Staunton, June 25 – Early on in the pandemic, the Kremlin announced the regions rather than the center would be responsible for responding to the threat, an approach the authorities justified by pointing to the enormous diversity of the country but one that in fact was intended to deflect any popular anger at restrictions away from the Kremlin and to the regions.
This departure from Russian practice was so striking that many commentators began to talk about the appearance of real federalism in Russia even though the heads of the federal subjects were Moscow appointees and Moscow controlled most if not all of their financial resources.
But Russia would not be Russia and Putin would not be Putin if this response was going to be allowed to continue and expand; and in fact, as Russia has been hit by a third wave of the coronavirus, the central authorities have moved quickly and even dramatically to centralize policy making and unify the country’s response.
The way in which the center has done so, by arguing that the regional governments should take Moscow city’s response as its template, obscures this return to what has been standard operating procedure; but it is no less dramatic given how diverse the regions remain and is fraught with political problems, especially for Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin.
While the third wave of the pandemic has had a negative impact almost everywhere, some regions are suffering far more than others; and a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t necessarily the best given that harsh lockdowns may be appropriate in some regions but not in others and may in the latter do more economic and even political damage than work as intended.
Moreover, by promoting the policies of Sobyanin which the Kremlin has been supporting as the model for all, the central authorities have whether they recognize it or not created an alternative center, one to whom some regions may now look for guidance on other matters, something the regime does not want.
History suggests that the Kremlin is not going to tolerate such a second center for long and that the central government will either more sharply to rein in Sobyanin or even oust him lest he present a challenge to the center’s prerogatives, something that would likely infuriate Muscovites as a group.
These reflections are prompted by the remarks of Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova who suggested that governors follow Moscow in coping with the third wave. She made that proposal at a meeting of the Russian government’s pandemic operational staff, and it was reported by the URA news agency (ura.news/articles/1036282559).
URA reported the observations of three Russian expert commentators, all of which point in the same direction. Dmitry Yelovsky, head of the Actor communications agency says that if the central government issues orders, the regional heads follow them, but if it doesn’t, they look to Moscow city because of its power and resources.
Sergey Markov, another political commentator, says he expects the tougher measures Moscow has adopted in the crisis are likely to spread across the country because what has been done up to now hasn’t worked. And Dmitry Nechayev of the Institute for Political Analysis and Strategy says Sobyanin will be leading this because of his connections to the central government.