Russia’s virus ‘win’ 'hides damning truth'
Vladimir Putin is in a panic. COVID-19 is out of control. Outspoken doctors are falling from windows. Now he's abandoned Russia's lockdown as cases continue to soar - because his popularity is being pummelled.
Before the global pandemic, Putin was well on his way to entrenching himself in Russia's top job permanently.
Constitutionally, he should be gone for good come 2024.
But the problem with strongman politics is that to survive, one has to stay on top.
As the pandemic began its murderous sweep through his country, Putin saw an opportunity.
On March 29, the Kremlin ordered a strict lockdown. It was too late. The virus was already widespread.
But Putin had other things on his mind.
He had already used the crisis to rush emergency amendments to the constitution through parliament. It just so happened one of them dramatically extended his reign.
It was time to celebrate. He never expected to complete this coup in such an easy manner.
Meanwhile, the apolitical virus continued to spread.
Murder may have silenced doctors. But not COVID-19.
Intimidation may have distorted death tolls. But it didn't divert the pandemic.
Now a groundswell of discontent is pushing against the cracks in Putin's rigid control.
And he's in a race against time to secure his hold on power.
"He doesn't look like a strong leader anymore," political scientist Alexander Kynev told the Moscow Times. "For so many years his charisma was his bravado. Even if he was a son of a b**ch, he was powerful. And this gained him respect even from those who weren't happy with him.
"Now he looks like an old, sick wolf."
SEIZING THE MOMENT
Before COVID-19, Putin had plans.
He could justify extending his term as president through 'resetting' the Russian constitution via a merger with Belarus.
Or he could try a method that had proven effective for him before, shift the seat of true power to a previously obscure government position. One, of course, he could step into.
Both involved a hefty degree of manipulation, obfuscation and intimidation.
But he had to do it in a way that could be spun into a veneer of legitimacy.
Then, the COVID-19 emergency gave him an apparently easy out.
"He will now be able to remain president until 2036 - the year in which he will turn 84 years old," a Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) commentary notes.
Putting the pandemic to one side, Putin focused on rewriting the constitution to his favour.
After all, everybody was distracted by the unfolding pandemic.
"The amendments to the Russian constitution are themselves fascinating, multifaceted, and go way beyond extending the term of the president; they also bolster presidential power considerably," the CSIS assessment reads.
He can now conveniently sack any member of the Constitutional Court at a whim.
All elements of government are now answerable directly to him. So he can sack any public servant he wants.
He's cut the powers of local governments. He's officially limited marriage to between a man and woman. He's made the Russian Orthodox Church the State religion.
All that's left now is the optics of a formal referendum to rubber-stamp it all.
Meanwhile, he forgot something.
"Putin has lost touch with reality," Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik political analysis project, told the Moscow Times.
"It seems like he doesn't understand which country he is in."
One of Putin's closest advisers, spokesman Dmitry Peskov, has just tested positive for COVID-19.
He's just one case in a new surge of infections across Russia.
Putin's domain is the third most afflicted nation in the world - behind the United States and Spain.
And Peskov is the fifth member of the president's inner sanctum to contract the virus.
Putin is safe. He's been working remotely from his residence outside Moscow. Almost all of his meetings are held via video conferencing.
So, it seems odd that he suddenly decided on Monday to lift Russia's pandemic lockdown.
His public, after six weeks of isolation, was unhappy.
His oligarchs had seen their profits evaporate.
Now critics say he's more than happy to jeopardise the public's health for a quick boost in popularity ahead of the constitutional referendum.
Meanwhile, the virus has not been contained. Tuesday, the day Putin addressed the nation, marked a record number of new cases - 11,656.
"All the (coronavirus-related) measures we have taken allow us to move to the next step in the fight against the epidemic and start a phased lifting of the lockdown restrictions," Putin declared in a televised statement.
But he did add a note of caution: "We must not allow a breakdown, a rollback, a new wave of the epidemic and an increase in serious complications. Once again, there will be no rapid lifting of the restrictions. It will take considerable time."
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov says Putin is attempting to do this in a way that shifts responsibility - and blame - to the same regional governments he has eviscerated under his constitutional changes.
"The governors will be the ones introducing restrictions," Gudkov says. "They are the ones who will be responsible for the spread of the virus. Direct your anger at them."
Meanwhile, the last place scheduled to lift its lockdowns is Moscow. It remains under quarantine until May 31.
"This odd reaction to the coronavirus epidemic is not the first time this year that the president has shown himself ready to risk the public good for the sake of his own plans and interests," the Carnegie Moscow Centre assessed last month.
The first was the risk to social stability posed by the constitutional changes.
The second was an opportunistic but risky attack on international oil prices in a bid to expand Russian markets.
The third was a tardy mobilisation of COVID-19 containment measures.
Now, Putin's putting himself first again.
His popularity has been carefully built up around one core principle: that his authoritarian, strongman style promoted national stability. That things would simply 'get done'.
COVID-19 has tarnished that spin.
"Putin may have diligently played the role of the guarantor of security for many years, but over time, that Putin stability had begun to be eroded," the Carnegie commentary reads. "It had become increasingly obvious that this stability primarily benefited the president's inner circle, but it was still considered the lesser evil: it could always be worse."
Now it is worse.
His people are suffering, both from disease and economic hardship.
His billionaire supporters are losing money.
His popularity is plummeting.
Official figures - which have been manipulated in the past - put Putin's approval rating at 59 per cent. That's way down from the 70s and 80s ahead of the last presidential election.
Now, the delayed constitutional referendum is looming. The Kremlin has floated a June 24 date, perhaps in the hope of getting it done before the looming harsh and long-term recession bites.
"Before the epidemic, it was always absolutely guaranteed for him," Russian political commentator Sergey Parkhomenko says. "Now, it's a big risk."
International Russia observers agree.
"Something extraordinary is unfolding right before people's eyes: one immutable value (Putin) is destroying another (stability)," Carnegie says. "The Russian people are not only being asked whether they approve of resetting the clock on presidential terms. They must also decide what is more valuable to them: the president himself or stability? Or, to put it another way: Putin instability or non-Putin stability?"
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as Russia's virus 'win' hides damning truth