Western media has been occupied with two questions regarding Russia’s COVID-strategy: what are the official numbers and does the government have a strategy? Despite that the information is still incomplete, some wider arguments can be sketched already. In this article, I will discuss what the ongoing COVID-crisis has revealed about Russian society, and what kind of political ramifications it could have.
As of 24th of May, Russia had recorded more than 300,000 case, making its outbreak third biggest in the globe after US and Brazil.
In spite of the magnitude of the outbreak, Russia efforts to tackle the ongoing crisis has been at least decent. Especially government’s prompt response to close the borders with China at early stage provided an extra time for preparations. Kremlin has assured that Russia utilised this window of opportunity to reinforce its health system capacity: numerous temporary hospitals were erected, and after a moment of hesitation, Russia’s capacity to conduct tests has been strikingly good, though the quality of the tests remains as an open question.
Currently the country is opening, as government stated that the pandemic is already past its peak, and the policy of “non-working day” was dissolved in 11th of May. In spite of this, any new information about the postponed referendum on constitution amendments that would grant Putin right to continue as president after 2024 has not been given yet.
Despite the rosy picture that Russian government has painted of its response, some suspicions over the factuality of these claims has been arisen. To assess Russia’s crisis response and its political consequences comprehensively, three points need to be assessed.
Varying capacities, deep inequalities
Coronavirus has offered an opportunity for populist and autocratic leaders in the media spotlight. Thus, it is relatively surprising that Vladimir Putin has occupied himself with foreign policy, leaving the initial responsibility to the regional leaders of the federal state. In his few speeches for the people, president has looked tired and disinterest to the topic.
Government’s decision to leave the response for regional leaders has meant very different things for different federal subjects. For instance, according to the World Bank report on Russia’s trade and competitiveness, living standards in the wealthiest regions of Russia, such as in the capital, is comparable to many OECD countries, where as the worst-off regions can be compared with countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Marred by heavy dependence on federal resources, inadequacy of the health care system and other dysfunctionalities of heavily centralised government, some of the regions have found themselves from tricky situation.
Statistics behind the facade
Considering the very different realities in the regions, governments assurances that its impressive track-record in testing has saved Russia from the worst crisis seems odd. As the official statistics claim that the death rate is 7,4 times smaller than the global average, a question if these statistic reflect the realities has risen by many, especially as unusual numbers of doctors and health sector have died during the crisis.
Although the previous point could be explained by poor protection of health care employees, Financial Times and New York Times revealed that there is significant caps in the counting of mortality. Despite that MFA of Russia labelled this as a fake news, it indeed seems that some Russian regions has counted coronavirus as a mere ‘catalyst’ for death in many instances.
It is tempting to postulate that the lack of reliable figures is yet one proof of Russia’s authoritarian government that is trying to do everything at its disposal to hide the truth from its citizens. If there was even more than hint of truth, Russians seems to be sceptical themselves towards the news regarding corona.
However, internal logics and paradoxes of authoritarian states must be noted. Statistics might be embellished at every level starting from hospitals to the regional leadership, as officials’ attempt to please their superiors. Furthermore, the deaths of doctors and nurses show that although autocrats tend to emphasis their capacity to implement policies effectively and shows statistics to support these claims, Russia is an example that the human cost of these measures can be high.
Economy: who suffers?
Unlike many Western European countries, straight financial support for small businesses or ordinary citizens have not been part of Russia’s response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Instead, the government has focused to help big state-enterprises amid the energy price crisis, as the federal budget remains heavily dependent on the oil and gas revenues.
Government’s policy has precipitated the decline of real incomes that begun in 2014. This is interesting especially in the light of the fact that the level of real incomes in Russia often correlates with the growing anti-government attitudes. This trend has been continuous since the pension protests in 2017-2018, which marked the tipping point in the citizen trust towards government after the euphoria sparked by the annexation of Crimea.
Citizens’ growing fears of the personal financial situation is best illustrated in the case of North Ossetia. A small republic in Northern Caucasus witnessed demonstrations against the government imposed curbs some time ago. People of one of the most underdeveloped regions of the Federal State said that they could not afford to stay at home any longer. However, concerns over the government’s decision to end the “non-working” day was also criticized, as it means that people without financial stability has to go to work even if it means exposing itself to virus that is possibly fatal.
Conclusion: what kind of Russia shall emerge from the crisis to the international arena?
Despite the signs of growing dissidence and distrust towards the government, it is very unlikely that Russia would witness any big domestic turmoil in short-term as the national crisis response could have been much worse, and the opposition remains fragmented. However, the problems stemming from the belated economic modernisation of the country might
This leads to the question of Russia’s future foreign policy behaviour, which is of course the most interesting matter from EU perspective. Although Russia’s foreign policy is a product of a mixture of different global, regional and domestic inputs, the economic, social and political crisis caused by the pandemic can’t disappear without leaving any mark to its international posture.
Hence be it a genuine attempt to approach with the West or a propaganda effort, it is reasonable to expect that Russia’s extraordinary spur of benevolence is merely a temporary shift. Taking into notion its increasingly exhausted national economy, sanctions and expensive war in Eastern Ukraine are becoming a growing financial burden for Russia. Thus, it would not be a surprise if Russian leadership would see the crisis as a momentum for conflict resolution.
Despite that the ravaged European economies could benefit from decreasing security expenditures, it is highly unlikely that the domestic attitudes in EU or US would be in favour for any moves after years of Russia’s unconstructive foreign policy and antagonistic attitude towards Western democracy. Furthermore, the US decision to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty will probably harshen the attitudes in Russia as well.
Hence, future is looking rather grim. Russia will continue its efforts to bolster pro-Russian forces in European nations and to keep a hold on its perceived sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Caucasus. Any predictions at this point are pure guessing, but if one target should be named, it would probably be Belarus, with whom Russia recently had fierce negotiations regarding the energy supply contract and it’s political conditions. The parties concluded that Russia continues to sell energy to Belarus for domestic price, while the economic integration between the parties will be deepened.
Striving to save its political independence, the autocratic president of the Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenka, has initiated a policy to diversify its energy sources. US responded to this demand, outlining that the energy cooperation will help Belarus to strengthen it’s sovereignty and independence. Plummeting national economy creates a need to another external national security question, and the bold moves of US offers an opportunity for Russia’s propaganda machine, which is notorious for its ability to turn a friend to foe almost in overnight.
Regardless of the type of Russian henceforth actions, from the EU perspective synchronized policies and common solidarity to tackle the ongoing social and economic crisis is the most viable remedy for countering Russia’s possibly malicious moves. Neither should the importance of the well-measured but decisive policies in the shared neighbourhood be forgotten. Although the further deterioration of EU-Russia -relations should be avoided, the EU must underline that the much needed mutual trust can’t be built on a basis of unilateral actions.
Teksti: Riku Rantanen
The author is a Masters student at contemporary history and Eastern European studies at University of Turku, and he has a strong emphasis on EU’s enlargement and relations with Russia.