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Is Covid-19 a Game-Changer for Russia?

Is Covid-19 a Game-Changer for Russia?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The pandemic is only just beginning to hit the Russian Federation hard. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of the virus’ progression in a country where transparency is certainly not a cardinal virtue of the political system, as made visible by the arrest of Dr Anastassia Vasilieva on the night of April 2nd. Head of the only independent doctors' union in the country, she had been denouncing for several weeks the cover-up of official figures and the lack of resources made available to hospitals to deal with the coronavirus.

Nonetheless the barometer of Washington Seattle University provides us with useful indicators on the state of contamination in Russia. It is only from March 25 that the number of cases of infection really took off. Since then, this number has doubled every three days - an exponential dynamic similar to what we have seen elsewhere - and on April 6, the country counted 6,343 confirmed cases and 47 deaths. It was precisely on March 25 that Vladimir Putin took a stand on the health crisis for the first time in an ambiguous speech to the nation. Moreover, the timeline of the pandemic interferes with two other timetables in Russia. That of the "constitutional reform" on one hand, launched on January 15 by Vladimir Putin in a speech before the Duma, culminating in another appearance by the Head of State in front of parliamentarians on March 10 to accept... to remain in his duties until 2036. On the other hand, that of the battle over oil prices, which began on March 6 due to Russia's rejection of OPEC's proposals designed to deal with the fall in global demand, particularly from China.

To what extent does Russia's management of the health crisis reflect the regime's neo-authoritarian paradigm? Was the crisis a facilitating factor for what many call Vladimir Putin's "constitutional coup"? How can the Russian authorities deal with the collapse of the price of a barrel and consequently of the rouble? Finally, what can be the impact of the health crisis on the future of the regime and the situation of Russia in the world?

First lessons of Russia’s management of the pandemic

It would be inaccurate to say that the Russian authorities did not anticipate or unanimously downplay the wave of the pandemic. In fact, as early as January 30, the Russian government closed its border with China that runs for 4,300 km, which did not go without prompting protests from Beijing1. Evidently, this decision neatly fits the regime’s neo-authoritarian and nationalistic-populist DNA.

On January 30, the Russian government closed its border with China that runs for 4,300 km. This did not go without prompting protests from Beijing.

At the same time, it was justified since China was at that point the main, if not the unique, focus of the epidemic. Any other attitude would not have been understood by the Russian public, for whom the danger of a Chinese invasion in the Russian Far East is a national phobia. In February and early March, additional measures restricting access to foreigners – first Chinese, then Iranians followed by other nationalities – were adopted by the authorities, but without closing the door on a  million of Russians returning from holidays in Europe and elsewhere, of which many were carriers of the virus.

The most surprising was that the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, quickly distinguished himself from the central authorities – slow to react – by enacting protective measures for the capital. In mid-March, 14 measures were implemented for people returning from epidemic areas, de facto dissuading his constituents from going abroad. Schools were closed and outdoor recreation was suspended. In his footsteps, the central government took initial measures, again mainly aimed at making the borders more airtight. The Mayor of Moscow’s initiative was finally consecrated when he was given the leadership of the national crisis cell, set up in the State Council to liaise with the provinces.

Meanwhile, another inter-ministerial structure was set up under the authority of Prime Minister Mishustin. On March 24, the capital’s Mayor accompanied Putin, wearing a strange suit that made him look like a cosmonaut, on a visit to one of Moscow’s largest hospitals, Kommunarka, where patients were being treated. Until then, Putin had not seemed to take any particular interest in the drama that was brewing, readily asserting that "everything was under control". Allegedly, it was Sobianin, former Head of the Presidential Administration, who had to convince the President that the crisis required him to take matters into his own hands.

Yet the address to the nation on March 25 appeared strangely ambiguous in this respect. The President seemed rather relaxed, an attitude at odds with the situation. He announced a one-week paid leave – until April 5. He advocated for measures of social distancing, but only on a voluntary basis. A great deal of latitude is left to local authorities, governors or others. Above all, the President focused his remarks on economic support measures, particularly support for SMEs, and social measures such as automatic renewal of social benefits and suspension of loan repayments to mitigate the effects of a partial stop of the economy. One measure above all stroke people's minds, clearly intended to rub the population the right way: an over-taxation on financial transfers abroad and bank deposits in Russia exceeding one million roubles (€12,000).

