MOSCOW -- Ahead of Vladimir Putin’s annual Direct Line call-in show, a marathon Q&A session in which people across Russia address the president on air with their problems and requests, a column in the popular media outlet Republic dubbed the event a “Direct Line with the anti-vaxxers.”
As Russia battles a big new surge in coronavirus cases and its death toll rises while hospitals struggle with a huge influx of patients, that moniker underscored the unique opportunity the program provided Putin to rally the population around a vaccination drive championed by his government after months of equivocation.
Did he blow it?
Putin urged Russians to get vaccinated, plugging the Russian-made shots and opening the nearly four-hour spectacle with a monologue about the issue. But observers said he also undermined the message by declining to strongly support vaccine mandates for some Russians, by suggesting without evidence that Western-made vaccines are dangerous, and by underplaying the scale of the vaccination problem more broadly.
Shortly before the live TV broadcast began, Russian authorities recorded a new record of 669 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus in a 24-hour period, an increase of 47 from the day before and a figure that experts contend is far lower than the actual rate of deaths in a country widely believed to underreport coronavirus fatalities.
“Officials understand the urgency of the situation, and that there’s no alternative to mass vaccination. And it must be carried out as urgently as possible,” columnist Fyodor Krasheninnikov wrote in his article for Republic ahead of the event. “But for that to happen, the vaccination campaign needs the utmost support of the president.”
Against this backdrop, Putin spoke favorably of Russia’s three approved vaccines and of what he said was his own experience with one of them, Sputnik V. He stated that “the continued spread of the epidemic is preventable only through vaccination,” echoing the words of health officials.
However, he stopped short of endorsing his government’s unpopular vaccine mandates, and risked fueling conspiracy theories popular in Russia when he questioned the safety of Western-made coronavirus vaccines that have helped slow the pandemic in many countries.
'Thank God we haven’t had tragic situations after vaccinations like after the use of AstraZeneca or Pfizer,’ Putin said, giving no specific examples.
Russia has issued contradictory vaccination figures, but most estimates suggest only around 12.5 percent of the population has received at least one dose. By comparison, nearly half the population of the United States is fully vaccinated, and in France that figure is about 30 percent.
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This month, several Russian regions made vaccinations mandatory for workers in public-facing sectors including retail and education, stopping just short of a costly lockdown. As of June 28, restaurants in Moscow, the epicenter of the latest wave, are required to serve only customers who show a vaccine certificate or proof of recent infection.
Amid these developments, which provoked a backlash from the public, Putin has largely stayed silent, having made clear on previous occasions that he sees vaccination as a personal choice. He reiterated that view during the Direct Line show.
“I don’t support mandatory vaccination, and continue to hold this view,” he said. He cited a law introduced in the 1990s that he said gave regional governors the prerogative to enforce vaccination if necessary, insisting: “There’s no confusion about this in Russia.”
Events on the ground suggest otherwise.
Since the pace of infection began rising fast in early June, widespread skepticism in Russia toward the country’s three homegrown vaccines -- recent surveys show 62 percent of the population is against any form of inoculation -- has fueled a climate of distrust and caused the authorities to opt for the unpopular mandates in a desperate bid to thwart the contagion.
Russia was the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, in a controversial decision made in advance of late-stage trials and announced by Putin himself in August. But problems with distribution and doubts about the shot, which has been recognized as safe and effective by the international scientific community, has hampered efforts at mass inoculation even as other countries have surged ahead in their vaccination campaigns.
It was only in March, four months after Sputnik V became widely available, that the Kremlin announced that Putin had been vaccinated with an unspecified Russian shot. It provided no video evidence to prove it, and it wasn’t until the Direct Line show that Putin finally said he had received Sputnik V.
Questioned on why he had chosen not to provide footage that might reassure a nation skeptical about vaccines and looking for an example to follow, he deflected the question by turning it into a slightly off-color joke and suggested it was a privacy issue.
“What if I had the shot not in my arm but in another place?” he told the show hosts. “Would that also have to be shown?”
For analysts, Putin’s continued reluctance to forcefully endorse unpopular vaccination policies is part of a pragmatic strategy aimed at distancing him from controversial initiatives that could damage his image -- and by proxy lower the rating of United Russia, the already unpopular Kremlin-controlled ruling party vying for a strong result in parliamentary elections in September.
“Vaccination is not a popular policy, after all,” political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told RFE/RL. “And Putin doesn’t want his popularity rating to suffer.”