Putin Is Using the Pandemic to Consolidate Power

Public health is a convenient pretext for extending authoritarian controls.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, tours the new coronavirus information center in Moscow on March 17.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, tours the new coronavirus information center in Moscow on March 17. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—On Sunday, Russia became the country with the second-highest number of official coronavirus infections in the world, after the United States.

This grim news comes amid a number of increasing, and increasingly restrictive, measures to combat the virus, including a digital pass system requiring residents to register for a code in order to move around their city by vehicle or public transit. Moscow implemented such a system on April 15, and the following week 21 federal regions were reported to have submitted applications to launch their own programs.

Although Moscow’s system faced a number of setbacks, including technical glitches and long subway lines, officials have praised it as a way of combating the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus across the city. As of May 17, Moscow had over 142,000 of Russia’s more than 280,000 cases and continues to be the epicenter of infections in the country.

While stricter restrictions on movement may prove a welcome reprieve after weeks of sluggish governmental response to the coronavirus pandemic, human rights defenders are concerned that the Kremlin may be using these and other extraordinary measures to justify or even speed up the implementation of authoritarian practices dreamed up long before the onset of COVID-19.

“There are serious concerns that a system for controlling the movement of citizens will remain after the quarantine measures have ended,” said Dmitri Makarov, the co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading human rights monitoring organization in Russia. These controls could limit the movement of citizens deemed a threat to public safety, and the subsequent collection of location data could allow government officials to know who has come into contact with whom. “There is also the risk,” he added, “that the data collected will be used to combat dissent or sold to cybercriminals on the black market.”

Makarov also noted that the court and penitentiary systems may use the extraordinary circumstances as an excuse to consolidate power over the civilians under their authority. This has included limiting the ability of prisoners to report unsafe conditions within prisons and penal colonies, as well as changing their place of imprisonment without informing relatives. Prisoners’ rights groups like Russia Behind Bars normally publish complaints they receive from inside the penal system but have lately been pressured against this by means of new laws against spreading so-called false information about the virus. These regulations, implemented in March and carrying penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment for the spread of “fake news” about the virus, are especially concerning as they can be used to censor and punish those who challenge official statistics and figures.

The law has recently forced one of the nation’s leading investigative newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, to remove a recent article investigating controversial anti-virus measures in Chechnya, an historically volatile region in Russia’s south. The article’s writer, Yelena Milashina, who broke the story of Chechnya’s alleged gay concentration camps back in 2017, claimed that people were afraid to report symptoms for fear of being branded terrorists. The General Prosecutor’s Office released an order to take the piece down, citing the law over fake news, and Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s leader, issued threats against Milashina and the newspaper. Kadyrov has previously gone on record saying that quarantine violators should be killed.

The consequences of the fake news law may reach beyond the country’s borders. Just this week, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that lawmakers have asked the ministry to strip the New York Times and Financial Times of accreditation due to recent coverage of Moscow’s low official death count. Zakharova said this would be an extreme and unusual measure but that “further steps will depend on whether they publish retractions.”

Moscow health officials stated on Wednesday that 60 percent of coronavirus patient deaths are not counted in official figures as they were due to other causes. Clearly, the Kremlin is worried about the optics of a higher death rate than the one it has recorded; at the moment, the official rate is 18 per million Russians, compared with 275 per million in the United States and more than 500 per million in the U.K. and Italy, respectively.

An increasing number of authoritarian monitoring systems have already been put in place within the last two months. Moscow announced “Safe City,” its controversial facial recognition system, back in January, which is reported to consist of just under 200,000 cameras placed near residential building entrances, inside subway stations, and around other public spaces.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin deployed the system in February, and it drew controversy for having led to the detention of a Chinese woman incorrectly diagnosed as having the virus. There have also been reports of infected people being visited by law enforcement officers when leaving their homes to take out the trash. Moscow residents who venture beyond a 100-meter radius (330 feet) from their buildings can be arrested by the police, sometimes leaving behind the dogs they had been walking.

The Kremlin has also announced the launch of worrying new measures to collect and analyze data gathered by mobile phones. On April 20, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who has since contracted the virus, called for a program that tracks the location of infected citizens to be finished by the end of the month, and earlier in April it was reported that tourists may be tracked by means of SIM cards once borders reopen.

Reports have emerged that three medical workers have fallen out of windows in mysterious circumstances after making complaints about their work conditions.

The Federal Security Service (FSB), the country’s secret service, has been asked to investigate cases involving the infection of doctors due to administrative malpractice in hospitals. This has proved a particularly sensitive issue, and reports have emerged that three medical workers have fallen out of windows in mysterious circumstances after making complaints about their work conditions.

President Vladimir Putin has also mentioned the possibility of mobilizing the army to help tackle the outbreak if necessary, though he has declined to specify what its role would be. The country must be prepared, as he said in an address on April 13, for even the “most difficult and extraordinary” scenarios. On May 3, the Russian National Guard reported that it had begun using drones and helicopters to identify quarantine violators, sending information to officers on the ground who would then issue fines or make arrests.

While many of the above authoritarian measures were implemented once the presidential administration abandoned the narrative that the coronavirus wouldn’t lead to a crisis in the country, a number of them happened to appear in the weeks before the government admitted to the seriousness of the situation. The deployment of Moscow’s controversial facial recognition system is one notable example, but others include the abuse of online data as well as how law enforcement officials appropriated the virus as a reason not to follow proper protocol while making arrests.

Gleb Paikachyov and Olga Polyakova are civil society activists with the St. Petersburg organization Trava who were required to self-isolate for 14 days after Paikachyov returned home from Europe in mid-March. The doctors who visited him at his apartment did not ask who he came into contact with, nor did they wear masks. “It gave me the impression that they cared more about how it looked on paper than about protecting people’s health,” he said.

