Written by IDU member party Union of Right Forces’ Chairman Leonid Gozman.
The current situation in Russia is shaped less by the actual dynamics of the coronavirus epidemic, but rather, by the political system led by President Vladimir Putin.
Russian citizens don’t trust the official statistics and numbers about the virus outbreak in their country (at the very least, the author of this article hasn’t met anyone that does). The number of new infections stopped rising and started to decline immediately after Putin announced that the “curve” had peaked. It seems very likely that the data has been falsified and the statistics are being doctored to suit the president’s agenda. The same is true for the statistics on deaths caused by COVID-19, as Western news outlets have already reported. There is no way to check the reported numbers. Not only are there no alternative systems for tracking the data, but the Kremlin-controlled television channels brand anyone who expresses doubts about the official data as enemies and traitors. Additionally, the State Duma has already passed laws allowing individuals to be held criminally responsible for circulating information that has not been approved by the government.
Russians are used to the fact that the authorities rarely admit the truth and many Russians don’t believe that the pandemic is real or believe that the threat is exaggerated. Because of this, compliance with restrictions is much worse than in many other countries.
Over the course of the pandemic, the true priorities of the Russian authorities have been highlighted. Russia is the only G-20 country that, until recently, had not provided any direct financial assistance to its citizens, to small business owners and frontline healthcare workers. The few small assistance programs that are available required overcoming bureaucratic hurdles that are prohibitive for regular citizens.
It has become clear that the Russian government cares more about optics and PR than about the real state of affairs. Medical doctors who decry the catastrophic shortage of personal protective equipment are being forced to retract their comments or even make public apologies. The Alliance of Doctors Volunteer Network, which collects donations to buy masks and hazmat suits, is being vilified in the media, and the organization’s activists are being fined for violating quarantine measures. Putin had promised COVID-19 frontline medical staff a hazard pay of 80,000 rubles a month, what is a little over US$1,000, and widely publicized this in the media. However, right after the incentive was announced, the government passed additional instructions on “per case” payments reduced to US$5–10 a month. In one particularly egregious case, a medical orderly received a bonus of US$0.30. Furthermore, some medical professionals have seen their salaries decrease due to various complex calculations. It was only when a scandal erupted that the authorities were forced to take steps to remedy the situation.
The government has been shirking from all responsibility, leaving their citizens to fend for themselves. The system that Putin has created is doing what it knows best: issue fines, restrict movement, and make threats. Unwilling to give people money despite the huge reserves that it has amassed, the regime appears to view the cash in state coffers as its own personal funds. The government has announced the gradual lifting of restrictions and a reopening of enterprises despite the fact that the infections are growing, and the situation is worse now than it was when the restrictions were imposed.
All of this is not simply incompetence. The lives of the citizens – not to mention their health – hold no value for the authoritarian regime, which does not answer to the people. The tradition of treating citizens like a renewable resource did not disappear with the collapse of the communist regime.
Despite the crisis in Russia, Putin’s chosen course for a global standoff with the West and the increase in his personal power will not be revised. The Russian president hopes that the pandemic (the worst challenge to the stability and effectiveness of both democracies and dictatorships since World War II) will showcase the advantages of dictatorships. There is nothing that will make him reject the foreign policy of the recent years and the continued dismantlement of democratic institutions in Russia. It appears that the vote on constitutional amendments that will essentially keep Putin in power for life will be held very soon. And the measures to control people introduced during the pandemic will most likely remain in place, as they are fully in line with the ideology of the Putin system.
The political consequences of the epidemic for Russia are predicted to be very serious. Putin’s ratings have fallen to the lowest levels in recent years, the level of public trust in the president has gone down by more than half since the fall of 2017, and the approval of his actions as president dropped by four percentage points between the end of March and the end of April. Putin’s endless talks about new Russian weapons no longer elicit a reaction from the public. The government’s complete disdain for the interests of the people is now obvious even to those, who until recently, supported the regime. It is also notable that the respect for the president has plummeted not only in the general public but also among elites. His lack of action and silence during the first stage of the epidemic (reminiscent of Stalin’s behavior during the first days of World War II) has prompted many to accuse him of cowardice.
The situation in Russia could further evolve according to different scenarios. However, it seems obvious that the political system will be forever changed following the epidemic.