BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #12

Fabrice Deprez is a weekly columnist on Russian politics for BMB Russia. Following are the columns published in BMB Russia’s daily newsletter from March to May 2020.

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May 7

Between a raging coronavirus epidemic, a sick Prime minister, low oil prices and polls pointing at rising skepticism towards the Kremlin – while leaders worldwide have generally seen their popularity rise amid the pandemic –, Vladimir Putin is finding himself in the middle of a perfect storm. But his plan to hold a “national vote” on the changes to the Constitution is still moving forward, albeit surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

The country had already confirmed 58,000 COVID cases when April 22, the original date of the vote, passed. Initially reluctant to delay the vote, the Kremlin is still hopeful it could be held during the summer: sources told the Kommersant daily the president administration was looking at June 24 (the 75th anniversary of the 1945 Victory parade in Moscow) or July 8 (Family day) as possible dates. Central Election Commission Secretary Maya Grishina also said on Tuesday the electoral campaign for the vote would start on June 15 at the latest, depending on the epidemiological situation in the regions.

Holding the vote just after an unprecedented lockdown carries its own risks, election monitoring NGO “Golos” noted last week: a vote during a work day could increase tensions with Russians who have already suffered significant economic losses because of the quarantine. And in the summer, a vote on a Sunday makes it more likely that people will simply skip it and go to their dachas. “There aren’t any good variants,” Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyats said.

It’s not all bad for the Kremlin though, as the Levada Center reports that 54% of Russians plan to take part in the vote and 47% plan to support the Constitutional changes (31% are opposed). But it’s still not enough for what was supposed to be a plebiscite for Vladimir Putin.

April 29

Quarantine measures are starting to weigh on Russians as Yandex’s “self-isolation index” reported on April 29 a record high number of people strolling through the streets of Samara, a city of 1 million inhabitants on the bank of the Volga river, since the lockdown’s beginning.

With only 327 cases, the city and its eponymous oblast stand near the middle of the pack in the list of the country’s most affected regions. Local authorities confirmed a record 55 new cases yesterday however, showing that the region likely hasn’t reached its infection peak yet. Regional officials announced the same day that wearing a mask in the streets and in public transport would become obligatory starting May 1 (the Primorsky and Kaluga regions announced similar measures yesterday).

One of the region’s main hotspot remains the city of Tolyatti, where the first case in the Samara oblast was detected in mid-March. The city is home to the AvtoVaz car factory and its more than 35,000 workers – both a crucial economic asset and a potential major source of infection. Production at AvtoVaz stopped on March 30, a few days after cases were discovered inside the factory, relaunched on April 13 with “additional sanitary measures”, and stopped again on April 29 until May 17. Local governor Dmitry Azarov had a chance to bring up the topic of AvtoVaz during a video-conference with Vladimir Putin on the “development of the automobile industry” held last week. Azarov asked for additional support; Putin reminded the governor that AvtoVaz as well as 11 other automakers had been included in the list of ‘systemically important’ companies, putting the business first in line for government support.

April 22

Slightly lower approval for Vladimir Putin and the “United Russia” party but higher ratings for the new Prime minister Mikhail Mishustin: the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t shaken up Russians’ views of their politicians so far, according to two recent polls released by the state-owned VTsIOM group as well as the FOM agency. Putin’s approval stands at 65,1% (68,6% the week before), while United Russia’s ratings fell from 36% to 34,4%. Meanwhile, Mishustin’s approval rose from 26% in late March to 41% on April 12 (50% of respondents had no opinion of the Prime minister).

The Russian president is still putting governors on the frontline of the epidemic: on April 17, Putin told the head of the Vladimir oblast that “each regional leader should understand his place, and the work that is required should be done on time.”

“There are objective difficulties of course,” Putin also said, “but you sit there and work in order to overcome both objective and subjective difficulties. You need to be more active, and act faster.” Anonymous sources in the presidential administration are meanwhile telling Russian media that the next wave of gubernatorial dismissals could be decided on the basis of the governors’ success (or lack thereof) in fighting the epidemic. Infection rates will be decisive of course, but governors have to wield their toolkit (which, for many, now includes obligatory self-isolation for anyone entering their regions) carefully: the protest against quarantine measures in the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz on April 20 provided an early example of what the social and economic pressure that that the coronavirus epidemic is putting on the population can lead to.

April 16

206 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed on April 15 near the village of Belokamenka, in the Murmansk region — 76% of the entire confirmed caseload in the region, which itself doubled in a single day. All the people infected in Belokamenka reportedly worked for a local specialized shipyard owned by gas producer Novatek. Speaking to Vladimir Putin on April 13, consumer health watchdog chief Anna Popova tried to reassure, claiming that the outbreak in the Murmansk region, while one of the biggest in the country, was still contained in hotspots. Local governor Andrey Chibis claimed the patient zero in Belokamenka could be a Kyrgyz citizen.

Putin hasn’t deviated from its strategy of putting the burden of the coronavirus response on the regions, driving the point home even further during his meeting with Popova: “Now about those negative facts which were reported today in some regions [including Murmansk], where there was, if not an outbreak, then a significant increase [of coronavirus cases]. This is the result of sloppiness, I believe. I can’t call it another way, and I ask local specialists, regional governors, doctors, and head of companies to seriously answer the demands of chief doctors.”

Regions have adopted different methods, though the majority have already limited movements and introduced some form of self-isolation policies. The Murmansk oblast is planning to buy 120 electronic bracelets in order to track infected people isolating at home, while local authorities made leaving five towns across the region contingent on a special authorization. This hasn’t been applied to Belokamenka, likely because the village is part of the Alexandrovsk closed territory, on the northernmost edge of the Kola peninsula, where entry and exits are heavily controlled all year long.

