NY Dispatches: Russia and COVID-19

The Russian government is slowly acknowledging the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country and takes appropriate steps, all while trying to maintain the semblance of stability and normality. Keep an eye on the policies that will be introduced in the coming weeks. Some of them are likely here to stay.

Russia registered its first death from COVID-19 today, a 79-year-old university professor in Moscow who suffered from several pre-existing conditions. She was reportedly teaching classes at Moscow’s Gubkin University of Oil and Gas until shortly before her hospitalization – which is why the whole university is now under quarantine.

The case is, in a way, symptomatic of the contradictions that have plagued Russia’s coronavirus response. As of March 19, Russia had 199 confirmed COVID-19 cases in 23 of the country’s 83 regions. This is a 35-percent jump in one day after a 29-percent increase the day before. Despite abundant reports about Russia’s quick early response – closing its border with China, quarantining early cases – and optimistic statements about the country’s ability to handle the crisis (at least in its biggest cities where cases now seem to be concentrated) the curve seems to be going up. It is difficult to determine to what extent the low number of cases is due to a shortage of tests. The crisis might soon hit regions that are less equipped to deal with it.

The Russian government, which had so far shown little interest in the crisis, despite prime minister Mikhail Mishustin having been appointed to head one of Russia’s two COVID-19 task forces, is now reportedly considering closing schools and encouraging employees to work from home across the entire country.

This is somewhat in contrast to the resolve of president Vladimir Putin to hold a country-wide vote on his constitutional reform on 22 April. Yesterday Putin signed an order on holding the vote according to the original plans, even though the Moscow Security Conference, which was planned to be held on the same day, had been cancelled a week ago. Later Putin allowed that the vote might take place later than 22 April and the government is visibly preparing for this possibility.

Two forces seem to be at play. First, since the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced serious uncertainty into political planning, the Kremlin would presumably like to get the constitutional reform over with as soon as possible. Today nobody knows exactly how and when the pandemic will end and what damage it will cause to supply chains and budgets. The 300-billion-ruble economic stimulus package that Mishustin’s government announced earlier this week may be insufficient. The government has ample reserves – $151 billion in the National Wealth Fund, which will become easier to access once the Duma adopts a recent proposal that would surrender legislative oversight over spending from the fund – but it also needs to shoulder the cost of Putin’s National Projects, falling oil prices that hurt the budget under approximately $40 and, perhaps most importantly, a package of social measures announced by Putin in January that may be crucial if Russian consumers are hit by growing inflation due to a weak ruble.

The crisis also showcased differences between the approaches and crisis management capabilities of different governments around the world in a rare political science experiment. The main public appeal of the present Russian government, which it is eager to stress via all available channels can be summed up in two ideas: stability (embodied by Putin) and professionalism (embodied historically by several experts, most recently including Mishustin). Even as the government scrambles to get a grip on the crisis, it cannot afford to show that it does not have this grip already.

At the same a crisis like this also presents an opportunity to an authoritarian government to try out novel instruments of control under the guise of emergency measures and perhaps even quietly leave some emergency measures in place once the crisis is over. Moscow banned public gatherings of more than 5,000 people, quoting the pandemic, on the very day that the Duma considered and adopted a constitutional amendment allowing Putin to run for two more terms. Later both Moscow and St. Petersburg banned gatherings of more than 50 people. Moscow is setting up more surveillance cameras to monitor whether people are violating quarantine restrictions. Foreign journalists are banned from Duma meetings. The government’s center charged with informing citizens about the pandemic, is led by Alexey Goreslavsky, the Kremlin’s former internet policy curator and Vladimir Tabak, a former deputy director of the Kremlin’s Internet Development Institute. Goreslavsky’s organization, Dialogue, is also reportedly in charge for whipping up turnout in the April 22 plebiscite, which, if it indeed takes place in April, will likely involve widespread voting from home and extended early voting and may come with restrictions on observers, turning it into a testing ground of rigging.

Lastly, the crisis also showed that in spite of Putin publicly dismissing “dual structures” with overlapping competences, he still very much relies on them: besides Mishustin’s crisis cabinet, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin leads a different task force, focusing on regions, which gives Sobyanin an opportunity to enhance his public profile as an efficient manager as well as to strengthen his already extensive network in the regions.

It seems that at this point no final decision has been taken on holding or postponing the April plebiscite; but once it happens or once the plebiscite is held, look out for a series of restrictive measures – some of which will be here to stay.

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