Vladimir Putin has spoken: It’s time to get back to work.
On Monday, the Russian president announced the easing of a nationwide lockdown for Russians that he imposed in late March to stop the spread of the coronavirus, even as the country reported a record-high number of infections, making it Europe’s new hot spot.
Russia recorded 11,656 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours, a 5.5% increase from the day before, for a total of 221,344 cases, according to government data. That was enough to overtake Italy and edge closer to the UK, Spain, and the US — all countries that have been criticized for botching their responses to the pandemic — in the global tally of coronavirus cases.
“Starting tomorrow, May 12, the national non-working period will end for the entire country and for all sectors of the economy,” Putin said in a televised nationwide address. “But the fight with the epidemic isn’t ending. Its threat remains even in territories where the situation is relatively safe.”
Putin regretfully ordered the sweeping lockdown measure on March 30, forcing many people to work from home and businesses to temporarily close while continuing to pay employees. He also decided, uncharacteristically, to delegate responsibility for implementing it to unprepared regional governors. Unaccustomed to having so much power, some of them have fumbled their responses.
In his address on Monday, Putin extended the regional governors’ authorities to impose restrictions as long as the outbreak continues, a move that some Russian experts saw as him passing the buck. So the fight will remain theirs, while Putin gets to look like the good guy for reopening the country.
Some experts believe that Monday’s announcement was Putin’s attempt to move away from crisis management, something that isn’t his strong suit. (Just look at his handling of the Kursk submarine disaster.) Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R.Politik think tank, told BuzzFeed News that his handling of the coronavirus outbreak “didn’t really work” and that he prefers focusing on the economy and getting back to the business of strengthening his hold on power.
Putin has appeared perhaps equally angry at, stumped by, and bored with the coronavirus, Stanovaya and other experts have noted. And he has reasons to be.
The virus has devastated Russia’s economy, already hit hard by a dramatic drop in oil prices. Putin said on Monday that unemployment had doubled during the lockdown to 1.4 million, and he wanted to try to stop it from rising. To that end, he announced financial support measures for businesses and for families with children who have seen their lives turned upside down.
The outbreak has also exposed weaknesses in Russia’s healthcare system under Putin, who has ruled the country since 2000.
Medical workers have been hit particularly hard by Russia’s coronavirus outbreak. Many have complained about the lack of personal protective equipment, while Russian doctors are keeping a list of colleagues killed by the coronavirus because they believe their government is overlooking them. The “list of memory” catalogs the names of medical workers who have died since the outbreak began. There were 160 names on the list by Monday.
The list has raised questions about how Russia is counting its coronavirus deaths and suggests the actual number may be much higher. Recently published preliminary data from Moscow’s civil registry office appeared to back that up. It showed a 20% increase in deaths this April compared to the city’s average April mortality rate over the past decade. Local Russian news outlets have reported that hundreds, if not thousands, of coronavirus deaths across the country were being classified as pneumonia deaths.
All of this appears to have taken a toll on Putin. A poll published last Wednesday by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center showed his approval rating fell to 59% in April, from 63% the month before, the lowest figure of his 20 years in power. Another poll showed only 41% of Russians think their government is doing a good, or very good, job of containing the coronavirus.
“Putin is facing a very difficult and unprecedented situation,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Bloomberg News. “This economic crisis has hit much faster and harder than ones in the past.”
The toll is also evident in Putin’s physical appearance. Mostly holed up inside his sprawling residence, he’s not conducting much official business in person these days. But in several videoconference calls held with government officials to discuss the health situation, Putin has appeared unenthusiastic and testy. During one recent video call, he was caught clumsily twirling a pen and staring down at his notepad while Russia’s health minister delivered a coronavirus update.
Stanovaya said that Putin is presenting the decision to lift the nationwide lockdown as something that “will help people” and the economy.
“In fact, the Kremlin would really like to get rid of the [coronavirus] restrictions in order to restart preparations for the referendum on constitutional amendments,” which will pave the way for Putin to rule until at least 2036, she said. A vote for that was supposed to be held in April, but was suspended.
Meanwhile, Stanovaya said she fears the public health situation is likely to remain “really bad.”
“[Putin] is lifting restrictions at the same time we see the numbers [of coronavirus infections] spiking, and we see contradictory statements from officials. They don’t understand” how much damage they are doing, Stanovaya said of Russia’s leaders.