international analysis and commentary

The Coronavirus and Vladimir Putin: a new type of challenge

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Speaking to the Russian nation on April 8th, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the spread of coronavirus to the attacks that an ancient, early-medieval proto-Russian state suffered from the hordes of semi-nomadic pagan tribes about one thousand years ago.

“Our country has suffered through many ordeals: both Pechenegs and Cumans attacked, and Russia got through it all,” the Russian President said. “Friends, all things pass, and this will pass, too,” he continued. “We will also defeat this coronavirus infection.”

The battlefield after a fight with the nomadic tribes, in one famous Russian painting – “After Prince Igor’s Battle with the Polovtsy”, by Viktor Vasnetsov

 

Over the past few weeks, Putin delivered three addresses to the nation overall. In them, he looked unusual – he was visibly perplexed and dismayed about the epidemic, which presented a new, more fluid challenge to him.

In the course of 20 years in the Kremlin, Putin has been selling himself as Russia’s savior. The country faced many natural disasters, terrorist attacks, airplane crashes and numerous other calamities. In each of them, Russia’s undisputed leader would appear center stage as the force that brings things back to their balance.

This time, Putin’s role has been different. The Kremlin has delegated the micromanagement of the situation to the cabinet of ministers and to the mayor of Moscow. The measures to enforce self-isolation were announced by regional heads, instead of Putin himself. Suddenly, Russia turned into a true federation, where heads of regions, which had been appointed by the Kremlin, had to bear the weight of making sure people reduce their social contacts.

In this situation, the President has distanced himself from the overall effort to fight the virus. There has been too much bad news and the prospects are grim. Against this backdrop, Putin attempted to separate his image from the crisis. So far, Putin has reserved for himself the role of a mouthpiece of good news – that Russians will get one month off with pay or that Russians will surely emerge victorious in its fight against the virus just as their ancestors did 1,000 ago in their war against nomads.

The virus threat, however, is different from an attack of foreign invaders and one month off work only prompted some Russians to socialize more. The coronavirus appears to be a 21st century threat that Putin is not ready for. It shows that he has been stuck in 20th century geopolitics at the time when the world, including Russia, has moved on.

The coronavirus pandemic has caught Putin in the middle of a grand transition. In January, he surprised Russian society and many members of the elite by announcing a major change to the country’s constitution, a document that has not been amended significantly since the foundation of the modern Russian state in 1993.

Since then, Russia has changed significantly. Largely with Putin’s help, it turned from a pro-Western, ultra-liberal state into a reactionary and conservative stronghold engaged in a hybrid war with the West. He decided to formalize this change in the constitution by adding many populist clauses, such as mandatory yearly adjustment of pensions or stipulating that holders of foreign passports cannot become public officials in Russia.

The true purpose of the change, however, was not revealed until the very last moment, when final draft of the new amendments was discussed at the State Duma. In March, the first woman in space and now State Duma deputy Valentina Tereshkova announced that it would be fair and good for the country to make it legally possible for Putin to stay in power for another 16 years. His term limit clock was thus re-set to zero. The whole package was supposed to be approved by the Russian people on April 22nd.

Then came the coronavirus.

So far, Russia has been lagging behind in terms of the scale of the epidemic and in terms of relative death rates. There might be several explanations to this. Most Russian regions, with the city of Moscow on the forefront of this fight, declared a strict lockdown early, at the time when the government had recorded only 1,836 confirmed cases. In Italy, this happened when there were more than 5,000. In the United States, the measures came when the official number had surpassed 25,000.

Another possible explanation can be that top-down authoritarian systems can be quicker and more efficient in the face of a severe crisis. A decision made at the top is quickly implemented along the chain of command.

Finally, Russia is just not as integrated yet in the international flows of people, as is the case with the Milan area or New York City. The country could simply be lagging behind some other countries and the worst may be still to come.

Still, it is clear that even in its present form, the coronavirus will deal a significant blow to the country’s economy.

According to early economic forecasts, by the time Putin will face possible re-election in 2024, the economy will only be recovering from the long pandemic crisis. This will largely depend on how long self-isolation measures that shut down a big chunk of the economy, especially the smaller businesses, will last and how long it will take for the world economy to be re-launched. The Russian economy relies on the export of oil, gas and metals, so it largely depends on how quickly the demand for these raw materials will be restored.

This presents a big challenge for Putin. Russia has been suffering from a long-term stagnation that was prompted by a drop in oil prices in 2014 and by sanctions imposed on the country by Western states. Moscow has been hoping that after having accumulated more money in its rainy-day funds, it will be able to spend them on infrastructure projects that will give a boost to the economy. Now, Russia will have to spend a large share of these funds on supporting the economy and its budgetary system.

The country has enough reserves to whether this storm, according to most estimates, but it will will pay for it with the prospects of its future development. Many countries approached this moment at the time when their economies were booming. Russia, with Putin’s help, has been stagnating and it looks certain that with him at the helm it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.