• Nadezhda Kamenkovich

Russia and Covid-19

©Sky News


A controversial issue


Russia’s response to Covid-19 has recently become a hot topic of discussion. Several media giants have published articles questioning the objectivity of the Russian official statistics of the coronavirus death rates. The New York Times and Financial Times claimed that the death toll in Russia could be 70 times higher than the official numbers. Bloomberg published a similar article titled «Experts want to know why the coronavirus killed more Russians», which caused an immediate reaction of the Russian Foreign Office and the government and was later changed.


The Russian authorities refuted the allegations, stating that they did not hide any data, though some deaths were not represented in official statistics since they were caused by diseases not connected to Covid-19 like strokes, cancer, etc... The Russian Foreign Office demanded to publish a refutation of the articles, while some Russian newspapers, that also questioned the objectivity of the Russian official statistics, were then brought to trial by the authorities.


Later in June the World Health Organization also addressed the low death rate in Russia as unusual and asked the Russian authorities to review the way in which death certification is done. Though the question of whether Russian official Covid-19 death rates are accurate or not is a crucial one, it seems doubtful we will ever get a response.


Nevertheless, a variety of factors have shaped the current political and economic situation in Russia, making it worth our attention. Let’s take it from the top.


How it all began


The cases of Covid-19 were registered in Russia as early as 31 January, when two Chinese citizens in the Far East were tested positive for coronavirus. The Russian government responded promptly by restricting the border with China, which made sense, bearing in mind the length of the Russian-Chinese border. Nevertheless, the virus did spread into Russia with horrible speed through the Western borders with Europe, starting from Italy on March 2nd. It’s June now and Russia has the world's third-highest number of coronavirus cases – 634 thousand, while the death toll is lower than in other large countries (9073 deaths).


How did the Russian government react in the beginning?


The government started considering the coronavirus as a threat not right away. According to the Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the first time the topic was brought up in the president’s agenda was 21st January. [1] It was raised several times in other government’s meetings in February though as a side issue. Starting only from 13th March the problem became a constant topic in almost all meetings' agenda.


Furthermore, the Russian President, who is viewed as a protector of the country by most of the population and simply is the key element in the Russian political system, remained silent for a long time. Various theories abound, for instance, that Putin considered the pandemic to be an unimportant case, not worth his attention, that the government was confused, divided and had no clue what to do. [2]


Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin were those who took the central stage, fighting the Covid-19. The Russians are not used to such situations, they wanted the president to step in and «save everybody». In Sobyanin’s and Mishustin’s attempts to deal with the coronavirus, many political analysts saw the intra-elite struggle or collapse of the chain of command.[3] Nevertheless, on March 25th Putin did address the nation and repeated it several times after.


What has the Russian government done by now?


Quarantine

In his address to the nation on 25th March, V. Putin announced that March 28 - April 5 would be a paid holiday period for the whole country to decelerate the spread of the coronavirus. Eventually, the paid holiday period was prolonged until 11th May, even the annual Victory Day Parade was cancelled. Moreover, on 30th March Russia closed its international borders.


The regions were given considerable freedom of action to decide the details of restriction measures. The largest cities like Moscow announced complete lockdowns, the citizens were allowed to leave home only for work, grocery shopping, taking out garbage or walking pets, their actions were controlled by a QR code system or a smartphone app in case they are infected by the virus, huge fines were introduced for those who violated self-isolation. Though in other regions the measures were less strict. The implemented measures did help to slow the spread of the Covid-19, judging by the death toll and the coronavirus reproduction index (0,7 in Moscow and 0,89 in Russia in May).


It is crucial to mention that the paid holiday period, that was announced by the government, does not exist as a legal concept in Russian Labor Code or any other Russian law, which caused a lot of confusion. First of all, the question of whether the paid holiday period is legal or not is hard to answer. Secondly, neither is there an answer to the question of whether the president has the power to announce paid holidays since this order might contradict federal law. Thirdly, there is no accurate understanding among employers of what to do, some of them refused to provide paid holiday period, though they are threatened by heavy fines.


Thus, instead of declaring a state of emergency in Russia, the authorities introduced a confusing paid holiday period. Why? There is no accurate answer. Perhaps because of the desire to decrease the economic burden on the state or the reluctance to give more power to security forces (who will gain more power in case of emergency of state) or the underestimation of threat.


