How Putin is Using COVID-19 to Further his Own Grip on Power
Dr. Lasha Tchantouridzé is a Professor and Director of the graduate programs in Diplomacy and International Relations at Norwich University.
Our conversation, conducted via email, is below.
According to some estimates, Russia has 18,328 cases and around 148 deaths from COVID-19. Is Russia lying about the numbers affected?
In every country, including Russia, the reported cases are based on the test results conducted by health authorities. That is, the more people are tested the more cases are discovered and reported. In Russia, the reported cases have been growing slower than in the West, but the rate of growth has remained steady. As of April 9, there are more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 in Russia, with Moscow being the largest chain of clusters in the country. Why are fewer cases in Russia than in European countries or North America? Underreporting is not a likely reason because lower cases of COVID-19 infections have been reported in all post-Soviet states, including the three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – currently members of the European Union and NATO. The most likely reason discovered by University of Texas Huston researchers appears to be the BCG vaccine: the Soviet Union had a very vigorous national vaccination program, which included BCG administered to all school children to counter TB. According to this research, the countries with such vaccination programs are experiencing far fewer cases of both infection and death.
Does Russia have the domestic capabilities to deal with the pandemic? Can you describe Russia’s healthcare capacities? America was caught flat-footed and despite its wealth and resources could see upwards of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.
The BCG vaccination program in the Soviet Union still does not account for a very low mortality rate from COVID-19 in Russia. Ironically, the relatively poor state of the Russian healthcare infrastructure may also be responsible for the low death rate. The Russian doctors are pretty competent and innovative, but they are short of nearly everything that they need during the best of times. COVID-19 kills mostly elderly, mostly men, and mostly those with underlying conditions. Because of the relatively poor state of Russia’s healthcare system, this demographic group in Russia has far fewer members than the comparative groups in the West: most people are killed by their underlying conditions before reaching old age, and hard-drinking and hard living Russian men do not live as long as most men in the West. In short, the demographic group that is the most vulnerable to COVID-19 is much smaller in Russia than anywhere in the West.
In addition, most Russian doctors are aggressively using anti-viral drugs to fight COVID-19. They are encouraged to do so by the Russian state, and they do not fear prosecution if such experimental treatments go awry – they can do these due to a much different organization of the Russian healthcare system and a distinct legal tradition. They are fighting COVID-19 with both broad-spectrum anti-viral drugs and those specifically designed to treat AIDS or malaria. Some of these treatments in some patients have been reported to be effective not only by Russian doctors, but also by doctors in China, Japan, Georgia, and other countries.
Finally, the Russian healthcare system is poor when it comes to medical technology, resources, medications, etc. but both medical professionals and public health officers are very competent in dealing with emergency situations: most healthcare emergencies, including pandemics such as COVID-19, are better managed through managing human behavior, that is, implementing correct steps in a correct sequence with appropriate social expectations. Competence in these areas does not depend on wealth or technological advancements.
Leaders, autocratic or otherwise, never miss a good opportunity to exploit a crisis. Can you explain how Vladimir Putin has been able to exploit COVID-19?
President Putin has used the current global pandemic to enhance his executive power and he has essentially organized a palace coup by engineering an extension of his terms in office. These steps were undertaken in January and February when the international community was busy with the COVID-19 outbreaks in China, South Korea, Iran and subsequently elsewhere, with the Russian cases initially being much lower. Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, largely supports the idea of giving Mr. Putin additional presidential terms, and the Russian Senate, staffed exclusively by Putin loyalists, is behind the measure.
Because of the pandemic, the Kremlin had to postpone the vote on resetting Vladimir Putin’s term limits. Many have categorized it as giving Vladimir Putin power for life. Is this a fair analysis?
Once the necessary steps were taken and everything was made ready to adopt the law granting Mr. Putin additional terms, which essentially proposed to award him presidency for life, the vote got delayed citing the increasing COVID-19 cases in Russia. The Russian republic has a strong presidency – much stronger than that of the United States and even stronger than that of France. This will make Mr. Putin an emperor in everything but the official title.
