President Vladimir Putin’s second address to the nation on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, delivered last Thursday (April 2), was as brief as his first one, given a week prior—and equally unsatisfactory in style and substance (see EDM, April 2). Wearing what looked like the same jacket and tie as last time, Putin avoided tough words like “quarantine” or “lockdown” and announced rather aloofly that the previously decreed “work-free” week was being extended until the end of April. It is not clear how the salaries of the millions employed in the non-state sector will be paid. Whereas the responsibility for setting appropriate self-isolation measures has been pushed down to the regional governors. These officials had long ago been stripped of the authority to control meaningful funding and have, heretofore, been appointed and dismissed at the president’s whim (see EDM, November 17, 20, 2017 and April 2, 2019). But now, they are going to have to answer for the unpreparedness of the country’s degraded medical system (RBC, April 4, 2020).
The rigidly centralized Russian state remains a federation in name only (see EDM, May 31, 2018), but the sudden redistribution of responsibility without a corresponding rechanneling of resources has confused the bureaucracy (Moscow Echo, April 3, 2020). Without clear orders from the Kremlin, the government cannot touch the accumulated financial reserves to provide a cushion for a sudden crisis. Indeed, the wave of bankruptcies washing over Russian small businesses has still not been deemed a problem deserving state attention (Rosbalt, April 3). The disappointment and despair among Russia’s traditionally patient population gives opportunity to the suppressed opposition, inspired by the intrepid Alexei Navalny, to reach out to those normally indifferent social groups (Navalny.com, March 31).
Putin’s regime habitually justified its strict—and inherently corrupt—centralization of power by claiming this was required to ensure the stability and safety of the state and its loyal citizens in the face of grave challenges. But presently, the Kremlin has failed to even declare an emergency situation, which would have required costly action (Znak.com, April 3). Putin had planned a shrewd political maneuver this year by revising the Constitution in order to prolong his presidential term indefinitely (see EDM, January 16, March 16, 19), but the COVID-19 pandemic upended this agenda, and the allegedly indispensable leader has suddenly shrunk to a confused dodger of responsibility (Forbes.ru, April 3). The role of benevolent but strict autocrat, which Putin had painstakingly constructed for himself over the past two decades, demands confidence, cunning and compassion—but the latest crisis has starkly revealed those qualifications to be lacking (Newsru.com, April 3).
Moscow city has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus outbreak: about three quarters of Russia’s registered cases have appeared in the capital, and the resulting quarantine regime has been squeezing its extensive service economy. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has shown remarkable resolve, decreeing shutdowns and enforcing social distancing; but he has asserted that the city budget would break if the municipal government were expected to provide support for all of its newly unemployed residents (RBC, April 3). His orders to use street cameras with facial-recognition software to track quarantine violators and to prepare smartphone apps that can issue QR codes necessary for everyone wanting to step outside are being described by resentful dwellers as an attempt to turn Moscow into a “digital GULAG” (Novaya Gazeta, April 2). The real effectiveness of digital technologies will probably prove limited; but they are being supplemented by such extraordinary measures as Patriarch Kirill driving around Moscow in a motorcade, carrying a holy icon to ward off the coronavirus (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 3).
The lack of testing deprives the regional authorities of reliable data on the spread of the pandemic, so their responses have varied, from pro forma assertions of full preparedness to the enforcement of curfews and even complete closures of administrative borders (as in the despotically ruled Chechnya) (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 3; see EDM, April 2). The spread of the COVID-19 outbreak has been uneven across Russia. But the low number of officially recorded cases in the Far East has been especially conspicuous, since these regions were exposed to heavy cross-border migration from China at the start of the year (see EDM, March 17). Moscow is keen to praise China’s success in overcoming the pandemic and disapproves of the United States questioning the reliability of the official Chinese mortality rate data (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 2). A quick recovery of China’s severely depressed economy is Russia’s best hope for oil prices to rise again, which had collapsed following Putin’s decision to break the OPEC+ cartel deal on production cuts—a blunder he now tries to camouflage and repair (Kommersant, April 4).
One issue Putin did not mention in his remarks was the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow, which every year serves to grandly symbolize the rich historic foundation of the reconstituted autocratic regime. Preparations for this show of military might continue, even as the “patriotic” messaging continues to lose its ability to bolster Putin’s popular legitimacy (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 2). Meanwhile, the top brass argues that the military has an important role to play in the fight against the pandemic and is sticking to the plan for the spring draft no matter the quarantines (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 2). The bosses of the military-industrial complex are certainly better positioned to claim emergency support from the coveted financial reserves than the managers of the health care system, who executed its downsizing in the name of “optimization” (Moscow Echo, April 5). The state’s firm-set national security priority of modernizing the military is increasingly dubious for the millions of Russians anxious about looming accelerations to their already-contracting incomes, particularly since two thirds of households have no savings at all (RBC, March 31).
In his April 2 address to the nation, Putin said nothing about alleviating the fast-growing hardships experienced by the low-income social groups who used to constitute his support base or at least were content with the autocratic “stability.” He has also seemingly failed to convince the various elite and bureaucratic clans that he can protect their interests and moderate conflicts. The disappearance of the “decider,” just as a new course needs to be charted and confident leadership becomes crucial, is a strong damage-multiplier. Putin may hope to wait out this period of peril, but his authority is already badly compromised, and in a few months his responsibility for aggravating the crisis could become established beyond denial. Autocrats possess many privileges, but they must keep up the appearance of firm control, lest that control be upended in a coup or revolution.