Apparently unforeseen by the authorities, the week off work was interpreted by citizens as a holiday. In large cities in particular, people went out en masse during the weekend of March 28 to enjoy the good weather. Moscow and St Petersburg resembled London or Paris two or three weekends earlier. The authorities were forced to react and on March 29 and 30, more urgent containment orders were imposed. On April 2, Putin addressed the nation again but this time with a more insistent tone, announcing an extension of "days off" until the end of April.

However, the Head of State is again reluctant to talk of quarantine and clearly assigns responsibility for effective containment measures to local levels of government and to businesses themselves2. On March 30, the Duma also authorised the government to declare a state of emergency. Russian observers suspect that the "siloviki", leaders of the various security apparatus, want a state of emergency in order to regain control over the "technocrats" – Sobyanin and Mishoutsin. It is supposed that Vladimir Putin himself would prefer to avoid this, given his efforts not to dramatize the situation.

The hallmark of Russia's neo-authoritarian power was not the rigour of the measures taken, but rather President Putin's desire not to be the bearer of bad news.

In this first phase of crisis management, the hallmark of Russia's neo-authoritarian power was not the rigour of the measures taken – as in China after the period of denial – but rather President Putin's desire not to be the bearer of bad news, basically a certain reluctance on his part to assume his responsibilities. How can one not draw the parallel with Trump or Bolsonaro in the early stages of the crisis?

The constitutional tour de force

How can we explain this attitude on the part of the iconic "strong leader" that is Mr Putin? For some time now, domestic policy and economic management have not been the Russian President’s main focus, absorbed instead by the great international game. Moreover, during the period under consideration, the constitutional manoeuvre to extend his power beyond 2024 was the main objective dominating his agenda; it should be recalled that 2024 is supposed to be the end to his current non-renewable term of office, according to the constitution hitherto in force.

Everyone in Russia knew that Putin would not withdraw completely from political affairs at the end of his current term. In this kind of regime, this is a luxury that supreme rulers can hardly afford. He himself, however, had said repeatedly that he would abide by the non-cumulation rule of terms as President of the Federation. There was much speculation as to what the "landing place" in the institutional system would be for him to remain the true godfather of the regime, while allowing another to hold the office of President. Why did he launch the operation in January of this year when it was expected that such an initiative would be taken at the end of his term? The President's entourage is aware of the climate of discontent in the country, as illustrated by recurrent demonstrations in Moscow and other cities. It is closely monitoring the slow erosion of Putin's popularity since the apotheosis of the annexation of Crimea, and no doubt lucid about the country’s poor economic prospects. It was perhaps thought that time was against the President. Moreover, 2020 was to be the year of the 75th of the World War II victory. The ceremonies planned on the Red Square on May 9, in the presence of many foreign dignitaries, were to consecrate Putin as a restorer of Russia's greatness. Was it not the right time to lay the groundwork for, and get the people to endorse, the modalities of the "transition" as it is called in Russia? The constitutional changes proposed by Mr Putin on January 15 opened up different avenues for his "landing place" after 2024. The powers of the State Council were extended, suggesting that the presidency of this Council might be suitable for a "retired" Putin. Another option could have been for the Kremlin leader to reincarnate after 2024 as President of the National Security Council, with Medvedev, having stepped down from his post as Prime Minister, taking over as Vice-President. Conventional wisdom, in any case, was that Vladimir Vladimirovich would only decide at the last moment and keep options open until the end. As we know, this was not the case.

The President and his supporters are obviously using the crisis to strengthen the argument in favour of extending Putin's rule in the name of "stability".

