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Russia and covid 19 - A political diagnosis

As the world stumbles its way through the covid-19 pandemic, some countries have fared better than others. Europe and the EU has fared quite well throughout the crisis and despite being the centre of the outbreak over the period of March-April, has managed to control the virus and stopped the death rate creeping any higher than the international average. Of course, within the bloc some countries have managed the pandemic better than others- this pattern seems to follow a geographical split with Northern members like Germany out performing Southern members like Italy.


Britain has been an outlier in the region having the largest death rate of all European countries and achieving the highest number of deaths per 1 million citizens. However, even Johnson and the rest of the Conservative government seem to have the situation under control with a sustained decline in the number of new cases per day and the number of deaths per day.


The US has handled things a little differently and has opted for a decentralised response. In some cases, this is a strength as local politicians have far more influence than federal powers at the local level. However, the weaknesses of the health insurance system have been revealed as many lack necessary or any medical cover needed to receive treatment for Covid-19.


But, one country that appears to have escaped criticism is Russia. They only posted their first case several weeks into the pandemic and even now only have a little over 5,000 official deaths from the virus. Considering that Russia, at the time of publication, has 231,000 active cases, that is quite good, and it would seem that all is well in Putin’s political bubble. However, that bubble may well pop and the repercussions of which could affect Russian politics for a long time to come.


All is Calm in Putin’s World


Analysis of the official figures would suggest that Russia has dealt with the pandemic better than countries such a Germany, Canada and Belgium. That is, if the official figures are to be believed.


Moscow’s health department has revealed that more than 60% of coronavirus patients who had died were not included in the official figures because a later autopsy had revealed that another cause was to blame. Placed in a larger perspective, this would mean that the number of deaths in the month of April in Moscow would be double what it was recorded as. However, despite this, Tatiana Golikova has said that “We never manipulate official statistical data”.


The Kremlin blames their success on a stringent testing regime and a quick, efficient response to positive cases and become defensive over claims that their methodology is inaccurate, and they are actively massaging the stats.


There are differences over the ways in which countries record deaths and even Britain has come under fire over the way it handled statistics coming from care homes- that has since been rectified. However, Russia’s healthcare system is not one that has been known to be efficient never mind world beating. Russia does offer universal healthcare, a relic of the old Soviet system, a system that still suffers from the old Soviet problems. Needless bureaucracy is rife in the system with the vast majority of those claiming universal healthcare having to purchase compulsory private medical insurance.


Jumping the queue is also common with bribes for doctors being used to access better treatments and avoiding long queues caused by the limited hospital coverage.


Not Quite as it May Seem


However, as much as state media may claim that everything is fine and dandy in Russia, Putin’s approval polls show a different story. In January, his approval ratings stood at 68%. This is not surprising since the pandemic had not taken hold of any country other than China and outside of the pandemic, Putin’s approval ratings tended to be good.


In fact, as the year progressed and we moved into February, his ratings actually increased to 69%. By this stage the virus had begun to take hold of other countries and the pandemic was slowly moving into Europe, and yet Russia remained mostly untouched by the pandemic. It would have seemed that Putin had managed to stop the spread of the virus into Russia and could proclaim victory.


However, come April, his ratings had fallen as the virus began to encroach on Russian hospitals. The poll conducted in April showed that his approval ratings had fallen by 10% in two months- down to 59%. For any politician, let alone an effective dictator in a one-party system, this is bad news and something that deserves immediate attention. The independent pollster, Levada centre, surveyed 1,608 Russians between April 24th- 27th.


Instead of asking questions face to face, the poll was conducted over the telephone- partly due to the pandemic and also to try and eliminate bias caused by fear of the regime or another outside pressure. In previous polls this has not been the case. Numbers-wise, this would put Putin’s latest poll score as low as they were in 1992 when he first came to power.


First the Crisis, Then the Consequences


This crisis of confidence must force some kind of response from the Kremlin, however, personal responsibility was not on the cards for the Russian premier. His plan involves delegating responsibility to local leaders so they could decide what is best for them. This is a clever move by Putin.


As other countries have shown, the virus does move differently in different areas- by ensuring that different areas respond differently, they may fair better than a centralised approach. Also, it means that if things go wrong, Putin is devoid of blame and someone below him will take the political bullet.


“This is abdication of responsibility, the architect of Russia’s hyper-presidential system suddenly discovering local authorities when it is convenient,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst and author. “Putin is giving them the responsibility to fight the pandemic without the funds or the powers.”


His inability to personally manage this crisis has already partly reared its ugly head. The poll results are evidence enough of this, results that may worse in the coming months depending on the damage caused by the outbreak and the inability to deal with it. Putin’s image has also been damaged by his social distancing from the crisis. He is now viewed by the public via video-link with other advisors, quite a fall for the horseback riding, ice-hockey playing, hands on leader his subjects are used to.


The Cracks Are Starting to Show


Sadly, for Putin and his particular method of Presidentialism, this crisis has not shown his style of leadership in a good light. It would seem that in times of fear and instability the people want a leader that is strong and leads from the front, something that Putin is normally very good at doing. However, he has approached this in a way unusual to the typical Putin way- why he has done this we do not know. But, what we can say is that for Putin and Russia, the pandemic has required both a medical and a political diagnosis.

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© 2020 by James Thomas Consulting.