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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Last fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly began to reveal far-reaching plans for a future that could include the extension of his time in the Kremlin until 2036.

Just as abruptly this spring, the coronavirus forced the postponement of a nationwide vote on those blueprints -- and the elaborate May 9 Victory Day celebrations that could have burnished his image.

The pandemic has also compounded economic problems that have hurt Putin’s standing with his fellow Russians and cast a shadow on efforts to choreograph the coming years.

Together with the German Marshall Fund and its Frontlines of Democracy Initiative, RFE/RL experts spoke about the amplified challenges now facing Putin and the Kremlin and the potential consequences for Russia’s future.

The talk featured Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL’s Russia Desk and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter, as well as Irina Lagunina, the director of special projects for RFE/RL's Russian Service, and Kiryl Sukhotski, the executive editor for news at Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

The discussion was moderated by Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who directs the Frontlines of Democracy Initiative.

(The discussion begins at 3:55)

In Volgograd, hot-air balloons float by the Motherland Calls monument commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad.

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As Russia prepared for scaled-down Victory Day ceremonies, coronavirus infections rose fast and Moscow's mayor suggested the real numbers may be much higher than the official case count. Opinion polls and grim economic forecasts clouded President Vladimir Putin’s prospects for choreographing his own political future and reshaping the country’s past.

An ambulance doctor became the third medical professional to plunge from a window since late April, underscoring the severe strains the pandemic is putting on health-care providers.

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

No Red Square military parade on this Victory Day, and no Immortal Regiment march on the streets a bit further from the Kremlin to put a civilian stamp on state-dominated World War II commemorations: just warplanes cruising over Moscow, and a fireworks display that the mayor has asked Russians not to attend.

The toned-down ceremonies, with most of the action occurring in the sky, are a result of the coronavirus, of course, and the lockdown measures it has led to in Russia and around the world. But they may be fitting for a president who commentators say is increasingly at a remove from the people even as he engineers constitutional changes designed to ensure he has the option of remaining their president until 2036.

As factions in the disunited Russian elite pursue their own interests, Putin “is getting bored with many day-to-day responsibilities, and is distancing himself,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and head of the think tank R.Politik, wrote in a thread on Twitter on May 7.

Putin has arguably been aloof from day-to-day governance for years, swooping in at key moments such as his supposedly spontaneous but seemingly choreographed visit to the lower house of parliament on March 10 to give his public seal of approval to the abruptly announced amendment that would exempt him -- and him alone -- from the two-term limit that would have forced him from the Kremlin four years from now, on May 7, 2024.

Leader In Lockdown?

Putin set the stage for this sense of separation eight years ago -- on May 7, 2012 -- when he returned to the Kremlin to start his third presidential term after serving as prime minister for four years to avoid violating -- or changing -- the constitution. He had just weathered a series of street protests held by Russians dismayed at his return, including one the previous day, at Bolotnaya Square, that resulted in hundreds of arrests.

As Putin rode to the Kremlin from his residence west of Moscow to be sworn in, the main avenue was blocked off by police vehicles and law enforcement officers were detaining more protesters and dragging people from parks and cafes near the convoy’s route.

Police officers patrol a deserted Red Square.
Police officers patrol a deserted Red Square.

On this May 9, of course, there’s a good reason for Putin to be remote -- literally -- and he has apparently found a way to try to dispel the sense of distance from the people, or at least from the memory of the war and millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who died in it. He is expected to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall, and to deliver an address from there.

But Putin has made the most of the military parade in the past -- part of his strategy of using the most positive moments in the history of tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, of which the defeat of Nazi Germany is the proudest, to bolster his legitimacy and seek to encourage unity among Russians, even if it means suggesting that a World War II ally such as the United States is now the one bent on world domination.

Missiles And Memory

The Cold War practice of putting weapons on display at the Victory Day parade was revived in 2008, two days after Putin handed the Kremlin keys to placeholder President Dmitry Medvedev and two months before Russian tanks entered Georgia in Moscow’s first foreign war since the Soviet era.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Putin may view the Russian people more as an instrument in such efforts than as their intended beneficiary.

