Friday, March 27, 2020

Coronavirus Intensifies Political Competition within Russian Elite, ‘Politsovet’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 23 – As in many other countries, the coronavirus has not only inflicted harm on the Russian population but triggered or at least exacerbated political conflicts within the Moscow elite with various players seeking to claim the laurels for defeating the pandemic and thus advancing their careers, according to Yekaterinburg’s Politsovet portal.

            The chief participants in this competition, the political outlet says, are Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, each of whom is hoping to use this crisis as a springboard “if not to the status of Putin’s ‘successor’ than at a minimum to that of number two in the Russian powers” (

            For Sobyanin, Politsovet says, this may be his “last chance” to achieve such a status. “For Mishushin this is the first serious test of the strength of his position.  On its outcome will depend whether he will remain a purely technical premier, grow in influence or even lose his position altogether.”  But what is clear “the coronavirus will decide” their fates.

            Initially, neither of these heavyweights nor anyone else near the top of the Russian political pyramid appeared to recognize the seriousness of the threat, and all were content to leave supervision of the matter to Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, with Mishustin acting as her supervisor.

            But as the crisis grew, Mayor Sobyanin jumped in, “formally because it is Moscow where the number of infected and ill is the greatest.  But he “quickly went beyond the framework of an ordinary regional leader” and Putin gave him the job of heading a special working group in the State Council for combatting the coronavirus.

            Meanwhile, however, the prime minister created his own coordinating council and made himself its chairman. Many officials involved in the fight thus were forced to choose whom to defer to more. And that “hidden competition between the prime minister and the capital’s mayor continued all last week” with now one and now the other announcing initiatives.

            This conflict came to a head today when the mayor announced a sweeping list of limitations on residents in the capital’s residences and special payments to elderly Muscovites who have been observing self-isolation.  That boosted Sobyanin’s standing, and Mishustin could not do anything except appear to be following him, thus suffering a kind of defeat.

            According to Politsovet, “Mishustin understands this very well” and at a meeting of the government “in fact recognized the primacy of Sobyanin” in this situation.” The premier compounded this by announcing Sobyanin’s program and calling on other regional heads to be equally innovative.

            Where things go from here, of course, depends on the course of the pandemic – and also on what these two men and Vladimir Putin choose to do in response.

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