Where’s Waldo: Russia Edition
Justin Waddy confronts a global superpower’s ability to hide from headlines in times of international health crisis – perhaps thanks to an image preservation-obsessed leader.
If Vladimir Putin were to feature in the popular children’s illustration books, “Where’s Wally?”, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge wouldn’t be so much as identifying where exactly Putin is, but what he’s actually doing.
On March 17th, whilst other global superpowers were gearing up to battle the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, Putin instead announced an “all-people vote” on a constitutional amendment to allow him a fifth and sixth term– a proposal, no doubt, aimed at guaranteeing himself indefinite rule. And whilst the prospects of the ‘all-people’ vote may seem democratic, it doesn’t function as an election nor a referendum due to its lack of foundation in Russian law. In fact, the proposal has already been approved by its constitutional court and signed into law by Putin. “Against the background of the pandemic, Putin’s decision seems criminal”, said Alexei Navalny, leader of the opposition party in Russia.
Later, on March 25th, Putin postponed the people’s vote and instead announced a “workless week”. Russia saw an influx of flights to the southern resort city of Sochi, and crowded parks across its major cities. In response Benjamin Kondratiev, a regional governor, warned the public that “this isn’t a week of extra leave or a holiday” – an implication the president hadn’t made. The contradiction between the response by Putin and the stricter governance of Moscow was no miscommunication. The good-cop, bad-cop routine was a clear indication of Putin’s prioritisation of his public image.
Russia’s ‘workless week’ has been extended, and from Monday the 5th of April, Muscovites may only leave their homes for essential shopping, medical emergencies, pet-walking or taking out their rubbish. Moscow is using facial recognition in a bid to monitor those not abiding by orders to self-isolate and have plans to impose the use of QR code-style passes should the crisis escalate – a system similar to that of China. Furthermore, its announced that individuals spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis in Russia may face up to 5 years in prison. Whilst many question the validity of its coronavirus statistics, owing to it underplaying of previous crises like Chernobyl, Russia is no doubt doing well for a country with the world’s third largest population and such close links to China – despite its president’s focus on reelection.
Russia announced that individuals spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis may face up to 5 years in prison.
Economically, Russia will prove resilient. It conducts most of its business outside of the West, due to 2014 sanctions over its invasion of Crimea, and, thus, has become self-reliant. It adapted by producing substitute domestic goods that were previously imported from Europe, reducing government debts and increasing its national reserves. Despite large falls in oil prices due to a spat with OPEC, Russia’s forex and gold reserve of nearly $570bn will grant support for the economy and provide the financial sacrifices needed during such a crisis.
The current problem with Russia is a political and social one. In March, an open letter was signed against Putin’s constitutional changes by hundreds of prominent Russians ranging from lawyers, academics and journalists – a letter which received over 18 000 signatures just two days later. Putin’s previous prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev resigned in January over Putin’s proposed constitutional reforms. Putin’s public support is waning.
So, where is Russia? It’s in conflict, fighting against COVID-19 and the politics of an autocratic leader, whilst trying to prevent a complete social and political breakdown.