On March 10, during a third reading of the constitutional reforms in the Duma, MP Valentina Terechkova, first female cosmonaut during the USSR, declared that the people want Putin to remain in power as President of the Federation. The President is hastily summoned, in a vaudeville-style scenery, and in a plot twist no one could have predicted, Vladimir Putin accepts that the two-presidential-term-limit for one man will only apply from the implementation of the new constitution, a priori 2024. In other words, he would remain President until 2036.

Can we see in this sleight of hand the result of an opportunistic grab facilitated by the health crisis? Let us first limit our observations to the Russian domestic front. The President and his supporters are obviously using the crisis to strengthen the argument in favour of extending Putin's rule in the name of "stability". It is unlikely, however, that the current situation has determined Putin's choice to remain President of the Federation and the timing for the announcement. We saw in September 2011 with the "castling" between Medvedev, the outgoing President, and himself, that Putin is familiar with this kind of decision, cutting short any speculation that he had himself encouraged.

The crisis is nonetheless a disservice to the Kremlin's institutional manoeuvre on another level. The constitutional reforms should have been ratified by popular vote on April 22, including a vote on various amendments intended to bait different sectors of Russian opinion, such as constitutionalising certain social rights, autorizing exclusively heterosexual marriage, promoting the faith of Russian people in God... and so on. The challenge for the Russian authorities was to mobilise a sufficient number of voters. Circumstances forced Mr Putin on March 25 to postpone the vote. If it takes place later, in the second half of the year at best, it will necessarily unravel in more difficult economic and social circumstances due to the effects of the pandemic, and, one might therefore think, in an even less favourable climate for the authorities. The triumphal ceremony of May 9 is also in jeopardy.

The battle for oil

In this context, we have to examine the standoff between Russia and Saudi Arabia over oil prices. It is likely that the Russians’ decision of March 6 – inspired allegedly by another of the system’s barons and close to Putin, Igor Setchine, President of Rosneft – was not taken in view of the pandemic. In choosing to break his agreement with OPEC, Vladimir Putin may have overestimated the possibility of bringing down the American shale gas industry. In any case, he has underestimated the Saudis’ determination and overestimated Russia's ability to hold on in the current circumstances at a price per barrel of oil "sacrificed".

In the days following the break of the OPEC agreement, the rouble lost 14% of its value against the euro and the RTS stock index fell by 16%. The result was a significant loss of household purchasing power and a drastic drop in Russian GDP growth forecasts. It should be remembered that Vladimir Putin made a commitment to Russian public opinion to halve poverty in his country during his current term of office, and to achieve a growth rate above the average international growth rate. Forecasters were expecting a 1.5% growth rate of Russian GDP in 2020; such prospects obviously no longer hold. The purchasing power of Russians, it should be remembered, has been cut by 10% since 2014.

Mr Putin's constitutional manoeuvre and the effects of the pandemic make it very difficult for the Russian authorities to prolong a disagreement with Saudi Arabia and therefore very low oil prices.

A darkened horizon for Russia?

As Dmitri Trenin points out in an analysis for  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Russian leaders certainly see, in the drama darkening the world’s horizon, a confirmation of Putin's vision of global affairs: the ultimate importance of national sovereignty, the need for a strong government, scepticism about international cooperation and a reinforced recognition of the European Union’s inefficiency. It is not impossible that the same leaders may consider Russia better equipped than others to face the test, especially with regards to the economic consequences of the crisis, given Russia’s lesser dependence on globalisation – thanks in part to international sanctions.

Recalling that the shock of the pandemic has only just begun in Russia, let us make three preliminary observations:

  • What will be played out in the coming weeks is first of all a test for the Russian social model. It must be noted that the country is approaching the health crisis with serious handicaps: doctors and nurses are dramatically lacking; the number of medical structures has been halved between 2000 and 2015 due to a public reform; and according to certain indications, 30.5% of medical structures do not have running water, 52.1% do not have hot water and 35% do not have sewerage. State television has been careful not to give too much airtime to the aid sent to Italy, because ordinary citizens know that medical staff are left unprotected in Russian hospitals, and even basic instruments such as thermometers are lacking.