April 9

Shortly after Vladimir Putin’s second address on the coronavirus epidemic on April 2, the Kremlin announced the resignation of three governors in the Kamchatka and Arkhangelsk regions as well as in the Komi Republic — and the appointment of a new acting governor in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, as the previous one had just been appointed to the Arkhangelsk region. All three dismissed governors are members of the United Russia party and had been heads of their respective regions for several years already: since 2011 for Vladimir Ilyukhin (Kamchatka), since 2015 for Sergey Gaplikov (Komi) and since 2012 for Igor Orlov (Arkhangelsk).

As we pointed out in our last issue, the resignations did not come as a surprise, with all three governors discredited in recent months by scandals and criticism. Orlov’s departure is, in particular, the consequence of protests that have rocked the region for more than a year now, in response to a landfill project set to bring trash from Moscow to the northern region. The local protest has been a headache for the Kremlin as it slowly turned into a rallying point for ecological protests all over Russia.

So what role did the coronavirus epidemic played in this decision? Both the Komi and Arkhangelsk regions are vulnerable — with 119 confirmed cases, the Komi republic is in particular one of the main infection centers outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, while lack of testing in the Kamchatka region attracted criticism from federal officials. The dismissals had likely been planned for some time already, but it’s possible that the health crisis acted as both a trigger and an opportunity: as the Kremlin argued regions should bear the brunt of the coronavirus response, the timing of the dismissals is also a warning for other regional leaders.

April 2

Sergey Sobyanin’s March 29 announcement that the Russian capital would be going on full lockdown to fight the coronavirus epidemic turned the Moscow mayor into one of the country’s most important politician. “From a political point of view, Sobyanin isn’t a regional official anymore,” analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote on Telegram. “He is de facto a federal minister on Moscow affairs and the head of a working group on the coordination of regional authorities appointed by Putin.” Sobyanin was the first to raise the alarm about the coronavirus epidemic, and the first to enact strong measures that Mishustin then encouraged other regions to adopt.

Few seriously believe Sobyanin took on this risky role without the Kremlin’s approval, especially as Putin himself has looked to distance himself from the crisis. Crucially though, Sobyanin hasn’t received the president’s express backing, putting him in the position of a potential fall person if the epidemic goes south. Shored up as the public face of the country’s coronavirus response, Sobyanin “has authority without power,” Mark Galeotti points out, raising the question of whether the mayor will even be allowed to be more than a Putin shield.

The strategy goes beyond Sobyanin, Russian daily Vedomosti wrote, as “it’s the first time in many years that regions are solving key problems by themselves.” According to analysts quoted by the newspaper, there’s a fear that federal security officials would be too brutal in enforcing quarantine measures, thus stowing discontent just as the Kremlin is pushing sensitive Constitutional amendments, while it is much easier and less dangerous to scapegoat regional governors rather than federal agencies.

March 25

Vladimir Putin visited on Tuesday Moscow’s new infectious diseases clinic in a widely publicized PR operation that saw him wearing a hazmat suit and meeting with Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin — who complained to the president that there were “no clear picture” of the epidemic’s scale.

The visit is notable as it served as the first major acknowledgement of the crisis by the Russian president, and came just before the government ordered all night clubs and cinemas in Russia to be closed (and a day before Putin himself addressed the nation). While Emmanuel Macron in France or Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine (where the total figure of confirmed cases is comparable to Russia’s) made several official addresses to their citizens, Putin had until now remained mostly quiet, trusting his austere Prime Minister as well as regional officials (such as Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin) to be the public face of the crisis. When he finally spoke on Wednesday, he didn’t use the word “quarantine” once — announcing instead a one-week holiday for workers, and largely focusing his speech on social support.

Moscow has looked more at ease when it came to handling the crisis outside of its borders, taking a page from China’s book by flying aid, including top Russian military doctors with experience in fighting outbreaks, to Italy. The move also provided easy fodder for Russian media to push a traditional narrative of a weak and declining Europe. But in Russia, the oil price war, manoeuvres to allow Putin to stay in power as well as the upcoming May 9th parade lead to a muted and, at times, contradictory response (even though, in the very early stages of the epidemic, authorities reacted quickly by shutting down the border with China). Putin called on Wednesday to postpone the April 22 “national vote” on the Constitutional amendments without giving more details (September has been touted as a potential date).

March 19

As the Russian government begins to take the full measure of the coronavirus epidemic, let’s take a look at the way the crisis is developing in Russia’s regions:

  • Russian internet giant Yandex has put together a great map of coronavirus cases across Russia (and the world). Moscow is, unsurprisingly, the crisis’ epicenter in Russia, with Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad as other potential hot spots. In the last few days, cases were discovered in the Penza, Sverdlovsk and Kaluga regions, as well as in Krasnoyarsk.
  • Several universities across Russia – such as in the Tver region – have already closed, with Saint Petersburg’s universities switching to distance learning.
  • In the Samara region, 1000 kilometers East of Moscow, one of the three people who tested positive for coronavirus worked at the giant AvtoVaz car factory, which employs more than 35,000 people. There’s currently no official talk of stopping production, as others car manufacturers have done in Europe.
  • In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the “Libertarian Party of Russia” canceled a protest against the Constitutional amendments planned for March 22 because of the coronavirus epidemic, saying it hoped the Kremlin would postpone the April 22 “national vote” on the amendments. Local authorities had already refused to authorize the protest.
  • President of the Tatarstan republic Rustam Minnikhanov announced this week anyone entering the region from a foreign country should quarantine for two weeks. Local authorities also reported on Wednesday the first official coronavirus case in the region, a French citizen who traveled to Tatarstan a few days prior.

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