With military parades, patriotic war movies, and “grand projects” such as a massive Russian Orthodox church being built in a military theme park outside Moscow, Putin and his government “aim to legitimize their authoritarian practices by sacralizing the power of the state,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“They limit history to the accomplishments of czars and political and military leaders, and treat people as expendable resources in the sweep of history,” Kolesnikov wrote in an article published on May 5 and titled Our Dark Past Is Our Bright Future: How The Kremlin Uses And Abuses History.

“In the process, even personal memories must be co-opted to fit a prearranged historical discourse,” he wrote, adding that “the state has taken control over” the Immortal Regiment marches, initially a politics-free grassroots initiative in which Russians carry portraits of relatives killed in the war: A way to commemorate them without honoring leaders past or present.

Moscow's Red Square Hosts Victory Day Parade
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WATCH: Moscow's Red Square Hosts Victory Day Parade (2018)

The Immortal Regiment is online this year, and the Red Square military parade -- like the nationwide vote in which the people, Kremlin critics say, will be instruments of Putin’s plan to potentially remain in the Kremlin past 2024 -- are to be held later in 2020.

Meanwhile, the absence of goose-stepping soldiers on the cobblestones may, for many, signify the state of Russia today and the predicament that Putin is suddenly facing just two months after the announcement of plans to enable him to remain president long after 2024.

Many of the things Putin does to boost his image at home -- or even Russia’s influence abroad -- rely more on show than substance. In addition to the Victory Day parade, that goes for other annual events like his yearly “big” press conference and the televised Q+A with Russians nationwide.

It also goes, to some extent, for his handling of bad news such as terror attacks and natural disaster: a televised display of decisiveness and resolve.

In the coronavirus, Putin is confronted with a large and persistent problem whose effects may be impossible to mitigate through propaganda or public relations.

That seems to make it the biggest challenge he has faced over more than 20 years in power, and one that brings clouds obscuring Russia’s future dramatically forward from the horizon.

But some observers suggest that developments have passed a point of no return, even if what lies beyond that point remains unknown.

Point Of No Return?

Last month, a headline from journalist and commentator Oleg Kashin declared that “the relationship between the authorities and society” -- Putin and the people -- “will never be what it was before.”

In an article published on May 4, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Clara Ferreira Marques seemed to take that argument a step further, saying that Putin’s self-isolation at his residence outside Moscow “has echoes of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Crimean stay in 1991.”

That was a startling reference to the attempted coup that August, when the Soviet leader was held captive at a vacation dacha on the Black Sea peninsula as hard-liners attempted to seize power in Moscow. When the putsch collapsed, Gorbachev returned to the capital -- but he never really recovered and was quickly eclipsed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Four months later, Gorbachev resigned as president of a country that had effectively ceased to exist.

There are many obvious differences between the two situations, and Ferreira Marques did not suggest that Putin is doomed. She wrote that with few perceived alternatives, the “immediate risk for the leader is different this time,” but that “there may be implications for his long-term ambitions.”

“Putin will no doubt hope to be seen as riding to Russia’s rescue. He can dole out cash eventually, while dismissing early mistakes as bungling by ministers and local officials,” she wrote. “After two decades of concentrating power, however, it won’t be easy to deflect the blame -- especially if Russia's convalescence is long and painful and his spending promises come to little.”

The power of those promises has been undermined badly by the recent oil-price collapse, in which Russia played a part by rejecting a Saudi proposal to cut production right around the time the spreading coronavirus crisis was depressing demand by drastically curbing travel and closing industries.

It’s The Economy…

With the IMF predicting that Russia’s GDP will contract by 5.5 percent this year and some economists making grimmer forecasts, “the $150 billion of oil revenues Russia has funnelled into a rainy-day National Wealth Fund…could end up being spent much more quickly than expected,” the Financial Times said in an editorial on April 27.

