by the economic impacts of the 2019-2021 COVID-19 pandemic, so perhaps that is a hint — although that should also impact Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, which is as much dependant on oil money.

Edit: Perhaps they were prostesting the proposed merger with Arkhangelsk Oblast?

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Wikipedia does assert that this vote is "[w]idely seen as a protest vote against the merger" citing a Russian-language article. A Canadian news site also reports that according to Acting Governor of Nenets Autonomous Okrug:

Yes, the majority of the inhabitants voted against [and] I am confident that these voices are not against the amendments [in the constitution], but it is a reaction to the issue of merging the NAO and Arkhangelsk Oblast.

I've not found any competing sources that substantially question this interpretation.

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