The ongoing debate about the introduction of country-wide vaccination passes is turning into a case study of the weaknesses of Russia’s emerging digital authoritarianism and public power in general.
One of the main themes of the Russian government’s handling of the pandemic has been deflecting responsibility while defining targets. The presidential administration and the government outsourced decisions on unpopular restrictions to governors and set pandemic-related KPIs to evaluate them, all while keeping fiscal resources under tight control. Instead of making vaccination mandatory across the country, the government left it up to regions to introduce various schemes; many offloaded the burden on employers. Thus, when in November the government drafted legislation making vaccine passports containing QR codes mandatory across the country to access specific public places and means of public transport from next February on, it was a sign that the situation – high mortality and stubbornly low vaccination rates – was really alarming.
Three weeks later it appears that while the situation is indeed alarming, this has hardly changed the government’s approach to unpopular policies. Instead of fast-tracking the legislation, the Duma simply adopted it in the first reading and requested input from regional legislatures before the bill returns to the Duma in a second reading on 16 December. This essentially put the onus of selling the decision on regional governments and legislatures. As of last week, twenty of them supported the bill nine did so with reservations, while one (the Vladimir Region) refused to discuss it.
In a remarkable twist, the parliament of North Ossetia, which saw sizable anti-lockdown protests last year, first rejected the bill, only to quickly stage a revote and pass it after all. Meanwhile, the Republic of Tatarstan became the first Russian region, on 22 November, to mandate QR codes on public transport, and shortly afterwards, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District became the first region to order a curfew for the unvaccinated in certain areas.
This was not the first time during the pandemic that rich and stable regions, where the risk of protests is low and that can afford potentially costly policies, were the first to experiment with novel policies (though it should be added that others, including Kamchatka, Volgograd and Khabarovsk soon followed): throughout the past twenty months, Moscow often set the tone of regions’ pandemic response, while the summer vaccination campaign saw novel policies being tried out in regions like Belgorod, whose bonus-for-jabs scheme was later adopted as a suggestion for the whole country by the federal government.
But people in Tatarstan started protesting against the measure almost immediately, and in various forms: the unvaccinated switched to private cars; some requested the region’s top court to annul the measure; others took to the streets of Kazan. The regional authorities promptly decided to loosen restrictions. In another region, Chuvashia, where only 40 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose as of late November, local residents initiated a referendum against the measure. The local electoral committee rejected the initiative on the awkward pretext that Russian legislation does not know about QR codes (in fact, the term itself has become so universally despised that according to the RBK news site, the government is thinking about changing the name of the certificate to something more positive-sounding).
In parallel, there were smaller-scale protests against the introduction of covid passes in several regions, from Nakhodka in the far-eastern Maritime Territory through several smaller and larger towns in the Urals, to Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk Region. None of these protests attract more than a couple of hundreds of people, while most of the vocal opponents of QR codes seem to have directed their anger at the social media pages of governors. On the surface, this fits the Kremlin’s strategy: regional heads act as the punchbags of angry citizens, while protests remain small and the authorities can sit them out.
However, a series of public opinion polls have suggested that animosity toward vaccine passports runs much deeper. According to Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center, more than 50 percent of Russians are against QR codes; this is even higher when the question is about mandatory covid passes on public transport. A piece on Holod, a website publishing in-depth reporting on social issues, highlighted not only the entanglement of anti-vaccine influencers with other extremist movements, but also their sizable following and power to push regional legislation off track.
In regions with relatively strong opposition structures there is a chance that local politicians will try to use popular resentment to their advantage. The Communist Party tapped anti-vaccination sentiments already before the Duma election and voted against the introduction of QR codes in November. The communists put up a fierce resistance against covid passes in certain regions. In the Republic of Komi, for instance, where the party did very well in September – winning the region’s sole single-mandate district, among others – local communists railed against the bill in the regional parliament, calling it essentially a power grab by the president.
More worryingly for the Kremlin, which has tried to shield Putin himself from the backlash triggered by unpopular pandemic policies, the participants of certain protests addressed the president personally, requesting an intervention in their favor. This of course is unsurprising, given that in recent years this is exactly what the president’s team conditioned Russian citizens to do. This time, however, Putin has no easy answer.
Judging by the grassroots reactions against the bill, many Russians are not (only) ideologically opposed to covid passports or simply frustrated by the inconvenience of having to obtain a pass to use basic amenities, but also see it as a suspicious move by control-obsessed authorities that can easily turn into something even more intrusive. Several repressive laws of the past decade started out as something much more limited in scope than what they then became; once the parliament creates a tool for the authorities it is easier to amend legislation to broaden the use of the tool gradually. Russia’s internet blacklist, which was later used to block “extremist” content, was originally created in 2012 with the nominal purpose of protecting children from harmful content. Russia’s infamous “foreign agent” legislation was substantially amended to enable the authorities to use it against any independent media outlet or NGO. It is hardly surprising if a fair number of Russians suspect that the government is not going to stop at vaccine passes once it has acquired a tool to effectively control their movement.
Until very recently, it appeared that in face of growing pressure from regional and federal authorities to get vaccinated, many Russians who do not want to get vaccinated would simply acquire a fake certificate rather than take to the streets in protest. Due to the nature of the trade, is difficult to estimate the number of fake vaccination certificates in circulation – though the development of the market has been well documented – but if recent leaks reported by the Kommersant daily are anything to judge by – more than 500 thousand “users” from the Moscow Region only – the number might be in the millions. The fact that Kommersant reported the leak right before the introduction of the QR code bill suggested that the goal may have been signaling to Russians that buying a fake certificate will get them into trouble. This may very well work as intended, but by removing a “gray” zone between acquiescence and protest, it may also have pushed a number of people towards expressing a more vocal opposition to QR codes.
Unlike pro-Navalny protests, which the authorities suppressed by leaks, arrests and force, anti-QR sentiment – for various reasons, but demonstrably – has quieter, but more substantial support in the population. This increases the risk of any local protest that may be replicated elsewhere or joined by politically uninclined but frustrated people, as well as any draconian measure that the authorities cannot enforce. In short, in spite of the relatively muted reactions so far, it is a political minefield for the Kremlin, and it appears that yet again, regional governments are the minesweepers.
The biggest tragedy, of course, is that Russia has at least one perfectly safe and effective vaccine, which, apart from occasional supply chain issues, is widely available. Its widespread use could have prevented the carnage caused by the pandemic; yet a critical mass of the population is reluctant to take it. And the coercive measures to nudge people to get vaccinated, which are working in other countries, become intolerably risky issues for a risk-avoiding Kremlin when they meet citizens’ suspicions, beliefs, and often their previous experiences.