Russia - lockdown between Europe and Asia

Corona Russland

Holidays, Digitalisation and Control of Everything

Ute Weinmann

With 1.5 Million proven cases,[1] Russia follows the USA, India and Brasilia on the fourth position of the most Covid-19 affected countries in the world. The first two cases of infections on Russian territory were verified by the end of January by two Chinese citizens having been contracted. After that, the border crossing points to China were closed and by the mid of February, an entry ban for Chinese was imposed. Thus, the virus came to Russia mainly via Europe. Moscow, a central traffic hub and economic metropolis, expectably became the biggest Covid-19 hotspot. On March 2nd the first case was registered in the capital – a holidaymaker returning from Italy. Even though special regulations for people entering the country from abroad had been implemented on March 5th and, two weeks later, the borders were closed completely with very few exceptions, the spread of the virus could not be contained anymore.

At this point of time, the situation appeared not to be dramatic, as at first, the rate of infections proceeded moderately due to the long distances in Russia and the low mobility of its population. But two political issues fostered the initial reluctance of the Russian leadership to adopt timely containment measures to a special degree: For one thing, the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is called in Russia. For another thing, the constitutional amendment which president Vladimir Putin had introduced unexpectedly in January and on which all electorates should vote already on April 22nd. The crucial point of the amendment was to create compliance in the name of the people with the possibility of two further terms of office for Putin.

To prevent an eventual negative voting behaviour during the procedure – planned to be a triumphant consolation of Putin’s presidency – the Kremlin last not least masked the lockdown imposed at the beginning of April as holidays with full wage compensation. Most of the responsibility for the Covid19-containment measures was in the hands of the regional governments which took action quite differently. The Republic of Karelia issued hard measures before cases started to rise. The Chechen Republic in the North Caucasus region and some other regions closed their borders. But strict restrictions on outdoor activities were imposed very selectively and were consequently implemented only in some parts of the country.

The digital separate path of Moscow

Sergej Sobjanin, the mayor of Moscow, turned out to be a pioneer in regard to rigid containment measures. In many ways, China and Singapore had already served him as an example during his time of holding a governor’s office in a West Siberian province. In March, media reported of a planned shutdown of all public transport as well as a total curfew with help of the military. But it did not come to that. Instead, Sobjanin introduced a digital pass system for the usage of the metro, busses, taxis or your own car. It was necessary to register for permission to go till June 8th before starting a trip, having to answer to a range of personal questions or else you faced penalties. Additionally, tickets automatically lost their validity if they had not been registered in the system beforehand. Only a few reasons like professional trips or a visit to a medical institution served as legitimate justifications. The digitalisation, which Sobjanin had already been enforcing anyway, accelerated massively and with facial recognition programs and such is more and more assuming the shape of a surveillance state.

But at first, Sobjanin also won praise for his fast response to a point of time in which the biggest part of the state apparatus appeared badly informed and unassertive. Moreover, he took over a leading role in the struggle against the virus which again produced irritations within the power apparatus, as this – at least in some parts – led to a breach of the ruling system of subordination. So Sobjanin was initially appointed deputy in the coordination council of the government combating the Corona virus, led by the Prime Minister Michail Mischustin. On the next day, Putin himself convened a task group with the same aims in the government council and appointed Sobjanin as its director. And as this committee bears a higher significance on formal grounds, the Moscow mayor suddenly gained more importance than the prime minister. This led to frictional losses on high levels, which again was no help in finding a clear approach in how to the combat the Corona virus. However, Sobjanin and Mischustin did act jointly in one issue: In the face of rapidly growing numbers of new infections, they together convinced Putin of postponing the date of the vote on the constitutional amendment from April 1st to July 1st.

Eventually, criticism of Sobjanin’s course of action became stronger, last not least because of obvious deficiencies in the coordination of measures within the Moscow administrative machine and several other major blunders. For instance, strict police controls which had been ordered by a high ranking officer caused huge queues on the first day of the already mentioned digital passes coming into effect, creating a high risk of further infections. Sobjanin pinned the responsibility for this on the police alone, which again not only denied any criticism but noticeably exercised restraint in the following weeks on Moscow’s streets, despite an on-going duty to control any breach of Corona measures – even walks or sport activities outside were forbidden during the two month lockdown.

Another issue being criticised heavily was an app which should control the domestic quarantine in suspected cases of Covid-19. Its ‘social monitoring’ works through the demand for selfies in your own home to be sent within minutes, before the introduction of the lock wait this demand could be made in the middle of the night. As a result, 54.000 penalty notices rained down on 67.000 registered users. Not because of huge numbers of rule violations, but because the app simply was of no use due to faulty coding. Large numbers of car drivers, too, received penalty notices. Some of the penalties were later withdrawn.

