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The Week In Russia: COVID, Clout, War, And Remembrance

Medical specialists take care of a patient at the temporary hospital set up in the automobile shopping center in Moscow on October 30.

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Sergei Lavrov's scuttled Balkans visit points up problems at home and challenges abroad for the Kremlin. Also, a new twist in Russia's treatment of World War II, and in remarks about same-sex unions, President Vladimir Putin appears to put the perceived interests of the state -- specifically, efforts to stem a population decline -- over the interests of the individual.

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

COVID-19 Surge

It seemed pretty symbolic: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had to postpone a trip to the Balkans, one of several regions abroad where Moscow is struggling to maintain influence, because he came into contact with someone infected with COVID-19.

Lavrov “feels well” but will self-isolate as a precaution, the Foreign Ministry said, calling off the 70-year-old diplomat’s planned visit to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina this week.

The Russian government itself might feel the urge to self-isolate, seeking a respite from an array of challenges it faces beyond its borders this fall: A war is raging between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh; the ruler it has helped retain power for more than a quarter-century in Belarus is battling against millions of his own people; and an election in the United States holds little promise for improved ties and could end up piling more pressure on the Kremlin.

'Bodies Are Everywhere': Russia Struggles With COVID-19 Spike
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On top of this, the country is struggling to contain a major resurgence of the coronavirus, making the days just two seasons ago when President Vladimir Putin appeared confident that the pandemic would essentially bypass Russia seem like the distant past.

The number of new cases recorded daily has risen steadily in recent weeks, surpassing spring numbers and for the first time reaching above 16,000 -- and then above 17,000 and then, on October 30, above 18,000.

On October 29, the government recorded the highest daily death toll yet: 366. The mayor of Ufa, the capital of the Bashkortostan region, died of COVID-19 this week at the age of 61, and more than one-fifth of Russia’s regional governors have tested positive since the pandemic took hold early in the year.

The ratio is about the same in the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament, where 91 deputies have tested positive, one has died, and Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin recently told President Vladimir Putin that 38 were in the hospital.

State Council

Their meeting sparked speculation that Putin may be tapping Volodin, his former deputy chief of staff and domestic policy adviser, to head the State Council, a largely ceremonial body that is to be revamped as part of the reshuffle of government structures mandated by the constitutional changes that were adopted in July along with an amendment allowing Putin to run for president again in 2024 and 2030.

Whoever heads it, analysts Nikolai Petrov, Fabian Burkhardt, and Ben Noble suggested in an article published by the London think tank Chatham House that a Kremlin-drafted bill detailing the changes at the State Council would make it a versatile tool in Putin’s hands ahead of 2024, when he will either seek a fifth term or step down from the presidency but potentially use other levers to maintain power.

“The bill allows the president to achieve at least three things at once: further de-institutionalize governance structures to give him more flexibility and appointment powers; step back from day-to-day governance while still retaining control; and structure decision-making between his subordinates on national priorities across branches of power and layers of the federation,” they wrote.

Having handed himself the ability to potentially remain president until 2036, Putin appears to be busy giving himself as many options as possible to maintain power whether he stays in the Kremlin or not.

Meanwhile, the challenges to the clout that Putin’s Russia commands beyond its borders seem formidable right now. The fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh is raising questions about Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus almost 30 years after the Soviet collapse and underscoring what seems to be a serious threat from Turkey to Moscow’s long-dominant role in the region.

In Belarus, a conceivable outcome of the persistent protests against longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka following a disputed August presidential election is the eventual escape from Moscow’s orbit of a country the Kremlin has long relied on as a buffer between Russia and the West, in the form of both NATO and the European Union.

Not so fast, cautioned Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an October 29 article.

What Does Moscow Want?

While “Russia’s loss of Ukraine is undeniable and serious,” she wrote, “the current ructions do not mark a decline, but demonstrate rather the opposite: Russia is working on settlements for Nagorno-Karabakh and Belarus, and doing so according to its own principles. Meanwhile, the West lacks workable leverage over either issue.”

“Russia may appear on the back foot if one misunderstands its aims” and assumes that it stands fully behind Armenia in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh or Lukashenka in Belarus, Liik wrote.