Is there any reason to assume that the vote wouldn’t go Putin’s way? Is it just a formality to give the appearance of democracy?
None. If the vote is defeated, the bill can be reintroduced with minor, non-essential amendments. This can be done repeatedly, and if it is repeatedly defeated, the Russian president has the constitutional power to dismiss the lower house and call snap elections.
On a fundamental level, is Russia a democracy?
No. Russia is an oligarchy – this is a form of political rule based on an accumulation of power in the hands of a few select individuals. Our habit of classifying political systems as either democracies or dictatorships is a legacy of the Cold War, when simplistic classifications were championed in the fight against global communism. In fact, more nuanced classifications are possible that more accurately describe political systems around the world.
According to the U.S. intelligence community, Russia was still meddling in U.S. elections and was continuing to do so to help ensure Donald Trump is reelected. Has the pandemic thrown this strategy for a loop?
The Russian intelligence has a key objective to diminish power and influence of the United States around the world. One important way to achieve this objective is by undermining the democratic process in the United States, including compromising the office of the American president. They will continue to do so regardless of what else is happening in the world or who is running for office. Obviously, some individuals are easier to compromise than others due to their poor choices, but even in the case of more prudent candidates for office or a more dire state of the world economy is not likely to change this general objective of the Russian intelligence anytime soon.
A follow-up question: For general readers who don’t follow Russian elections, can you explain how the state might suppress the vote or in some cases alters the vote for preferred candidates?
The Russian government under Putin has developed a multilayered approach to the act of securing enough votes to ensure that Mr. Putin and his supporters stay in power indefinitely. By rough estimates about one-third of the voters in Russia strongly support Putin and his policies — this is objectively so, as living conditions in Russia have improved under Putin, especially compared to the chaotic and miserable 1990s. However, this is not enough to secure successive electoral victories: the Putin organization must persuade another one-third of voters to support him and political parties allied with him (Putin officially is not a member of any political party).
How do they do this? To put it bluntly, by threatening employment and livelihood of the targeted population. For the Putin organization there are two types of working people in Russia: those who work for the so-called ‘budgetary organizations’ (i.e. those who work for the state ministries, departments or corporations), and those who work for private corporations or organizations. A good example how to persuade those who work for the state-funded entities is the profession of teachers. More than 95% of the teachers in Russia work for the public, or state-funded schools. The public education system in Russia is centralized and headed by the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation. This means that all the teachers and employees of the vast network of schools and educational institutions in Russia are employed by the same ministry headed by a minister who is a close ally of Mr. Putin.
During the elections, the minister commands his deputies to deliver the votes, who tell their deputies the same and so on until the message reaches every single employee of the educational sector. (In Russia, they don’t have to say “or else” after saying “vote for our boss” — such things are understood without being explicitly stated). Russia has a vast sector of ‘budgetary organizations,’ including its huge military-industrial complex. In short, this feat is easier to achieve in the state-funded entities, but what about Russia’s growing sector of private and publically traded corporations? This was more difficult to achieve as it required more effort and some bloodletting — one might recall assassinations or accidental deaths of important Russian businesspeople and their political allies early in the Putin era — that was done to ensure that every single private corporation of any significance and size had at least one former or current KGB-FSB operative in its leadership. These people may not know much about oil, gas or communications business, but they are very effective when it comes to explaining to their colleagues what needs to be done during the crucial times of national importance, such as the presidential or parliamentary elections.
Finally, one should note that the country is officially called “the Russian Federation,” but the heads of the federal unites are either selected personally by Putin or approved by him. Not surprisingly, there is a ‘friendly competition’ among these federal heads during the national elections on the topic of who delivers more votes to Mr. Putin. What about the last one-third of the voters? Well, the Putin organization judges some of them to fall in line due to social habit or influence by others or convenience, and the rest probably are either politically apathetic or incompetent or anti-social or dedicated enough people to remain in the opposition to Mr. Putin no matter what. In the end, at least two-thirds of the national votes always win elections, in Russia or anywhere else.