By Polina Beliakova
First published in WarOnTheRocks

COVID-19 has become a pretext for autocratic rulers around the world to grab more power. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor OrbanPhilippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and Jordan’s Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz all expanded their authorities due to the COVID-19 crisis. They can now rule by decree, impose curfews, deploy troops to the streets, and interfere in the private sector, among other things. In many liberal democracies like GermanyFrance, and Denmark, leaders also took center stage and used their power to employ harsh measures in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be doing quite the opposite — He has withdrawn from policymaking and expanded the authorities of Russia’s regional officials. This unusual development signals that the Kremlin has reached the limits of its power at home. While not suggesting that Putin is weak, his approach to the pandemic indicates that the Russian president is only as strong as his current system allows.

Putin’s Pandemic Response

Russia’s reaction to COVID-19 started with closing the border with China in late January, even before Russia had its first confirmed cases. Measures included deporting Chinese and other foreign citizens, and introducing sporadic body temperature checks at airports and in the Moscow subway. In mid-March, Russia banned entry of foreign nationals, and all Russian regions canceled school classes and restricted public gatherings. Throughout this period, Putin has remained largely absent from the frontlines of the pandemic.

Some experts suggest that Putin withdrew from managing the coronavirus crisis to make the pandemic someone else’s problem, and to avoid reputational damage if the government’s response was ineffective. This explanation points to a much bigger issue: The attempts to avoid responsibility for the crisis signal that Putin understands that the Russian system is unable to sustain a test by COVID-19. Leading the emergency response from Moscow would require state-wide coordination across Russia’s regions and institutions, which would likely fail. From this perspective, any attempt to apply or further extend Putin’s prerogatives under the pretense of the novel coronavirus — similar to the dynamics in other authoritarian regimes — would mean giving orders that will not be implemented. Doing so would expose Putin’s weakness  instead of contributing to his strength.

Indeed, the reluctance of the Kremlin to take control of the situation became apparent as early as February. While Putin discussed the coronavirus threat at Russia’s Security Council meeting on February 14, it took him a month to initiate a special working group, giving Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, the authority to manage the crisis. The Russian president first addressed the nation on March 25 — a month after Russia had its first confirmed coronavirus case. Putin announced a week of “non-working days” — a new Russian euphemism for quarantine. However, the term does not necessarily imply self-isolation. This irresolute formulation allowed many Russians to interpret the “non-working days” as holidays, and many took the opportunity to gather for a barbecue and enjoy the warm weather. Doing so defeated the purpose of the government’s ambiguous policy and contributed to the spread of the virus.

Later, Moscow announced church closures across Russia during the Orthodox Easter. Nevertheless, this fell flat as many parishes outside the capital remained open. Patriarch Kirill, who ordered the closure of the churches, is not simply a cleric but also a powerful member of Putin’s elite, expected to be an effective manager of one of the pillars of the Russian statehood (and Putin’s regime) — the Orthodoxy. Therefore, the failure of the Moscow Patriarchy to close churches due to the novel coronavirus not only signifies the weakness of the clergy, but also points to the impotence of one of the critical joints of Putin’s power.


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