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As Pandemic Fatigue Sets In, Russia Is Back to Non-COVID Politics

Maxim Trudolyubov
People in surgery masks outside during quarantine in Saint Petersburg, in celebration of Victory Day.
People in surgery masks outside during quarantine in Saint Petersburg, in celebration of Victory Day.

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Politicians all over the world are lifting quarantine restrictions imposed in March and April, but the underlying conditions vary significantly from country to country. Some countries are easing the lockdowns because they see downward trends in the rate of new COVID-19 cases. Some are rushing to get back to normal regardless of the health statistics because they feel they can no longer afford the freeze. Some, including Russia, are doing so for political rather than economic reasons.

For at least three months, all politics in the world revolved around governments’ responses to an unexpected biological challenge. The pandemic defined public opinion and was the focus of all news media attention. But people are tired of the subject, and the media are now starting to look in a different direction. Thus the novel coronavirus has gradually moved off the radar, supplanted by economic considerations and “normal,” non-pandemic politics.

Political leaders in the world’s middle-income countries are hastening to reopen their economies because they cannot wait for the pandemic to fully run its course. In most of those places, the governments were stingy with the economic stimulus and decided to move on to let businesses earn their way out of an economic hole.

“We have to head toward the new normality because the national economy and the well-being of the people depends on it,” the New York Times reported Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador as saying during a tour of the country after he ended the quarantine despite ongoing spread of the coronavirus.

In India, the incomes of an estimated 140 million workers and self-employed people had collapsed by mid-May, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to ease the restrictions even though the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had just overtaken China’s. “Corona will remain part of our lives for a long time,” Modi said in a television address in May. “But at the same time, we cannot allow our lives to be confined only around corona.”

Brazil, Indonesia, and Pakistan are all in varying degrees of opening despite the rising trends in confirmed COVID-19 cases. Russia, which could be described as an upper-middle-income country, is gradually easing its restrictions too. According to government data, which are disputed by the opposition, the spread of the infection in Russia has reached an uncertain plateau. At 8,900, the daily increase in confirmed coronavirus cases is even rising slightly.

Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who effectively has been Russia’s point man for coronavirus policies, is now leading his region (Moscow is one of Russia’s constitutive entities) out of a lockdown. Moscow’s daily gain in infections, officially reported to be around 1,500, is now significantly lower than a month ago, when more than 6,000 people were reported ill on a daily basis. But the figure is still far from Sobyanin’s initial benchmark for a decision to ease the lockdown.

In late May, Sobyanin said he would not allow unrestricted movement and sporting events unless the daily increase was in the “tens or single hundreds” of cases, not thousands. In Moscow, the restrictions regimen was to remain in place until June 14, yet earlier this week, the city’s mayor declared that most of the lockdown measures would be lifted.

The reason for the sudden change was, as many suspected, political. On June 1, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin announced that a national vote for the constitutional amendments he introduced earlier this year would be held on July 1. The main subject of the referendum (although, for legal reasons, it is not referred to as a referendum officially) is an amendment that would reset the number of Putin’s presidential terms at zero. If the vote is in favor of the amendment, which few doubt, Russia’s longtime leader will be able to run for the presidency in the next elections, in 2024. Putin is now serving his second consecutive and fourth overall term as Russia’s president.

The referendum that would remove the constitutional obstacle to Putin remaining in power was originally scheduled for April but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The restrictions were the subject of a conversation Putin had with Mayor Sobyanin over the June 6–7 weekend. The meeting was informed by a previously held session of Russia’s Security Council. “A surge in protest attitudes was the main theme of the gathering,” an unidentified source told Meduza, an influential Russian-language news site based in Latvia. “Public opinion polls conducted by the Federal Protective Service have indicated that the coronavirus restrictions were the main reason for those negative moods (yes, the FSO, in Russian abbreviation, an agency tasked with providing Russian top officials with security guards, runs a polling organization in its midst). Moods like that might affect voting results, the president was told,” a source told Meduza.

According to Levada Center, an independent pollster based in Moscow, 28 percent of those polled were ready to go out and join political protests, while 68 percent would not. For the past year and a half, this is the highest level of protest attitudes, the pollster said. At 25 percent, Russians’ trust in Putin (not his approval rating, which is higher) has reached a historical low. Putin’s approval rating, which is effectively the Kremlin’s key performance indicator, recently reached a historical low of 59 percent.

If Meduza’s reporting is right, the decision to lift the coronavirus quarantine could be used as a case-study example of Kremlin politics. The logic of the politics is centered on the person of the leader, his approval ratings, and his prospects for staying in power. The constitutional amendments referendum is clearly seen by the Kremlin as a high-priority issue within this logic. No doubt, Russia’s security organs are ready to use every tool at their disposal to help the referendum produce the desired result. Still, the issue is discussed as a state security matter, and apparently, as a precaution, the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted to improve the chance of success for an operation that would have been successful anyway.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more