To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.
President Vladimir Putin tosses a pen -- and state media outlets pick it up. The murky story of the “absolutely healthy” Chechen leader’s reported illness underscores the dark compromises the Kremlin has made with Ramzan Kadyrov. Russia arrests journalists at home and lashes out at Western media over reports on the COVID-19 numbers and the president’s poll ratings. Several journalists are arrested, and a dogged activist dies at 66 after spending part of the past decade behind bars.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Pen As Prop
When the former rebel fighter Putin installed as the head of the Chechnya region 13 years ago was reportedly flown to Moscow for treatment of a suspected coronavirus infection -- not so much.
The pen toss was shown on state TV and was the subject of an article by state news agency RIA-Novosti under the headline, “Putin threw a pen on his desk during a conference.” And this was the lead paragraph: “Putin threw a pen on his desk during a conference on the battle against floods and fires.”
RT and other Russian outlets repeated the report, turning it into an example of what political magazine editor Ivan Davydov called, in an article in the Russian outlet Republic, the “rituals of overripe Putinism.”
There was also a RIA-Novosti tweet on the matter, and a separate Twitter post from the RIA Kremlin Pool account that said, “You don’t often see Putin tossing a pen.”
When you do, it’s because the Kremlin wants you to know that Putin means business and is demanding results, independent political analyst Anna Arutunyan suggested, remarking wryly that “Putin throwing pens is supposed to mean he is serious.”
Putin has used a pen-toss as a propaganda device at least once in the past. At a televised meeting in 2009, he demanded tycoon Oleg Deripaska come up to his seat and sign a supply contract to help restart factories in a factory town hit by labor unrest -- and then reminded him to return the pen when he was done.
The news that Ramzan Kadyrov might have contracted COVID-19 broke last week -- courtesy of Baza, a Telegram channel that stated, without citing a source, that the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader had been flown to Moscow and hospitalized with symptoms of an acute respiratory viral infection.
TASS cited a “source in medical circles” as saying essentially the same thing. (It’s hard to be certain that the source was actually a medical one: On numerous occasions in the past, Kremlin aides speaking off the record have told journalists to describe them differently depending on the nature of the information: a “military-diplomatic source” for a tidbit about a conflict abroad, for example.)
And that was about it. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was in the hospital being treated for a coronavirus infection at the time, and Putin himself made no comment about Kadyrov.
That silence was markedly different from his messaging about the illness of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin: When the No. 2 official in Russia told Putin in televised comments that he had tested positive for COVID-19, Putin told him to get in touch when he got to the hospital, adding: “I’ll be waiting for your call.”
Kadyrov resurfaced five days after the initial reports of his hospitalization, appearing in photos and state TV footage apparently from a meeting in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, on May 26.
A video posted later showed him making clear-as-mud remarks in which he said he was an “absolutely healthy person” but also asking, “Don’t I have the right to get sick?” He did not confirm, deny, or otherwise comment on whether he had been hospitalized.
In effect, Kadyrov was able to do for himself what Putin had appeared intent on doing for all of Russia before the coronavirus took hold in March: suggest that he had avoided COVID-19 and that even if he hadn’t, its effects were negligible.
Here’s The Deal
That’s not to say the region he rules has escaped the pandemic, despite his suggestions in early March that garlic and lemon water would help ward off the virus and that fear itself could also be deadly, or that its citizens were spared aggressive actions by law enforcement officers in a region that rights activists say Kadyrov rules through a climate of violence and intimidation.
Kadyrov has said that people who violate self-isolation should be killed and also likened those who infect others while doing so to "terrorists" who should be buried in pits. Video evidence suggests that police have physically assaulted people for not wearing face masks, according to Amnesty International.
Officially, in Chechnya, nearly 1,200 COVID-19 infections had been recorded as of May 28 , and 13 deaths.
The Kremlin’s outward unconcern about Kadyrov’s health and location, particularly juxtaposed with the spotlight Putin trained on Mishustin’s illness, seem like the latest evidence of the special treatment the Chechen leader gets from the Russian president who put him in place.
Rights activists say that Kadyrov rules through repressive measures and has created an environment of impunity for security forces in the region. They claim Kadyrov is ultimately responsible for abuses of political opponents by Chechen authorities that include kidnappings and forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
Kremlin critics say Moscow turns a blind eye to his conduct because it relies on the former rebel commander to control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.