The end of the quarantine

On the 11th of May, the President announced the end of the non-working period, declaring that regions can ease the quarantine depending on their current situations. Nevertheless, Moscow and some other major regions prolonged the regime of self-isolation. In May, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin kept saying that the situation with the coronavirus in Moscow is “still far from ideal” and that it was necessary to maintain the lockdown.

However, from the 1st of June onwards, Moscow started easing the quarantine and, on the 9th, the self-isolation regime in Moscow was ended, people got the right to leave their homes whenever they wanted, other restrictions (like the opening of restaurants, cafes, barbershops Etc.) are now being lifted gradually, and the same pattern was followed by most other regions. This fact interestingly coincided with the decision of V. Putin to hold Russia's public vote on a set of constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in power on 1st July. Moreover, after Sobianin decided to end the quarantine the number of Covid-19 cases started quickly decreasing, while in the European cities the amount of Covid-19 cases rose when the restrictions were lifted, the fact that does provoke questions.


Economic measures


The Russian economy has decreased by 28% in April, the unemployment rate rocketed as well as the amount of small and middle-scale business that were shut down due to the quarantine. [4] The Russian government did introduce economic measures to provide aid to people and businesses. To help the latter, the central bank has eased some banking regulations, cut the key rate to 5.50% per annum, the government deferred loan payments for up to 6 months, provided a 6-month 0% interest loan to pay salaries, provided 5% interest loans to 'systemically important' companies, introduced 6-month moratorium on initiating bankruptcy proceedings, deferred lease payments under real estate lease agreements.


The government also created an anti-crisis fund of 300 billion rubles ($4.05 billion) to support the economy and citizens. The funds were allocated to provide additional payments to medical workers, pensioners, families with children, unemployed and those who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus.

However, taking into consideration that Russia has accumulated $157 billion national wealth fund, the economic measures were largely criticised for its «modesty» and «insufficiency». Russian Business ombudsman Boris Titov announced the government’s aid to small and middle scale business was insufficient, warning of dire consequences for many companies. Furthermore, some Russian liberal economists and the opposition encouraged the government to allocate payments to all citizens to avoid an economic crisis. [5]


Why did the government not allocate more money to its citizens? Difficult question. There can be various explanations. First of all, taking into consideration Russia’s geopolitical ambitions [6] and the impending global economic crisis because of the Covid-19, the government might expect more difficulties ahead and is trying to preserve stability and its safety cushion. Moscow Carnegie analyst A. Baunov also explained modest help measures to small businesses by the fact that Russian small-scaled business popped out of nowhere in the 90s thus, the authorities see no reason to help it, now presuming it will pop up again after the crisis without any aid. [7] Others, like economist Anton Tabakh for instance, acknowledged the insufficiency of the measures, but praised the government for discrete, strict and deliberate steps, linking it with the forethought and ability to respond to changes in the situation. [8]



The People’s reaction


Russian society has been hugely divided over the self-isolation measures, with part of the population advocating for stricter quarantine measures and another part neglecting the introduced measures and advocating for their cancellation.


As for the Russians that neglect self-isolation measures, according to a survey of the Higher School of Economics, one in four Russians believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is made-up. [9]

On the first day of the quarantine in Moscow thousands of citizens went picnicking. Moreover, Moscow’s Orthodox churches continued functioning for a long time, with some of their priests denying the virus existence and its threat, which resulted in several dozens diseased among parishioners. Eventually though, most of the churches closed their doors to worshippers and several Russian religious holidays were held online.


Furthermore, Russians have held protests against the quarantine measures, for instance, more than 200 people took to the streets in Vladikavkaz. And in major cities the Russians managed to hold protests online, using the Russian alternative of Google mas – Yandex maps, where users can drop comments in the form of little speech bubbles on maps to write about traffic jams or other problems. Protesters used these speech bubbles to demand the end of the self-isolation period and more aid from the government.



Making the situation as complex as possible.


