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The Week In Russia: The Coronavirus And Kremlin Control

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts to get to grips with the coronavirus crisis from his state residence outside Moscow on April 13.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts to get to grips with the coronavirus crisis from his state residence outside Moscow on April 13.

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin was cracking down on opponents, critics, and protesters dismayed by his return to the Kremlin in 2012, I asked the human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva how far he would go -- and how close to the murderous methods used by dictator Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

Alekseyeva, whose resistance to the state began amid the 1960s trials that ended the Thaw and remained strong over the long years of Putin's rule before her death in December 2018, said that the former KGB officer would probably like to use full-scale Soviet tactics to maintain control -- but that he could not do so in the 21st century.

That, of course, is why some of the Russians who admire Stalin, or say they would want a leader like him, do not care for Putin: Despite what critics call the persistent rollback of democracy and steps to increase the Kremlin's grip on politics nationwide, in the halls of government and on the streets, he does not have the level of control.

Just how much he does have comes into question frequently: Whenever the deadly effects of an accident or disaster are aggravated by corruption or negligence, whenever an influential person seems to get away with looting public coffers, and whenever Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov flouts federal law in a land he rules like a fiefdom, for example.

In principle, as they say, Putin should possess more control than ever. In power as president or prime minister for over 20 years, he is in the process of handing himself the option of running for two more six-year stints in the Kremlin after his current term ends in 2024, and a loyal party dominates the national parliament and regional governments nationwide.

But as he maneuvers between what analysts say are signals that he is taking charge of the response to Russia's growing COVID-19 crisis and steps to avoid blame for bad outcomes, the Kremlin's shifting approach to the pandemic seems to point to the limits of that control.

On March 17, Putin declared that Russia had managed "to contain the mass penetration and spread" of COVID-19, adding: "The situation is generally under control."

This Is Now

At the time, that seemed potentially credible despite the absence of measures such as lockdowns: The Kremlin had essentially closed Russia's border with China, where the outbreak began in December, and the publicly reported numbers of infections and deaths were far lower than in many other countries.

Today, the picture is different. The official numbers have been rising fast in April, reaching 32,008 confirmed cases on April 17, but their accuracy -- and particularly, now, the declared death toll of 273 -- also remains in doubt.

Lockdowns are in place, ambulances with patients inside hurry up and wait in line outside overtaxed hospitals, and Putin said on April 13 -- at the start of a week in which the official case count has more than doubled -- that "the situation is changing almost on a daily basis, and, unfortunately, it is changing for the worse."

Ambulance Traffic Jams At Moscow Hospitals As COVID-19 Cases Surge
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In a development rich in symbolism, China sealed off parts of its long border with Russia after a surge of new COVID-19 infections among people returning from foreign countries including Russia.

The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly a major test for the governments of countries around the globe. But in some ways, Putin's predicament may be unique: He has been in power for many years, but this is arguably both the biggest crisis Russia has faced and the one whose ultimate outcome is the least susceptible to PR -- to efforts to manage the optics.

The terror attacks of the 2000s -- at Moscow's Dubrovka Theater in 2002, at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in 2004, at Domodedovo Airport in the capital in 2010, and many more -- were both deadly and highly visible. Each one a blow to the notion that Putin and the Kremlin could adequately protect the country and its citizens.

But they stemmed from a situation that was well known to Putin and even formed the backdrop for his rise to power: the insurgency that persisted in the North Caucasus following two devastating wars against Chechen separatists -- one of them waged with Putin in a leading role, as prime minister in 1999 and then president after that.

More recently, Russia has become deeply involved in two wars beyond its borders, backing separatists fighting government forces in neighboring Ukraine and supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the devastating nine-year conflict against his opponents in the Middle Eastern country.

In both cases, Putin got Russia involved by choice -- his country has not been attacked.
So, the coronavirus is one of biggest challenges to come from outside Russia, if not the biggest, since he came to power.

The Cruelest Month

For Putin politically, it has turned what was supposed to have been a triumphant spring of easy image-making -- with a May 9 military parade on Red Square following an April 22 vote cementing the constitutional changes allowing him to seek reelection -- into a tricky season in which his governing prowess is being tested in real life.

On late March 25, Putin put off the constitutional vote, and on April 16 he declared that the Victory Day parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat would be held at a later date -- sometime this year, he promised, using martial language ("We will make the threat we face today retreat") to suggest that the country faces a new foe in COVID-19.

Those two announcements served as markers in Putin's shifting approach to the coronavirus, which he at first seemed to dismiss.

The changing response was also marked by Putin's televised appearances. At first, he seemed to be nowhere to be seen, while Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was thrust into the spotlight.

For Putin that meant criticism -- and even comparisons to the way Stalin was silent and unseen in public for 11 days after Hitler broke a pact and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

OK, Zoomer

Putin soon popped back into view, however, and turned to videoconferences to make his public statements and imply that he was in command. With office workers in Russia and around the world holding virtual meetings while isolated at home, Putin's apparent enthusiasm for this form of communication led to 'OK, Boomer' jokes at his expense.

From the start, though, he has seemed to waver between wanting to show that he is in control and wanting to avoid blame if the situation spirals out of control.

"Putin doesn't want to become the Covid-tsar, but nor does he appear willing to empower his regional satraps on a massive scale, with the money, autonomy and control over federal institutions that would require," Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the British-based Royal United Services Institute, wrote in an April 14 article in The Moscow Times.

"Instead, he is just grumbling about 'sloppiness' in the regions, in effect putting much of his legitimacy as president in the hands of his governors, without being able to give them the tools they need yet for it," Galeotti wrote. "The calculation may be that if need be, the governors can be blamed, but given how centralized this system has become, it is questionable how far a long-suffering Russian electorate will buy that."

When it comes to Putin, polls have shown that in recent years, the Russian public has become a less enthusiastic consumer.

A Russian police officer, wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus, checks a woman's "digital permit" to be on the streets of Moscow via a QR code on her smartphone.
A Russian police officer, wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus, checks a woman's "digital permit" to be on the streets of Moscow via a QR code on her smartphone.

Survey results published by the independent Levada Center on April 14 indicated that, as The Moscow Times put it, Russians' opinions about Putin "have become more negative for a third consecutive year."

Specifically, the poll said, a total of 29 percent said they felt "delight" over or "liking" for Putin, fewer than at any time since 2013. The proportion who felt "antipathy" or disgust" for Putin or found "nothing good to say" about him was 16 percent, higher than at any time since he came to power.

Asked to choose qualities that attracted them to Putin, the number who called him a "true leader" was 13 percent, the lowest since 2002, and the number who called him an "energetic, decisive strong-willed person" was 25 percent, fewer than ever before in similar surveys by the pollster going back to October 1999.

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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

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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