Amid several days of murky reports about Kadyrov’s health, the Kremlin’s apparent lack of interest in providing the public with the facts is, of course, a relatively mild example of Putin’s tendency to turn a blind eye on the conduct of the Chechen leader.
Other examples are more chilling.
In November 2019, for instance, Peskov said the Kremlin would not consider taking any action after Kadyrov advocated killing, imprisoning, and intimidating bloggers who, in his words, assault the "honor” of other users on the Internet.
Putin and his government have taken little visible action to address what rights groups call a brutal “purge” targeting sexual minorities in Chechnya, despite claims from numerous gay men who say they were abducted and tortured by the authorities there.
The state-media spotlight on Putin’s pen toss may have been part of an effort to portray him as a strong leader who is taking care of Russians at a tough time -- an image both political analysts and opinion polls suggest he is having trouble creating.
When COVID-19 hit Russia, Putin’s supporters “expected a strong show of leadership that never came,” Aleksandr Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of its website, wrote in a Twitter thread.
“Putin might have taken the occasion of the crisis to display some strong personal leadership to the public,” Baunov wrote. “Instead, his interventions have come across as belated and confusing.”
Until close to the end of March, Putin seemed confident that the coronavirus would not hit Russia hard -- exactly what he acknowledged a few weeks later that it had done to the economy.
But as infections grew, he postponed the annual May 9 Victory Day parade and an April 22 vote on constitutional amendments -- arranged hastily in the weeks before COVID-19 hit -- that will enable him to seek two more six-year stints as president after his current term ends in 2024.
Now, medical personnel struggle to handle a caseload in the country now with the third-highest official number of recorded infections in the world after the United States and Brazil, and a death toll that is climbing toward 5,000, amid persistent questions about the accuracy of the official figures.
The Russian government has gone on the offensive over Western media reports on the issue, unsuccessfully demanding retractions of articles in The New York Times and the Financial Times that were based on official Russian data pointing to a potential discrepancy between the reported number of COVID-19 deaths in Moscow and the actual toll.
More recently, the Russian Embassy in the United States trained its ire on a Bloomberg report about another set of numbers -- Putin’s poll ratings, which have been down in the past two years and have suffered further since the coronavirus took hold.
The embassy took issue with an article that cited a late-April survey by state-funded pollster VTsIOM in which a longtime low of 27 percent of respondents named Putin when asked to name one or more politicians they trust, suggesting that the news outlet had made the figure up.
It pointed to a survey with a different question, in which 67.9 percent of respondents said that they definitely trusted or probably trusted Putin -- a figure that was also lower than it has been in weekly polls by VTsIOM for some time and continued to drop afterwards, standing at 67.1 percent in the most recent survey.
With daily numbers of new COVID-19 cases down from their highs, at least for now, but the economic effects of the pandemic certain to put major pressure on the economy and the financial situation of many Russians for months or years to come, Putin appears to be gearing up for a bid to boost his poll ratings.
This week he rescheduled the postponed Red Square military parade for June 24, and Russian media outlets reported that the nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments might be held in early July. The Kremlin said no decision has been made.
Whenever Putin holds the vote to hand himself the option of seeking to remain president through 2036, Baunov wrote, “he does so from a position he has weakened.”
In the meantime, he’s not scoring points with liberals or progressives, and he is not signaling any let-up in what critics say is a persistent campaign to silence dissent.
On May 26, Ilya Azar, a journalist, activist, and local legislator in Moscow, was arrested while holding a sign in a one-person protest in support of Vladimir Vorontsov, a former police officer who has worked to expose violations in Russian law enforcement agencies and was himself arrested in early May on charges he contends were fabricated.
Azar was handed a 15-day jail term on May 28, and three prominent journalists -- Tatyana Felgengauer and Aleksandr Plyushchev of Ekho Moskvy radio and Sergei Smirnov of news outlet Mediazona – were detained while protesting Azar’s arrest and jailing.
Also on May 28, Sergei Mokhnatkin, who had been in and out of jail and prison since he was first arrested after protecting an elderly woman being beaten by police at a Moscow protest against restrictions on free assembly in 2009, died at the age of 66.