Putin Is Warping Russia’s Pandemic Response

Doctors are being attacked and critics silenced as Moscow tries to control the narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin via teleconference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow on May 26, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin via teleconference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow on May 26, 2020. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

As with every country, Russia is struggling with the impact of the pandemic. But the situation there is shaped less by the actual dynamics of the country’s coronavirus epidemic than by the political system that currently exists around President Vladimir Putin—at least for now. Reality has an unfortunate habit of overtaking politics, however.

The government—which has been promising Russians that, unlike Western democracies, it is capable of decisive actions if necessary—has been shirking all responsibility, leaving the citizens to fend for themselves. The system that Putin has created is doing what it knows how to do: issuing fines, restricting movement, and making 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 situation is hundreds of times worse right now than it was when the restrictions were imposed.

Russians don’t trust official statistics—or at least, I’ve never met any who do. The epidemic numbers have born this out.  It seems very likely that the data is being falsified and statistics are being doctored to suit the president’s agenda. The same is true for statistics on deaths, as Western news outlets have already reported.

There is no easy way for Russians to check the numbers, not just because there are no alternative systems for tracking the data, but also because Kremlin-controlled television channels brand anyone who expresses doubts about the official data as enemies and traitors. 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. As with other opaque states, analysts can try to work from proxy data to get a glimmer of the truth, but that’s not an option for ordinary Russians. Instead, they are left in a fog of doubt that in itself is costing lives.

Used to the fact that the authorities never admit the truth, some Russians don’t believe that the pandemic is real, or believe that the threat is exaggerated. Because of this, compliance with restrictions is considerably worse than even in the United States. In areas where the police don’t monitor compliance, people frequently don’t wear masks and fail to follow social distancing protocols. At the same time, there are also many conspiracy theories—in part encouraged by the authorities—that attribute the emergence of the virus to the ill will of Russia’s enemies. Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev, an alleged sponsor of the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine, has already asked the Russian prosecutor-general to conduct an official investigation into this.

The pandemic has highlighted the true priorities of the Russian authorities. Until recently, Russia was the only G-20 country that had not provided any direct financial assistance to its citizens. The few small assistance programs that are available require overcoming bureaucratic hurdles that are prohibitively difficult for regular people to access.

The Russian government cares more about optics than about the real state of affairs. Doctors who decry the catastrophic shortage of personal protective equipment are being forced to take back their words 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 doctors who work with COVID-19 patients hazard pay of 80,000 rubles a month (a little more than $1,000), a widely publicized step by compliant media. However, right after the incentive was announced, the government passed additional instructions on “per case” payments reduced to $5-10 a month. In one particularly egregious case, a medical orderly received a bonus of just $0.30. Some medical professionals have seen their salaries decrease on spurious grounds.

It was only when a scandal erupted that the authorities were forced to take steps to remedy the situation.

All of this is not simply incompetence. The lives of the citizens—not to mention their health—hold no value for an authoritarian regime that 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. And while authoritarian regimes aren’t immune to public opinion, the uncertainty and doubt generated by manipulating statistics and blaming outsiders helps keep things from reaching boiling point.

Despite the crisis, 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 can make him reject the foreign policy of the recent years and the continued dismantlement of democratic institutions in Russia. The vote on constitutional amendments that will essentially keep Putin in power for life will likely be held very soon. And the measures to control people introduced during the pandemic will most likely remain in place—they are fully in line with the ideology of the Putin system.

All this is not without cost. The political consequences of the epidemic for Russia will be very serious. Putin’s approval rating has 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 4 percentage points between the end of March and the end of April. Putin’s endless talk about new Russian weapons no longer elicits a reaction from the public.

Many scenarios are possible: Putin could use the failures as an excuse to clean house or to quash dissent, pushing Russia back to a fully totalitarian state. But the government’s complete disdain for the interests of the people is now obvious even to those who had until recently supported the regime. It is also crucial that respect for the president has plummeted not only among the general public but also among the elites. His lack of action and silence during the first stage of the epidemic (reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s behavior during the first days of World War II) has prompted many to accuse him of cowardice. The magic may finally have disappeared from Putin’s rule.

A version of this essay was previously published on the IDU website

Leonid Gozman is a Russian commentator and politician.

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