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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Many in the Kremlin orbit have been quick to criticize the U.S. election process, which was described as "competitive and well-managed" by the OSCE.

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A fact-check on Russian TV chatter about the collapse of a superpower as the votes are counted in a hotly contested presidential election. The coronavirus surge persists, with daily new cases pushing past 20,000, and a new bill on presidential immunity raises the 2024 question once again -- but answers are elusive, which may be the point.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Taking Its Time'

As they watched the U.S. presidential election proceed into a nail-biting vote count, politicians, pundits, and others in the Kremlin orbit unleashed judgments such as "neither free nor fair" and a "crushing blow to the remains of trust in the electoral procedure," as well as the assertion that "the spectacle of a collapsing superpower is bewitching."

They did not provide much evidence, if any, and the veracity of their remarks seemed to be undermined by the facts.

The suggestion from Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-funded news organization RT, that the U.S. election was neither free nor fair was contradicted by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who used no such wording in describing the vote.

On November 4, the organization issued a statement concluding that the vote was "competitive and well-managed" despite "legal uncertainties and logistical challenges," many of them stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and a "highly polarized political environment."

In a tweet that same day, Russian state TV political talk-show host Vladimir Solovyov wrote: "One thing is clear: that the United States has managed to strike a crushing blow against what remained of trust in the electoral procedure itself."

That claim, made without specific evidence, also seemed to be contradicted by the OSCE, which said the allegations of systemic fraud were "baseless," and by assurances from officials in U.S. states that all legal ballots were being counted.

Absentee ballots are processed and verified by election workers in the U.S. state of Georgia this week.
Absentee ballots are processed and verified by election workers in the U.S. state of Georgia this week.

The "spectacle of a collapsing superpower" remark from lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, a grandson of the late former Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, drew plenty of attention as well.

It echoed premature predictions of America's demise from some Russian commentators amid unrest earlier this year. It also, according to one historian, echoed Nikonov's grandfather.
"Molotov saw [the United States] sinking already at least as early as 1939. It sure is taking its time!" Sergey Radchenko wrote on Twitter.

Critics of the Kremlin, meanwhile, pointed to the close race -- one that had the names of U.S. states and even counties within those states on the lips of many in America and abroad -- more as something to strive for than as an embarrassment or an omen of imminent demise.

The Coronavirus

As for developments within Russia, a surge in coronavirus cases persisted, with the number of new infections recorded nationwide in a single day reaching above 20,000 for the first time on November 6.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, noting that the number of new cases in Moscow had been above 5,000 for several days, said that the situation is "not simple" and that the government and the people "cannot relax" -- which is sometimes a way of suggesting that the situation is quite difficult and that they should do the opposite of relaxing.

But he said that he does not plan to increase COVID-related restrictions in the capital, which he pointed out were much laxer than in some other countries, and voiced confidence that the health-care system could handle the surge.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (file photo)
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (file photo)

Critics expressed doubt, and reports from regions around the country suggested that hospitals and medical personnel are having a hard time dealing with the growing number of cases.

In political news, meanwhile, Kremlin-loyal lawmakers submitted a bill on presidential immunity from prosecution to the State Duma, the lower parliament house.

For Always Time

Under existing law, former presidents already have immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes committed in office. The new legislation would extend that immunity to cover alleged crimes committed at any time in their lives -- and also make it very hard for legislators to strip them of that immunity.

It is one of several bills either directly or indirectly related to the constitutional amendments Putin pushed through earlier this year that, among other things, enable him to seek reelection in 2024, when his current term is due to end, and again in 2030.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

As a result, it is "being carefully parsed for clues as to what Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for more than two decades, plans to do in 2024," as Reuters put it.

A separate piece of legislation submitted last week would enable ex-presidents to become lifetime members of the Federation Council, the upper parliament house.

If the bills pass, which they will, Putin could become a Federation Council member for the rest of his prosecution-immune life after leaving the presidency -- if he does in fact leave the presidency before, during, or after 2024.

Or he could do something else: Without necessarily revealing much of anything about Putin's specific plans, the bills appear to be aimed at broadening Putin's options – they certainly do not narrow them – when it comes to his political future.

Podcast: The Coronavirus Surge
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Russia is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths, with the daily umber of confirmed new infections reaching above 18,000 in recent days and the health-care system encountering severe strains. Irina Lagunina, director of special projects at RFE/RL's Russian Service, joins host Steve Gutterman to discuss the situation and the state's response.

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