Even though Sobjanin insisted on keeping up the strict containment measures, he was not able to carry this through. After having met Putin at the beginning of June, he immediately suspended the bigger part of the measures. Politically highly ambitious, Sobjanin still is considered as a loyal and reliable man in Putin’s power apparatus. But in spring, their relationship is said to have soured. Reason for this was not only their diametrically opposed approach in regard to the Corona pandemic, but also the fact that on closer consideration Sobjanin’s grown image as a competent crisis manager made him to be a potential contender for the presidential office. Beside other factors, Putin’s power model is based on high popularity ratings in society, which started to fall during the on-going restrictions. In regard to the upcoming constitutional amendment, the eligible voters were to be put into the right mood for a positive event. Thus, the weeks before the vote were not influenced by warnings of a dangerous virus, but quite contrary by all-clear signals. From now on, these signals suggested, the virus is under control. 

Opposition, Protest and political Prohibitions

But economic problems and drastically sinking real earnings clouded the joy about the easing of the restrictions. Compared with the first quarterly period, the Russian statistical agency Rosstat reported for the second quarterly an additional one million people whose earnings lay below the breadline. [2] In the third quarterly, the numbers started to decline again. Even though the government initiated anti-crisis schemes, the social consequences of the lockdown could only be cushioned slightly. In the light of obvious deficiencies in the treatment of Covid-19 patients and a particular endangerment of the medical personnel[3], the emergency situation in which the health care services are became manifest. Moscow still bears the highest infection rate with one quarter of all infections, but the capital at least disposes of extensive possibilities to meet this, not in any way to be compared with the scarce resources most of the regions have to deal with. 

All of this causes discontent in the population and fosters its willingness to protest. But the liberal opposition initially was in a dilemma, as it considered the virus as a real danger and supported containment measures, so the acceptance for the government policies was unusually high in this faction. Thus, it consequently shifted its focus on criticising the constitutional amendment. In the Russian right wing factions however, the idea prevailed that the impact of the pandemic would be the same as in a flu epidemic and that the imposed containment measures were completely exaggerated. Furthermore, they used the occasion to stir up hatred against work migrants who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic and to denounce them as a threat to the public.

Within the Orthodox Church, open resistance formed before Easter in April. Churches were supposed to remain closed for believers during the festive period by decree of the state, but only about half of the regions followed this whereas in 43 regions the doors were kept open.[4] However, the already simmering conflicts within the church intensified and its relationship towards the state and specifically the Russian leadership cooled down distinctly. Additionally, a high infection rate can be noted in church districts. Even though no official numbers exist, alone the cumulative reports of clerics having died of Covid-19, amongst whom is one of the most prominent deniers of the Corona virus, archpriest Dmitrij Smirnow, speak volumes.  

Corona related bans on public assembly apply only to 35 regions, but their interpretation differs widely.[5] In 26 regions, amongst them the metropolises Moscow and St. Petersburg, basically all public events are prohibited, even one-person manifestations with one banner. This amounts to a ban on the freedom of expression. In the question of how to deal with the pandemic in jails, the state is also not willing to show any compromise. Not only were contacts between relatives forbidden, but in some cases even to lawyers. Trials were held in camera with reference to the risk of infection. This rule has been renewed in Moscow in October. Only trials not to be delayed are dealt with by the courts, while the parliament postpones decisions which are seen to be having little relevance. This specifically applies to a controversially discussed legislative package which shall govern the approach to domestic violence anew. Even though these cases are increasing in times of domestic isolation, the Russian Upper House declared it will not start dealing with this issue before the Corona virus has not been defeated.  

Conclusion

By realizing digital control mechanisms, the Moscow administration will try to capitalise on the situation to a maximum as long as the pandemic will determine the political agenda.  President Putin again seems not to leave his residence at the gates of the capital und hopes it will come to an end soon. With reference to mass vaccinations planned for autumn the outlook made by the Russian governance sounds cautiously optimistic. Russia developed the first vaccine of the world against the new Corona virus, but whether it will have the desired effect is by no means certain.

 


[3]     Compared to other countries, independent sources report a noticeable high death rate for personnel of health care services.    https://zona.media/article/2020/05/19/martyrology
[5]     More details can be found in the report of OVD-Info from the beginning of September 2020: https://ovdinfo.org/reports/svoboda-sobraniy-na-fone-pandemii#1.