Putin and coronavirus face to face

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The attack of a virus coming from China exposed that Russians are not the different species that some Western media like to picture them. Faced with the epidemic, Russians reacted the same way that others. First with indifference “much ado about nothing” and cockiness “we need more to be alarmed”. Then, when it circled closer and closer, a majority of Russians concluded that the authorities were just lying and rush to social medias to stuff themselves with conspiration theories and extravagant recipes to fight the infection.

The Russian leaders also fitted the international agenda. First they minimised the risk for their own population and the superiority of their health systems. When this was impossible anymore, they hid themselves behind scientists and experts. And as in other countries, the had a problem to admit that the fight against the virus has been hampered by a lack of resources (staff, hospital beds, equipment, pharmaceutical products) and dependence of imports.

In other words, the evolving reaction of Vladimir Putin largely echoed that of many Western leaders. But it came from a different Vladimir Putin.

Russians had to wait for days before he appeared on television. The question was “where is Putin”, and most importantly his absence encouraged unflattering comparisons with his lack of reaction when the Kursk submarine sunk in August 2000, the first test of his presidency, that gave him the image of an insensitive man that will stick to him.

Hence his decision to talk once a week to the nation, adjusting his posture to the growing seriousness of the situation. After a first appearance when he adopted an extravagantly relaxed attitude, he took a more presidential tone and finally had to tell Russians that the virus was still part of their life and that the national situation will be harder than predicted by previous economic plans.

The tone was less that of the father of the nation than that of a paternalistic CEO distributing missions. This included delegating power to regional leaders. This was logical in such a vast and diverse country, which includes huge cities like the capital that are a country in its own. But the accent put on regional leaders is also a classical way to find culprits if the situation goes for the worst, medically, economically and socially. Especially as money is in short supply and Putin risks to appearing to favour big business, with links into Kremlin clans, above small companies and ordinary citizens.

In fact, Putin did not have many more options than the quiet approach he opted for. That leaves open the question of his motivations that are, as always with Putin, everyone guess.

A reason can be simply that he takes seriously the part of the constitutional reforms he pushed through the Duma providing for decentralisation. After 20 years in power, he had the time to see how the balance between federal and regional powers provided by the constitution of 1993 is hampering the development of the country and reflects a revolutionary period that does not exist any more.

Another is that he is a freer president that he has ever been thanks to the constitution’s reforms. These provide for the possibility to look for another mandate in 2024, but he has been vague about his intentions. This uncertainty prevents competing clans from nurturing their own candidates, creating instability around the president. And it offers him time to select his own successor without exposing him too quickly.

And that would be a great continuity by Vladimir Putin.

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