The Russian authorities are caught in a familiar dilemma of whether to resume economic activity or contain the coronavirus pandemic and, trying to have it both ways, are blundering the former while failing in the latter. The economic contraction for April is estimated at 12 percent, but the government’s recovery plans are based on calculations of resumed inflows of petro-revenues—a highly problematic proposition. The government’s habitual doctoring of economic data continues but pales in comparison with the distorted official statistics on the scale of the COVID-19 crisis, which shows a purported stabilization in the number of infections along a high plateau of 8,500–9,000 cases per day. The authorities indignantly reject any criticism of this systematic disinformation; nevertheless, the Moscow Department of Healthcare recently provided some corrections in an attempt to explain away the significant increase in the city’s total mortality. The release of country-wide demographic data for April has been postponed so as not to undercut the official narrative of the pandemic’s low human cost domestically.
The measures on easing the lockdowns prescribed by the authorities on the basis of this flawed date are confusing and show absence of coordination, caused primarily by the lack of leadership coming from President Vladimir Putin. His recent video conference with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin left the impression of a poorly scripted low-content show, contrasting with the severity of the situation in the national capital, where more than a half of the total number of Russian infections are registered. Muscovites are resolutely defying new half-relaxed rules, but a video recorded by a popular TV host ridiculing the pep-talk between Putin and Sobyanin was removed from many media platforms after stern warnings from the Kremlin.
This obsession with keeping up pretenses betrays deep worries about the impact of the unfolding crisis on the public mood—and about the outcome of the blame game inside the bureaucratic pyramid. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, recovering from a mild case of COVID-19, has been going to great lengths to re-polish his image as an effective manager, hoping to dissuade Putin from turning him into a useful scapegoat. The most alarming trend for the authorities is certainly the erosion of public confidence in and approval for Putin, which comes through clearly in many public opinion polls. The Kremlin tries to counter this trend by blaming the West for spreading disinformation: the Russian embassy in the United States demanded apologies from the Bloomberg news agency for publishing “fake news” about Putin’s approval ratings, though, in fact, the figures in question came from reliable Russian sources.
Such demarches and high-volume pseudo-optimistic propaganda campaigns are of little help in dispelling public anxiety, so the authorities increasingly resort to random repressions to demonstrate their undiminished capacity for controlling the streets. But the attempt to show a tough hand by arresting opposition journalist Ilya Azar, who staged a legally permitted single-person protest, unexpectedly backfired. More journalists came out in similar protests, and their detentions have triggered a fierce media storm. Liberal commentators exposed police brutality by reflecting on the death of human rights activist Sergei Mohnatkin, whose health was ruined by beatings and torture following several arrests.
Instead of enforcing discipline, the occasional repressions facilitate the conversion of accumulating discontent into anger. A team of sociologists led by Mikhail Dmitriev and Anastasiya Nikolskaya has discovered that disappointment in the government’s ability to manage the crisis is evolving into an aggressive rejection of the orders issued by federal authorities, who are increasingly perceived as alien. Demands for a “firm hand” are essentially nonexistent; public preferences have strongly shifted from support for familiar autocratic rule to a representative government with proper checks and balances.
And while the conclusions of this research may be debatable, some corroborating evidence has arrived from neighboring Belarus. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka aims to stage another firmly controlled and potentially falsified election in early August, but several figures from the political establishment have entered the contest to challenge his 25-year-long grasp on power. Moreover, a popular blogger (promptly arrested) and his wife have managed to mobilize wide public support for a fresh alternative by tapping into the anger caused by Lukashenka’s denial of the ongoing pandemic, which is spreading so quickly that Belarus now has more registered coronavirus infections per capita than the United Kingdom or Italy.
Putin seemingly pays scant attention to the rising political storm inside Belarus, focusing instead on executing his political agenda set at the start of the year. The military parade, postponed from May 9, is a symbolically central event in this agenda and has now been rescheduled for June 24—the day on which Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin staged the victory parade in 1945. The pandemic may refuse to cooperate, but the authorities consider their control over information to be much more important that ensuring social distancing among the population. The pompous parade is expected to create a proper public atmosphere for the as-yet-unscheduled voting on the package of amendments to the constitution, which will allow Putin to claim yet another presidential term in 2024.
Riots or even mass street protests will probably not disrupt these plans; but tanks rolling over Red Square are also highly unlikely to lift people’s spirits or make them forget the authorities’ indifference to expanding poverty and their incompetence at managing the simultaneous health and economic crises. The Kremlin tends to view the pandemic as a temporary inconvenience and the recession as a passing complication; but Russian society is experiencing a profound transformation, and the protracted lockdowns bring not only irritation and despair about ruined businesses but also serious reflections on the unsuitability of Putin’s regime for Russia. The Kremlin refuses to register these shifts in public attitude, and its persistent attempts to legitimize autocratic rule increasingly clashes with Russians’ maturing demand for change. No amount of enforcement and propaganda is likely to mitigate this looming collision.
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