Polyakova, Paikachyov’s partner, said that “while doctors were still unprepared, the police had already implemented quarantine restrictions on movement even if they didn’t necessarily believe in the virus itself.”

Then they asked Paikachyov about whether his phone number was connected to any other applications, including messengers.

A series of laws implemented last year compel all devices in the country to be sold with government-linked applications already loaded, which some digital rights watchdogs warn against as a source of possible back doors enabling official bodies to track and store personal data.

In Russia, linking up to a service or application with one’s phone number allows for your activity to be traced back to you, which may prove a concern for activists aligned with the opposition. What’s more, a series of laws implemented last year compel all devices in the country to be sold with government-linked applications already loaded, which some digital rights watchdogs warn against as a source of possible back doors enabling official bodies to track and store personal data.

Citizens are not yet compelled to link their phone numbers to all the applications they use, and using the quarantine to request that they do so makes their data more vulnerable. “When they asked about whether or not my phone number was attached to my messenger apps,” Paikachyov said, “I was shocked.”

“Quarantine measures turn quite swiftly into repressive ones,” said an artist who requested anonymity. She had attended a party raided by police shortly after a ban on events with more than 50 people was announced. The officers were in the area after having been called in to stop a fight but noticed a group of smokers outside a venue and decided to investigate.

“They did not follow normal protocol at all,” she said. “The majority of people involved in the raid lacked proper identification, did not declare their identities, and refused to give reasons for detaining people.” She claimed that people were hit or pushed down stairs and that police raided two other concerts that weekend without following proper protocol.

The FSB has also been said to have used the virus as a cover for raiding the homes of suspected individuals. Last month, two officers in civilian and medical outfits asked to be let inside a home in the Far East region of Sakhalin in order to test a man named Alexander Kozin for the virus. Once inside, they reportedly detained Kozin along with two other men and seized an explosive-looking device that Kozin and his wife claimed was planted there by the officers. The three men have been charged with terrorism and have no previous criminal record.

The virus was also used as an excuse to limit the access of local journalists accredited with foreign outlets to the Russian parliament. Pyotr Kozlov, a correspondent with the BBC, tweeted about the unofficial restrictions while noting that local, state-backed outlets were however still allowed to enter and observe the sessions.

This tendency toward increasing state control over citizens’ lives has long been on the rise in Putin’s Russia and is only being exacerbated by the virus.

In late 2019, various laws were introduced to limit the online influence of foreign states and companies in the name of protecting so-called digital sovereignty. These have included the law on installing Kremlin-selected apps on all smartphones sold within the country, as well as the authorization to separate the Russian internet from the rest of the world in case of crisis. This would, at least in theory, enable Moscow to create a firewall on par with China’s. Then, as now, digital rights advocates are concerned about what will become of private user data.

Then, in January, a referendum was announced that would amend the constitution and limit the capacities of the president. More power would be given to the parliament and the State Council, a governing body that many suspected Putin would occupy on his retirement from the presidency at the end of his next term. This would allow for Putin to remain behind the scenes even while setting up his successor.

But this was not to be. In early March, in response to crises including the conflict with Turkey in Syria and a global collapse of oil prices, the Russian parliament formally called for the reset of Putin’s presidential terms to zero so that he could run for another two terms—a combined total of 12 years in 2024. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s press secretary, said this was a necessary response to “extreme turbulence in the world.” Clearly, for the Kremlin, increasing control had been necessary long before the pandemic truly took hold.

Already aiming for a nearly unlimited mandate as well as increasing digital capacities, the emergency measures prompted by the pandemic may yet prove the ultimate boon for a leader looking to shape Russian society in a new, technocratic age.

That said, the pandemic has presented as many obstacles as it has opportunities. The referendum, originally planned to take place on April 22, has been pushed back indefinitely. The May 9 Victory Day parade, a public holiday that forms the cornerstone of Putin’s propaganda narrative, was also postponed.

While the latter might seem inconsequential, military parades and initiatives promoting the memory of the 1945 victory over fascism have always been important factors in keeping Putin’s approval ratings high—as have recent military operations like the 2014 annexation of Crimea. This year was to mark the 75th anniversary of victory in World War II, and special preparations were made for a large-scale parade as well as the opening of a mega-cathedral dedicated to the armed forces. Instead, the cathedral’s opening has been delayed indefinitely, and more than 400 cadets have been infected due to parade rehearsals. What had previously been surefire ways to drum up public support have turned into national embarrassment.

In another failed bid to keep his approval rating high, Putin has delegated unpopular decision-making processes to local governors in an attempt to keep his own hands clean. This has, however, instead led to inconsistent measures taken across the country and a corresponding spike in infections. Taking advantage of the virus has proved a dangerous game, and his behavior in recent weeks has led some Russian commentators to claim he resembles “an old, sick wolf.”

“The Kremlin would probably like to introduce total control,” Makarov said, “but it isn’t capable of this yet.” And so the Russian government and its people remain in something of a standoff. One requires the appearance of democratic legitimacy, either in the form of quarantine measures or a national referendum, in order to consolidate power, while the other is compelled, in order to remain healthy, to give increasing powers to a government it does not entirely trust.

Even activists like Makarov concede that protecting health, especially in a pandemic, is a legitimate reason for temporarily restricting some rights. “But the restrictions involved,” he added, “must never be unlimited. The priority should be the safety of citizens, not the convenience of the authorities.”

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg. He covers the intersection of Russia, technology, politics, and culture for the Economist, the South China Morning PostFast CompanyTechCrunch, the Calvert Journal, and others.

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