Small- and medium-sized business activity in April was cut in half compared to the same period in 2019, state-run RIA Novosti reported, slamming a sector that has always struggled under the weight of red tape and law enforcement pressure.

Unemployment could double to 10 percent, some predict, further fraying what was once Putin’s unwritten contract with the Russian people: I provide relative prosperity, you stay out of politics -- aside from voting for me and the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party.

Putin got some bad news about his relationship with Russian voters this week, when the independent Levada polling agency said a survey showed his job-approval rating had fallen to 59 percent in April -- the lowest level since he was prime minister and just emerging from obscurity in 1999.

The IMF has predicted that Russia’s GDP will contract by 5.5 percent this year.
The IMF has predicted that Russia’s GDP will contract by 5.5 percent this year.

A separate Levada poll showed that support for the constitutional changes -- including the one enabling him to potentially remain in the Kremlin until 2036 -- was at 47 percent, up from 40 percent in March, and 58 percent among those who said they would definitely vote.

State-run polling agency VTsIOM, meanwhile, put support for the constitutional changes at 50 percent --- and said that the figure it reported in March, 64 percent, was the result of a “technical error” and should have been 46 percent.

If Putin was hoping for good news on the march of the coronavirus in Russia ahead of the diminished Victory Day, he was disappointed.

Record Numbers

On May 7 -- 20 years to the day since he was first inaugurated as president -- authorities said over 11,000 new infections had been confirmed in the previous 24 hours, the highest daily total to date.

That official nationwide total was nearly 188,000 on May 8 – more, now, than in France or Germany -- but Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin suggested this week that the actual number of cases in the capital alone could be as high as 300,000. The official death toll was at 1,723, but there are questions about the accuracy of that relative low number as well.

In a breathtakingly grim indication of the pressure on medical personnel in a health-care system that was struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, an ambulance-unit physician in the western Voronezh region became the third doctor to plunge from window since late April.

The other two died of their injuries, one of them a doctor in Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside Moscow, who herself contracted COVID-19 and whom superiors reportedly blamed for its spread locally.

Health-care personnel in other countries have committed suicide since the coronavirus crisis took hold. But in Russia, the British newspaper The Independent put it, “a cocktail of guilt, secrecy and scapegoating seems to be exacerbating the stresses and strains of working through the pandemic.

In Moscow, Sobyanin extended the lockdown until May 31 and warned residents that police would be out to make sure crowd do not gather to watch the fireworks on May 9.

“Please, watch the planes go by and the fireworks display from the balcony if possible – even better, watch them on TV,” he said.

Past And Future

When Yeltsin stepped down suddenly on New Year’s Eve in 1999, he made Putin acting president – and the rest is history.

But history is malleable in Putin’s hands, critics and analysts say, particularly when it comes to World War II.

Now “Russia’s national historian,” Putin is “assisting a revision of key episodes in modern history, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact” between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, put it in a tweet introducing Kolesnikov’s article.

Before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, at least a few world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping were planning to be in Moscow for Victory Day. The ceremonies could have contributed to what governments of countries that were in Moscow’s thrall for decades after World War II say is Putin’s campaign to rewrite history -- from the secret protocol in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in which Hitler and Stalin carved up parts of Eastern Europe, helping unleash the conflict, to its long and bitter aftermath.

If COVID-19 has hampered Putin’s alleged efforts to revise the past, it may also hurt his chances of authoring his own future and Russia’s next two decades, after a setback in which the delivery of a key chapter – the constitutional amendments allowing him to rule for years to come -- has been delayed.

His grip is arguably loosening amid what Stanovaya suggested is a long-developing leadership problem that has been aggravated by COVID-19.

“More and more important political decisions are being taken spontaneously, with Putin himself being informed post-factum,” the analyst wrote. “The system has been unravelling, and the current crisis has had a double impact: accelerating that unravelling and using up resources.”

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