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The Week In Russia: QR Codes, Borders, And A Blast On The Final Frontier


A visitor gets his QR code scanned before being allowed to patronize a restaurant in Novosibirsk on November 18.

As Russia’s coronavirus toll reached new levels, new restrictions aimed to stem the spread of COVID-19 ran into resistance from politicians and the public. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate was fined by the government, while concerns about the Kremlin’s intentions in Ukraine and Belarus persisted -- and a startling missile shot into space drew condemnation.

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

Excess Mortality

The website of Russia’s official coronavirus task force features an upbeat figure that is set out in green and is heading up toward 8 million: the “number of people who have recovered” from COVID-19.

Other numbers on the site are less reassuring. The number of new COVID-19 cases recorded in Russia has dropped in the past two weeks, falling from a record high of more than 41,000 on November 6 to 37,156 on November 19.

The daily death toll hit a new high, however, rising for a third straight day and reaching 1,254. The new fatalities have raised the total number of deaths recorded in Russia above 260,000 -- the fifth highest in the world, following the United States, Brazil, India, and Mexico.

But even figures from Russia’s own statistics service indicate that the true number of coronavirus-related deaths is several times higher than that. And when it comes to excess mortality -- the number of deaths in excess of what would be expected in normal, pandemic-free times -- the Russian number is a few tens of thousands below the roughly 830,000 recorded since the start of 2020 in the United States, whose population is more than twice as large.

One of the problems that is fueling the COVID crisis in Russia is the low level of vaccinations. While the daily numbers are increasing, a backdrop of public distrust and a slew of mixed signals from President Vladimir Putin and the state have been high barriers to a successful vaccination campaign.

Just over 36 percent* of Russians are fully vaccinated, compared to just under 60 percent in the United States.

Many of the victims who have succumbed to COVID-19 were unvaccinated. Among them was Kristina Asmalovskaya, 41, a children’s TV show host. A colleague said that she “didn’t have time” to get vaccinated or “didn’t get around to it.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin still seems to be struggling -- unsuccessfully, so far -- to strike a balance: to impose anti-COVID measures that will be effective in slowing the spread of the virus but will not generate too much public anger or political fallout, particularly for Putin.

QR You?

In terms of combating COVID, it’s too early to gauge the efficacy of the newest strategy -- a push to require QR codes showing vaccination or recovery for access to a range of public places. Some regions are already imposing such requirements, such as Tatarstan, and Putin’s government has sent two bills -- one with lighter requirements, one heavier -- to parliament. Legislation could be passed in December and take effect in February.

That leaves time for debate, and it has started, raising questions about how well Putin -- who may seek reelection in 2024 after engineering a constitutional change last year that allows him to do so -- will weather a deadly public-health crisis that he said in April 2020, weeks after the first COVID cases were recorded in Russia, was under control.

Groups of Russians have held protests, some appealing to Putin -- who has said in the past that vaccination is a personal choice -- to ensure no such requirements are adopted. Some have compared it to serfdom. In remarks on November 17, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov railed against what he called the “QR-ization” of Russia, pledging to take the matter to the Constitutional Court.

Without explaining how, Zyuganov said that QR-code mandates could be worse than the pension reform of 2018, when Putin signed a law raising the retirement age for Russians despite large-scale protests and suffered a substantial drop in public support.

As with the pension reform, and as with previous anti-COVID measures, there are signs that Putin is seeking to deflect blame for any increased QR-code requirements, in part by shifting it to regional leaders.

Freedom Fees

The continuing coronavirus crisis comes amid a wave of repression that began -- or escalated -- at around the same time the pandemic was spreading worldwide.

In a twist that might be unthinkable in some countries, a court in Moscow this week slapped fines on the newspaper Novaya gazeta and its editor, Dmitry Muratov, who was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize last month, along with co-laureate Maris Ressa of the Philippines.

The prize committee cited Muratov’s “courageous fight for freedom of expression in…Russia.” But in a twist on a twist, the Russian state accused Muratov and the newspaper of “abusing media freedoms” and fined them 132,000 rubles ($1,800) after ruling that they had failed to disclose the status of designated “foreign agents” referred to in several articles -- a requirement under widely criticized legislation that has been one of the main instruments of the current Kremlin clampdown on civil society, independent media, and political opponents.

The ruling against Muratov and Novaya gazeta came a week after state prosecutors took aim at Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights organizations, petitioning courts to shut it down over alleged violations of the “foreign agent” legislation and other laws.

The Russian Supreme Court and the Moscow City Court are to hold hearings on the matter next week.

On November 18, Muratov and another Russian Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- Mikhail Gorbachev, who used some of the money from his 1990 award to help found Novaya gazeta -- appealed to the Russian authorities to abandon their bid to shutter Memorial.

The rights group’s work “has always been aimed at restoring historical justice, preserving the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffered and died in the years of repression, and preventing anything like it from happening now or in the future,” they said. “The continuation of its work is in the interest of society and the Russian state.”

By November 19, about 75,000 people had signed an online petition demanding the prosecutors withdraw their bid to close International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center, two main parts of the movement started in the 1980s.

One of the claims that prosecutors are making against the Memorial Human Rights Center is that it has published material that “justifies the activities of members of extremist and terrorist groups” -- a reference to its list of political prisoners in Russia, which includes members of religious organizations, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir -- that the Russian government has deemed extremist or terrorist.

The state’s treatment of religious minorities, meanwhile, came under sharp criticism on November 17, when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) added Russia to its list of "countries of particular concern" -- a category reserved for nations whose governments or rulers are deemed to carry out "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedoms.

Games With Frontiers

Further afield, concerns and controversy over Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine and toward Belarus persisted as Western governments, analysts, and others debated the meaning of the movement of Russian military forces north and east of Ukraine’s borders, as well as in Ukraine’s Russia-controlled Crimea region, and the extent of Russia’s role -- or of its interest, at least -- in the migrant crisis on the Belarusian border with the European Union.

Watch This Space

Some observers say that the situation in Belarus has drawn attention away from the tension over Ukraine. This week, at least for a while, something that happened high above the Earth drew attention away from disputes about the “facts on the ground” below, grim or gripping as they may be.

On November 15, the Russian military fired a missile that blew up one of Russia’s own defunct satellites, creating a cloud of debris that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “risked astronauts' lives, the integrity of the International Space Station, and the interests of all nations."

Several experts told RFE/RL it seemed highly unlikely that the launch was a mistake or that the missile was not intended to hit the defunct satellite, and that the military must have known a hit would create a debris cloud.

"This is not the Russians’ first rodeo” with anti-satellite tests, said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer who now heads the Secure World Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Bill Nelson, head of the U.S. space agency NASA, said he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” also calling it “reckless and dangerous” -- and “unthinkable.”

That’s a word that may have lost much of its currency when it comes to the actions that Russia has taken or been accused of taking over the past several years -- from the forcible takeover of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to the near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning of Putin foe Aleksei Navalny in August 2020 and the bid to shut down a rights groups that supporters say has tried for decades to move Russia forward by exposing the Soviet state’s crimes against its own people.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the vaccination rate as just over 26 percent. It is 36.37 percent as of November 19.

Editor's Note: The Week In Russia will not appear on November 26. It will return to its normal schedule on December 3.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. 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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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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