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Dying For A Dose Of Putin? With Sagging Ratings, Russian President Holds Mask-Optional Rally

People attend a concert marking the seventh anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on March 18.
People attend a concert marking the seventh anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on March 18.

Two events in Moscow on March 18 threw a harsh spotlight on the contradictions of the political scene in the Russia of longtime authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.

In the afternoon, the capital's Basmanny district court, without giving a reason, extended the house arrest of Kira Yarmysh, a spokeswoman for imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, and three other Navalny activists. They are charged with urging the public to violate epidemiological restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic for their roles in organizing mass protests against Navalny's arrest and imprisonment.

If convicted, the opposition activists could face up to two years in prison.

In the evening, Putin personally headlined a mass concert and show at Luzhniki Stadium to mark the seventh anniversary of Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region. Tens of thousands of people -- mostly maskless and ignoring social-distancing requirements -- packed the stadium, which was close to its capacity of 81,000.

That event could lead to a spike in coronavirus infections in the capital, Anatoly Altshtein, an epidemiologist at Moscow's Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, told Ekho Moskvy radio.

The irony was not lost on Navalny's team. Yarmysh's Twitter account -- Yarmysh herself is barred from using the Internet as a condition of her house arrest -- posted photographs of Putin's rally with the comment: "Apparently the 'patriotic' coronavirus is harmless, and only the anti-corruption variant is dangerous."

Kira Yarmysh (right) arrives for a court hearing in Moscow on March 18.
Kira Yarmysh (right) arrives for a court hearing in Moscow on March 18.

Ahead of time, city authorities stressed that "at the celebratory concert all current sanitary-safety measures will be observed."

"Attendees will be required to wear personal protection equipment and also to practice social distancing," city media announced. "The event will be limited to not more than 50 percent of the overall capacity."

Although no attendance figures were provided, the massive stadium holds 81,000 spectators.

Ratings In Need Of A Boost

Putin's rally came as Russia prepares for elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the country's legislature, which must be held by September 19. A poll conducted by the independent Levada Center and released on March 11 showed the ruling United Russia party -- through which Putin's government exercises a near-monopoly on political power throughout the country -- was polling at just 27 percent support among all voters.

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Putin's own approval rating was 65 percent in February, according to Levada, down from highs of nearly 90 percent following the takeover of Crimea but up from a record low of 59 percent in April 2020.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Current Time that the Luzhniki concert showed a lack of basic concern for average Russians.

"This Putin-promotion in the form of a concert or concert in the form of Putin-promotion -- I don't know which to put in the first place -- shows they have no pity for this human material, this human plankton, that appears in the stands in order to depict popular satisfaction with the fact that for seven years 'Crimea is ours,'" Kolesnikov said, suggesting that was how the Kremlin sees attendees at such events.

"Of course, they might infect one another quite seriously since we still don't have vaccination on a scale that would produce herd immunity."

"This is an attitude toward people as a consumable commodity -- after all, they drove people there from their work, from various institutes," he added, referring to what Kremlin critics say is the common practice of pressuring students, state workers, and others to attend pro-government rallies. "There were many young people there."

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Russia has recorded nearly 4.5 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began in early 2020 -- fourth in the world after the United States, Brazil, and India, which have much bigger populations -- and its official death toll stood at 94,267 on March 19.

However, state mortality statistics indicate that the real number of coronavirus-related deaths is more than 200,000, and some researchers suspect it is still higher.

Popular blogger Rustem Adagamov posted on Twitter footage of the Luzhniki crowds and commented, "When it is necessary to conduct another propaganda event for Putin, all health and epidemiological concerns can be temporarily thrown out the window."

With reporting by Iryna Romaliyskaya of Current Time and RFE/RL's Russian Service

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