When describing Russia’s response to the pandemic, several crucial factors contributing to the complexity of the situation are worth mentioning. First of all, there is the nature of the Russian economy. For several years now, Russia has preferred stability to economic growth, saving money, accumulating a vast national reserve, keeping its foreign debt very low and implementing tight monetary and fiscal policies. Thus, we could say that Russia was somehow more prepared for an economic crisis than other countries. However, the current oil prices crisis, on which Russian export still depends a lot, worsen the situation. Moreover, at the beginning of the pandemic, Russia and OPEC failed to sign an agreement on the decrease in oil production, which contributed to the oil price drop.


Another factor that made the pandemic so crucial for Russia, was the Referendum. Said Referendum on the amendments to the constitution was planned on 22nd April, and the government was unwilling to postpone it at first, though finally it had to (it is taking place from 25th June to 1st July). The amendments to the Constitution are numerous, though the most important one was the amendment to the term of presidency. The amendments nullify Putin’s terms in power, making him capable of reelecting for new terms. Taking into consideration that the president’s approval rating is decreasing, (according to Levada centre it fell to 63% in April) and half of the population disapproves the proposed amendments, it was Putin’s best interests to hold the referendum as early as possible.[10] Whereas, the pandemic is just further decreasing his popularity among the population.


The International arena.


The Covid-19 is a very convenient tool in Russian external politics. Russia started advocating for a multipolar world many years ago. Since that time Russia did take a lot of steps to return to the international arena, and to establish itself as a new pole of power alongside China and the USA. The pandemic is an ideal way to strengthen Russia’s position on the international stage. First of all, Russia accepted some other states’ help in dealing with Covid-19 and provided itself medical aid to Italy, China and the USA to battle the coronavirus.


Moreover, the disastrous consequences the virus had in Europe and in the USA made it possible for Russian media to blame it on the liberal political system and predict the end of Europe caused by the pandemic, while advertising the necessity of strong government. At the same time, the China’s fast economic recovery from Covid-19 and its ability to quickly introduce a lock-down in a city to fight off the virus, allowed the Russian authorities to reaffirm the validity of the concept of Turn to the East and the soundness in choosing China as its main partner.


Russia’s fight against the Covid-19 and the economic crisis is indeed unique and it is a tangle of contradictions. On one hand, Russia is lucky to be economically prepared and stable to survive the aftermath of the crisis. But on the other hand, Russia’s dependency on oil exports and lack of economic growth might wipe out its advantages. Plus, politically, the pandemic is a great tool to strengthen the regime by showing its population how the West “failed” to cope with the crisis, the EU is “dying”, while other authoritarian regimes are dealing with the problems with stricter measures. However, at the same time the pandemic coincided with the referendum and the state’s quarantine measures and economic aid measures lead to a decrease in Putin’s popularity, which might negatively influence the outcome of the referendum. On the international stage, Russia has a chance to show other states it can provide aid to others and be a decent member of the international community, but at the same time Russia provokes criticism because of its death toll statistics.


Notes

  1. Stanovaya, Tatiana. April 2, 2020. t.me/stanovaya/211

  2. Stanovaya, Tatiana. “Russia’s Leaders are self-isolating from their people”. Moscow Carnegie Center, April 7, 2020. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/81489

  3. Ibid.

  4. “Decrease of Russ

ia's GDP in non-working April reached 28%”. RBC. May 19, 2020. https://www.rbc.ru/economics/19/05/2020/5ec1a2bb9a79471ed0de4175

  1. Sonin, Konstantin. Open letter. March 27, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/konstantin.sonin/posts/3509656192394224

  2. Russia’s attempts to become a new pole of power in an emerging multipolar world, taking part in international conflicts, for instance in Syria, annexing Crimea Etc.

  3. Baunov, Alexander. April 8, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/100000109504492/posts/3324285447585073/?d=n

  4. Tabakh, Anton. “Distribution at the exit. What will the May economy support measures bring”. Moscow Carnegie Center. May 13, 2020. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/81785

  5. “A quarter of Russians called the COVID-19 epidemic a fiction”. RBC. May 28, 2020. https://www.rbc.ru/society/28/05/2020/5ece85a79a7947d7e297532e?from=newsfeed

  6. “Rate of approval of institutions of power and level of trust in politicians”. Levada Centre. May 6, 2020. https://www.levada.ru/2020/05/06/odobrenie-institutov-vlasti-i-doverie-politikam/

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