As Russia reopens, Putin takes a back seat to local leaders

Why We Wrote This

Russia and the United States have followed similar arcs in their coronavirus lockdowns. More surprisingly, their governments have also been delegating authority for reopening in similar ways: by deferring to local leaders.

Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters
People watch penguins at the Moscow Zoo on the first day of its reopening, after restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were eased June 16, 2020.

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Moscow’s emergence from its three-month coronavirus shutdown will feature images that look familiar to Americans. But Russia’s political discontents are distinctly different. The crisis has exposed social fault lines, and at least temporarily, it has altered the division of powers between Moscow and the country’s far-flung regions.

The Russian government’s plan to stimulate the economy with social spending, announced early this year, has also been thrown into disarray and been hastily replaced by a $70 billion “recovery program.” The program’s level of success may spell the difference between social stability and unrest over the next year.

Mr. Putin’s public approval rating has fallen to a “historic low” of 59% amid the crisis, with the ratings of other leaders, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, rising significantly. That is almost certainly due to Mr. Putin’s decision to step back and leave the coronavirus heavy lifting to local governors and Mr. Mishustin’s team of technocrats.

“The crisis of 2020 has been very tough, and there may be some shocks yet to come,” says Vladimir Klimanov, an expert at a civil service academy. “It has been a totally new situation for Russia.”

Any news report about Moscow’s current, tentative emergence from its draconian three-month coronavirus shutdown will feature images that look thoroughly familiar to Americans.

They include shops reopening with strange new rules about social distancing and clerks who serve customers through plexiglass shields; people thronging into the streets again, but mostly wearing alien-looking face masks and gloves; and thousands of people ignoring all the new rules to picnic in summery urban parks or just bask in (unaccustomed, for Moscow) June sunshine.

The news covers tense warnings from medical experts and opposition politicians that restrictions are being eased too fast, too soon, and that it risks triggering a devastating second wave of infections. Some business leaders, whose livelihoods have been pummeled over the past months, insist that normalization isn’t coming fast enough.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

And even a few outliers can be heard on TV, claiming the whole thing was a hoax and that Russians were imprisoned for months in their own homes for nothing.

But Russia’s political discontents are distinctly different. There are no mass eruptions in the streets, yet the crisis has nevertheless exposed social fault lines. It has also forced the Kremlin to recalculate the ambitious plan it floated at the start of 2020 to revamp Russia’s political system, change the constitution, and perhaps keep Vladimir Putin in power for two more terms. And at least temporarily, it has altered the division of powers between long-authoritative Moscow and the country’s far-flung regions.

Reopening too fast?

One of the most bitter political gripes making Russian social media rounds is that Mr. Putin is rushing to end the lockdowns so that he can stage the annual Victory Day parade, Russia’s most important patriotic holiday, after it had to be postponed from May 9 amid the crisis. Another important political event, a national referendum to approve the sweeping package of constitutional changes, is now slated for July 1.

“There are obvious political considerations behind the decision to quickly lift the lockdowns, and these have nothing to do with public health,” says Georgy Satarov, a Yeltsin-era Kremlin official who heads the independent INDEM Foundation. “They have not estimated the risks with the right priorities.”

Yet many, particularly in Moscow’s beleaguered small-business community, are welcoming it.

“The numbers of new coronavirus cases in Moscow has been steadily falling. The situation in hospitals is manageable and stable. This is the right time to start unwinding the restrictions,” says Dmitry Orlov, head of the pro-Kremlin Agency of Political and Economic Communications. “Other regions may have different situations, and they have been given the freedom to move at their own speeds.”

The Russian government’s plan to stimulate the economy with social spending, announced early this year, has also been thrown into disarray and been hastily replaced by a $70 billion “recovery program.” The program’s level of success may spell the difference between social stability and unrest over the next year, as Russian businesses struggle to revive themselves and average Russians battle soaring household debt, high levels of unemployment, and declining faith in government.

Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
A shop assistant puts a sale sign on a show window June 18, 2020, as Moscow begins to reopen after its coronavirus lockdown.

“Russia has taken some bad hits,” says Ruben Enikolopov, rector of the New Economic School in Moscow. “It’s not just all the losses from the pandemic and the costs imposed during the lockdown. We simultaneously saw a massive drop in oil and gas prices, which is a huge shock. Official figures suggest at least a 5% drop in GDP, even without all the uncertainty of whether there will be a second wave of the pandemic. This is already the worst crisis Russia’s been through since the 1990s.”

Some economists say the post-COVID-19 slump is likely to be more than 8% of GDP, and the Kremlin is not using the crisis as an opportunity to advance reform. Without major initiatives to stimulate small business and diversify the economy, state assistance programs will just end up moving state money through state banks to benefit state corporations, says Alexei Vedev, an expert with the Gaidar Institute in Moscow.

“I think that if there are no changes in Russia’s economic model, we will end up with stability characterized by stagnation,” he says.

Federalism, Russia-style

Mr. Putin’s public approval rating has fallen to a “historic low” of 59% amid the crisis, with the ratings of other leaders, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, rising significantly. That is almost certainly due to Mr. Putin’s decision to step back from his well-cultivated image as a leader with his hands on the control panel of a monolithic “power vertical” system of authority. Instead, he has largely left the coronavirus heavy lifting to local governors and Mr. Mishustin’s team of technocrats.

That has led to at least a temporary decentralization, with more de facto authority to deal with the crisis passing to Russia’s 85 diverse and often remote provinces. They include 21 often restive ethnic republics such as those in the north Caucasus and Tatarstan, and over 60 regular regions that sprawl from the Pacific far east to the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad.

Some observers argue that Moscow’s authority could be in danger of unraveling as local officials seize more initiative. They point to a tough conversation between Mr. Mishustin and regional leaders in early April, in which the prime minister explicitly forbade establishing any “internal boundaries” to block interregional trade and travel during pandemic. At least two regions, Chechnya and Chelyabinsk, openly defied him.

“We haven’t seen anything like that since 1998, where Russian regions try to close their own internal borders,” says Vladimir Klimanov, an expert with RANEPA, a civil service academy founded by the president. “This [decentralization] was only for the period of the pandemic, though it’s possible that some local leaders, having had a taste of more power, might try to keep it.”

Another rather unprecedented example was the news last week that more than a dozen Russian cities have refused to hold local Victory Day parades on June 24, citing the fact that – unlike Moscow – the pandemic is still raging in their regions. Also surprising was the Kremlin’s response: to let it go. “They are implementing these powers because the governors, as the president has said, on the ground see better how things really are,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“The crisis of 2020 has been very tough, and there may be some shocks yet to come,” says Mr. Klimanov. “But this isn’t like the 1990s. It was the right move to let regions handle their own pandemic responses, and generally speaking the measures taken have been effective. It has been a totally new situation for Russia – and for the whole world too.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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