Staunton, September 26 – When the pandemic began in Russia, Vladimir Putin treated it from the outset as a political issue: “the Kremlin and the coronavirus were competing with each other about which was the more important,” Kirill Martynov says. Putin initially thought it wasn’t much of a competition, but he soon found out differently.
At least in part because of his cuts to medical care, the political editor of Novaya gazeta says, the Russian healthcare system underwent “the most serious test in many decades” despite official assurances that all would be well (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/09/26/87255-tsena-avtoritarizma).
But Putin made two decisions which now are making the pandemic even more of a political issue than it was, albeit a different kind of political challenge than he expected. On the one hand, he decided not to provide direct aid to the population which was kept from working even though all other major countries had done that and even though Moscow had the money.
And on the other, the Kremlin leader insisted on going ahead with military parades and voting on his constitutional amendments, even though neither was necessary and both were a threat to the health of the population given their potential to be super-spreader events. More recently, Putin has compounded this mistake.
He has talked about “an historic triumph” over the pandemic even as the numbers of infections and deaths go up and about all his government has done for the people even though an increasing number have been reduced to poverty and can’t hope to get together the 12,000 rubles (180 US dollars) needed for one of the over-the-counter treatments.
“Had the authorities distributed money to the citizenry,” Martynov continues, “the Kremlin now would have the moral right to demand for a second time that people stay in their homes. But to sit at home without pay and to observe how the ruble is collapsing are not something people are likely to agree to.”
“The spring was hard enough, and ‘the cavalry’ in the form of government assistance never arrived.” The people aren’t going to be willing to be put off again. And this time around, Putin himself will have to pay because he wants to save the economy more than save lives, only now “everyone is more tired and despairing.”
Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov has correctly observed, the Novaya gazeta commentator says, that “democracies are finding it easier to deal with the current situation. “A politician elected by citizens and accustomed to reporting to them can speak honestly about the problems of the country.”
“An if he takes a mistaken course, then he will not be elected.” In a regime like the one in Russia today, the leader feels compelled to stage parades regardless of the situation and very much fears that he might “cease to be ‘a strong leader.’” But what Putin has been doing and not doing may call his strength into question far sooner than he expects.