Schrodinger’s Putin and bulldogs with masks (Part 2)

In Russia, the Covid-19 outbreak has required unprecedented decentralization by the Kremlin. Regional governors had to be granted powers that Moscow may not be able to take back once the pandemic ends.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin at a press conference
Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin was a proponent of strict social distancing measures from the very beginning of the pandemic. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The pandemic has unexpectedly led to refederalization
  • It also caused tension between the church and the state
  • Popular discontent could affect the results of the vote

This report is the second in a two-part series on Russia’s constitutional amendments from GIS Expert Dr. Svyatoslav Kaspe. The first part, which was published yesterday, focused on the events of January 2020.

As discussed in Part 1, it seems probable that in early 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to prepare for his departure from power. His reasons could be of a psychological, medical or any other nature – it is a rather pointless exercise to attempt a guess. 

But whatever Mr. Putin’s initial plan had been, he now has to contend with a new reality. The past months have substantially changed the political balance and the country as a whole.


An unexpected consequence of the pandemic was creeping re-federalization. It has long been said that the Kremlin’s desire to centralize the Russian state is almost manic, to the extent of being counterproductive if not plain dangerous. It was clear the pendulum would eventually swing back the other way. But no one could foresee that a virus would be the catalyst. 

President Putin refused to take responsibility for nationwide lockdown measures. Enormous powers were immediately granted to regional leaders while the federal government gave inspiring but vapid speeches, and occasionally barked at regions performing poorly. Why risk being blamed if the epidemiological situation spirals out of control when someone else can be held accountable? Also, Russia’s size and diversity do require different policies depending on the region (not only during emergencies).

The Moscow mayor played a much more convincing part than President Putin, who shied away from responsibility.

The governors, who had long been prevented from taking any autonomous action, reacted in various ways. Some simply refused to shoulder the additional responsibility and resigned, even at the cost of their political future. The governors of Arkhangelsk, Komi and Kamchatka all resigned in early April. 

Others, following their instincts for self-preservation, started manipulating statistics to hide the scope of the pandemic in their region. However, such behaviors were met with fierce opposition from Prime Minister Mishustin – an expert in digital technologies who, as the head of Russia’s tax service, created one of the best systems of financial monitoring and management in the world. 

Most governors, however, appeared to tackle the challenge relatively successfully. One even suspects they had been waiting for a chance to show their worth. The most prominent member of this group is the powerful mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin. Early on, he advocated for extremely strict distancing measures, even at the cost of completely halting public and economic activity. He preemptively implemented them in Moscow without waiting for federal approval, and categorically demanded that other governors do the same. As first deputy chairman of the government body fighting the coronavirus, Mr. Sobyanin had been given carte blanche by President Putin and Prime Minister Mishustin.

German political theorist Carl Schmitt once observed that “the sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.” Mr. Sobyanin came out of the crisis looking like a true sovereign ruler. He played a much more convincing part than President Putin, who shied away from responsibility. The Moscow police, which are not formally accountable to the mayor, dutifully carry out all his orders.

Appetite comes with eating. Any further scripts will have to consider most governors, especially Mr. Sobyanin, as autonomous actors. Getting regional leaders to return to their previous state of humiliating inaction would be a hard task.

Religious resistance

Another unexpected problem was tension in relations between church and state, which had not been idyllic to begin with. Social distancing measures required shutting down churches during Easter, a holiday celebrated even by Russians whose affiliation with the Orthodox Church is ritualistic at best. 

Conservative Orthodox groups, skeptical toward the secular state, took this as an assault on their faith and stonewalled the prohibition, supported by a number of bishops. Even Patriarch Kirill rather openly disapproved of the lockdown, and only later (possibly under Kremlin pressure) called on his followers to accept the inevitable. However, many believers and some high-ranking priests ignored him. As a result, certain parishes and monasteries became hotbeds of Covid-19 (for example, The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius near Moscow, one of the most important spiritual centers of Russian orthodoxy). 

Conservative Orthodox groups stonewalled the prohibition.

Russian Muslims reacted in the same way, with similar consequences. For example, in Dagestan sanitary limitations were almost completely neglected and the number of deaths is growing at an alarming rate.

Generally speaking, the resistance of religious communities was suppressed, but the episode left many with a bitter aftertaste. The problem is further aggravated by the state-sponsored onslaught of various digital identification and surveillance practices, which conservative believers see as a sign of the end times. Formerly a tool of the regime, religious institutions are becoming increasingly problematic. 

Furthermore, it is especially telling that canceling the military parade and all other festivities connected with the 75th anniversary of the World War II victory did not cause any kind of outcry, unlike closing down the churches for Easter. The cult of the “Great Victory” has long been used as a central element of Russian-style civil religion as promoted by the state. But this source of legitimacy now seems to be losing its strength.

 Mikhail Mishustin at a press conference
On April 30, 2020, newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced he had tested positive for Covid-19. Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov took over until May 19, when Mr. Mishustin returned to work after recovering from the illness. © dpa

Oil woes

From the Russian electorate’s point of view, the main yardstick of the regime’s legitimacy is the financial situation. Income levels are dropping dramatically. High oil prices, on which the Russian budget and economy remain critically dependent, are unlikely to rise to their previous levels soon. Reserve funds accumulated during the “fat years” are evaporating rapidly, mostly going to healthcare and large businesses, most importantly, Rosneft. This is beyond the comprehension of ordinary citizens. 

Those who work in medium and small business ventures find themselves in a vulnerable situation, especially if they work in the gray economy – which provides work, income, services and goods for large segments of the Russian population. It is this urban middle and lower class that is the breeding ground for political protest – not only in Russia. Discontent, however, is even more all-encompassing. 

According to sociologists, trust levels toward any kind of authorities are plummeting, even more rapidly at the federal level than at the regional level. Citizens are angry. They are unhappy about everything – both the insufficient and excessive nature of the lockdowns, the (non-fictitious, as it turns out) health scare, and policies that bring them closer to the poverty line. The Russian government, unlike many of their European counterparts, did not deploy helicopter money schemes or unconditional support for businesses and the self-employed. There were only two payments of about 130 euros per child to families that have children aged three to 15, which is below the subsistence rate. 

Mr. Putin will eventually have to leave Schrodinger’s box and decide whether to be present or absent.

The reasons for such caution are clear. On one hand, the modest amounts will inevitably anger the recipients but on the other, such precedents will provoke an endless barrage of new demands. It is hard to expect enthusiastic participation in any kind of “popular vote” under such circumstances.

Russian authorities have clearly stated that voter turnout is extremely important for them. The amendments are meant to be supported by a majority of Russian voters, otherwise, it would make no sense to dabble in popular legitimizing. The required figure (at least 60 percent) has already been benchmarked by the Kremlin. In these high-strung times, the outcome of the vote could prove surprising.

The bulldogs are coming out of hiding, flexing their muscles, pulling off their face masks. All around, they see a radically changed environment, strewn with the debris of broken plans. The impetus of the January transformation is too strong to roll back – the show must go on. 

Mr. Putin will eventually have to leave Schrodinger’s box and decide whether to be present or absent. The process is still manageable. But, in any case, the Russian political regime has entered a period of radical and irrevocable change. What had seemed improbable not so long ago has now taken place.

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