Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a litmus test for regimes across the world. Governments have been both criticised and praised for their response to the outbreak, proving the competence of some and pushing others to breaking point. Both UK and US leaders have had their blunders, with Trump suggesting that injecting bleach may heal the virus and Johnson’s initial plan to allow the virus to spread through the population to create ‘herd immunity’. The US is now the worst hit country in the world, and the UK has the highest death toll in Europe.
However, Russia’s COVID-19 experience and the mistakes made by their government have been largely overlooked by the international media. Russia now has the second fastest infection rate globally, with 11,000 new cases announced on Monday. Despite this, Putin announced that he is lifting the six-week lockdown and sending all areas of the economy back to work.
For the last 20 years, Putin has built Russian politics around himself, creating the belief that he is the national problem-solver and the source of ultimate authority in the nation. This is what political analysts have termed a hyper-presidential system, where Putin is the ultimate arbiter over political and social factions. This ultimate control means that Russians have been taught to trust Putin to solve any personal or national ailments. For example, every year Putin hosts a phone-in problem-solving session, where he fixes the trivial issues faced by everyday Russians. Essentially this is just a PR stunt, but it has created trust in Putin. However, during the current pandemic, this trust appears to have become a burden that is too great for him to handle.
The Russian people have turned to Putin to solve the issue of the pandemic, but he is buckling under this pressure. Instead of taking the reins and combatting the virus head-on, as many Russians expected, Putin has deflected responsibility away from the federal government onto the local and regional institutions. He has asked them not to wait for federal instruction, instead leaving them to make their own decisions on how to tackle the virus. He has also been visibly distracted and uninterested during addresses to the nation, on several occasions letting out audible sighs of boredom. This is an incredibly stark U-turn from the hyper-presidential and personalised style of governing that has characterised Putin’s rule for the last 20 years.
This has had a serious knock-on effect on the popularity of the federal government, which fell to a new low of 59% in the first week of May 2020.The last time Putin’s approval ratings dropped this low, in 2013, he faced mass street protests, opposition from liberals, and his grip on power was significantly weakened. When this happened, Putin changed the narrative and bolstered his popularity through the annexation of Crimea. These drastic measures were taken to reunite the nation behind Putin and his vision of Mother Russia.
With the current global situation, it is unlikely Putin will face mass protests, but this decline in popularity will inhibit his plans to force through constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power until 2036. The Duma session to vote on this amendment has already been delayed, and its passage largely rests on Putin’s personal power.
His response to the virus and resulting falling approval ratings, mean there are growing questions about the competence and strength that his regime has been founded on for the last 20 years. If his plans to send the entire economy back to work are fully implemented, then the spread of COVID-19 will only accelerate. This puts Putin in an increasingly vulnerable position.