    Beyond that, the verticality of power restored by Putin has never succeeded in establishing local governance that inspires confidence in the people. The "social safety net" on which Russian workers rely, remains minimal. It is estimated that 25% of workers prefer to continue working despite lockdown measures, for fear of losing their jobs.
  • The idea of the crisis as an opportunity on the international front for Russian authorities does not really stand up to scrutiny. Certainly, Russia is seizing the opportunity to multiply spectacular humanitarian diplomacy operations, vis-à-vis Italy and even the United States. The Ministry of Defence – headed by another of Putin's close associates, Sergei Shoigu, who until March 10 was cited as a possible successor to the President – is in charge of these operations. The European Union's external action service has accused Russia's specialised bodies of stepping up their efforts in information manipulation. Let us admit we would rather see this as a Russian policy that is running its course, increasing the impression of being out of step with the immense difficulties awaiting the country domestically. Where imagination would be welcomed to save the planet, at the G20 for example, Russian diplomacy has nothing else to offer but a plea for lifting international sanctions.

    This observation should not exempt European leaders from being more vigilant. In the case of Ukraine, for example, Russian pressure to make Kiev give in to the Donbass has increased considerably in recent weeks, and Mr Zelenski will also find himself very vulnerable to the coronavirus. If things become really challenging domestically for Russian power, the temptation of a fresh "coup" abroad to improve again Putin's status may be growing.
  • The sleight of hand of March 10 extending Mr Putin's power until 2036 has gone virtually unnoticed in the atmosphere of a generalized world crisis. In fact, whatever the circumstances, Western leaders probably did not dream for one moment that the Russian President would gracefully bend to a democratic alternation of power.

Recent polls by the Levada Institute show that the image of the West, and particularly Europe, is rising in Russian public opinion, in spite of the regime's propaganda.

However, the episode deserves to be examined for two mutually reinforcing reasons. Amendments to the present constitution not only cancel limits to the number of presidential terms of office, they also extend the President's powers, including the appointment of magistrates, control of the "regulatory bloc" and relations with Parliament, for example. The impression that Mr Putin is following the path traced by his great friend, Mr Xi, is hard to escape.

Still, the lack of discipline shown by the Russian society, at least in cities, with regard to initial lockdown instructions seems far removed from so-called "Asian values". One would be tempted to paraphrase a saying by François Mitterrand that "Putin looks to the East; Russian civil society looks to the West". Recent polls by the Levada Institute show that the image of the West, and particularly Europe, is rising in Russian public opinion, in spite of the regime's propaganda.

Will this chiasm between the authorities and part of the population, somewhat more palpable with recent events, worsen as the shock wave of the pandemic spreads through the country in terms of health, economic and social issues? It was recalled that the population has grown more and more dissatisfied with the government for months, and one can certainly expect an upcoming crisis of the Russian social system. The coronavirus is therefore an unprecedented test of the Russian social contract of renunciation of freedoms in exchange for stability and improved living standards. It is possible that good management of the crisis could "re-legitimise" the regime in power, or more simply, as has often been seen throughout Russian history, from Prince Rurik to Stalin, Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great, a dark period will provoke a rallying around the figure of the Kremlin’s master. In such a case, the referendum on the new constitution would be easily won. But the Kremlin must assume its role as a "pole of stability", which is not presently the case with President Putin.

Let us propose another scenario. Internal difficulties could further isolate the regime, with urban elites shocked by an unvarnished prolongation of Vladimir Putin's dictatorship, and with a large part of the population suffering from a collapse in their living conditions. In such a scenario, the way out for the system would likely be a hardening of the Russian authoritarian model, rather than the softening that liberals were still hoping for when Putin was re-elected in 2018. On the external front, would Russia then be doomed to move even further away from Europe? Would the risk of "foreign adventure" not become greater?


1On the other hand, Russian authorities have had no qualms playing up conspiracy theories of the coronavirus being of American origin.

2In his speech, we find this phrase, not unlike similar phrases from Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro, before they backtracked: "it is important to maintain jobs and economic activity".


Copyright: Alexey DRUZHININ / AFP

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