"Russia’s true aim in these neighborhood conflicts is not to back particular sides or personalities, but to defend the principles it values,” she argued. “It wants to delegitimize bottom-up revolutions as a means of transferring power” and to “signal that Western interventionism with its promotion of democracy and normative approach are unfruitful in general, and unwelcome around Russia in particular.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin: “As head of state, I have to think about solving demographic problems -- and, as you know, nontraditional marriages do not bring children into the world.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin: “As head of state, I have to think about solving demographic problems -- and, as you know, nontraditional marriages do not bring children into the world.”

While they grapple with the challenges of the present, Putin and the Russian state also seem to be focusing on shaping narratives about the past -- particularly World War II.

In what may have been a first, a Russian court ruled on October 27 that the mass killings of civilians in the village of Zhestyanaya Gorka by Nazi forces during World War II was genocide.

The ruling appears remarkable because, while state news agencies said the court described the killings of more than 2,500 civilians and captured Red Army soldiers in the Novgorod region in 1942-43 as genocide against “ethnic groups,” it also suggested -- according to state prosecutors, at least -- that the target of the genocide was the Soviet people.

The killings were “genocide against national, ethnic, and racial groups representing the population of the U.S.S.R. -- the Soviet people,” state news agency Rapsi quoted the Prosecutor-General’s Office as saying.

On the same day, meanwhile, Putin voiced support for a proposal to ban equating the aims and actions of the Soviet Union with those of Nazi Germany, the daily Kommersant reported.

“I agree with your proposals,” Kommersant quoted Putin as saying after the head of the Duma committee on culture, Yelena Yampolskaya, made the suggestion at a meeting. “We should do this carefully, of course, but we should do it.”

War And Terror

The court ruling and the discussion came days before an annual ceremony to commemorate thousands of people executed during Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's Great Terror. The ceremony, called Returning The Names, is held on October 29, while October 30 is the official Day of Commemoration of the Victims of Political Repressions in Russia.

The ceremony was held mainly online this year due to the coronavirus, but ambassadors from 34 countries laid flowers at a memorial stone near the former KGB headquarters in Moscow, according to Memorial, the rights and historical group that is behind Returning The Names and has been labeled a “foreign agent” by the government.

“Putin, [Prime Minister Mikhail] Mishustin, Volodin, and [upper parliament house speaker Valentina] Matviyenko were supposed to be in this place, kneeling. In a normal state with normal historical memory,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, wrote in a tweet.

In an October 29 article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Kolesnikov suggested that by pressing his narrative about World War II repeatedly in public, Putin is turning it into “national ideological dogma.”

“Anything and everything to do with the Great Patriotic War, as Russians refer to World War II, is extremely sensitive for the Russian leadership,” he wrote. The memory of victory in that war is one of the few remaining bonds to hold the Russian nation together and legitimize the Putin regime as the heir to great triumphant ancestors.”

“The trouble with this new official historical discourse is that it implicitly vindicates Stalin and Stalinism,” he went on, later adding: “The atmosphere in today’s Russia encourages the vindication of Stalinism and its atrocities. By simplifying and mythologizing history, the Russian president is encouraging the deterioration of public knowledge of historical events.”

Numbers Game

Liberal politicians, rights activists, and others have repeatedly warned that Russia’s future will always be clouded if the government and the people avoid reckoning with the dark episodes of its past.

Another hurdle the country faces is what Kremlin critics say is the tendency of its leaders, including Putin, to put the perceived interests of the state above the interests, rights, and freedoms of its citizens.

Putin risked further fueling such criticism with remarks in which he, not for the first time, suggested that same-sex couples are not doing their part to increase Russia’s population or stem its decline.

In an apparent attempt at a humorous response to a question posed at an investment conference about “nontraditional” lending policies, Putin brought up the issue of “nontraditional marriages.”

His government treats the idea of same-sex unions with “understanding” but also with “caution,” he said, “because as head of state, I have to think about solving demographic problems -- and, as you know, nontraditional marriages do not bring children into the world.”

The revised Russian Constitution that was backed by Putin and adopted in July defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman only.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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