Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part I

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When we think we lead, we are most led.

Lord Byron, The Two Foscari (1821)

The former president Boris Yeltsin at Putin’s inauguration, 2000
Photo by GETTY

Welcome back to UnpredictablePast,

Last week we dealt with the US elections, looking specifically at the “Personalization” of politics and what happens when institutions are progressively de-legitimized. In the past elections, at the center of the debate was the question of Russian influence on the public debate and the links that the Republican candidate, later elected, Donald J. Triump, had with Moscow. In these elections the problem seems to have somehow disappeared, just as the shadow of Moscow seems to have dissolved from the Media debate, and for this reason I think it is right to try to reconstruct, at least in part, what is happening in Russia and why.

First of all, obviously, the global SARS-Cov2 pandemic takes all the front pages, but the problem is not all there: ust like other countries, Russia is hit by this global threat, but this time it seems to have taken the hit more than others.

Until shortly before the virus appeared in Wuhan, it almost seemed to be in a “new” Cold War climate: psychological warfare that sought to undermine the foundations of the Western States, the replacement of the US in the Middle East as a new hegemonic power together with Iran (even Nethanyau had inaugurated more “relaxed” relations with the Kremlin) and the invasion of Crimea, they seemed to have rebuilt a bipolarity in the global geopolitical framework. Russia was “resurrected” and ready to regain its place among the world powers.

Or at least that was the tenor of the public debate.

As usual, in all this there was a part of truth and another “inflated” by TV, Newspapers and Websites, unable to make accurate analyzes and less sensationalist headlines, which the Kremlin did not mind at all, quite the contrary. We will talk more about this topic in the near future, for now let’s focus on recent past events in the background for the reasons mentioned above.

First of all, as we said, how much has Russia actually been affected by the epidemic?

Certainly much more than what it shows. Since the beginning of the crisis, in the eyes of those of us who have been observing the country for some time, something very strange has happened: the Central Government has in fact seemed to “loosen” its grip on federal institutions, giving them free rein to manage the emergency. For those unfamiliar with Russian politics, this is not very strange, those who are slightly more into these matters know that the clash between the Institutions of the Oblast (the Federal States of Russia) and the central ones has been going on since the time of Boris Yeltsin: Russia is a vast and multicultural country, and many of its regions have a strong sense of community and autonomy, embodied by the Regional Governors, the only “thorn in the side” left in a system of power that over the years has become increasingly centralized in figure of the President and his “plenipotentiaries”.

In the course of the last ten years, in particular, the Executive Power has worked to ensure that the Governors of the Oblast remain with a margin of autonomy as narrow as possible, mindful of the experience of Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and his entourage made sure that these institutions were as closely linked as possible to Moscow, both by installing governors who were “favorable” to them (see “Puppets”) and by limiting the possibility of implementing autonomous policies, under the pretext, much felt among the population, of not compromise the territorial integrity of the country.

But in this case, the choice made by Vladimir Putin is not a concession or a truce, but rather a subtle and cunning way of offloading the burdensome responsibilities of dealing with the situation on someone else. The Regions have not obtained any “real power”, especially in the economic field (everything remains firmly in the hands of the State Council and the “special envoys” of the Kremlin), but only the responsibility of “managing” (not governing) situation, as they did before: making sure that order is maintained, ruffling the local potentates, and getting everyone to vote right. When someone wants to take an initiative, especially in the economic field, they must first wait for it to be approved by the Central Government.

The Pandemic revealed the weaknesses of Russia (and in my opinion, of the other “Illiberal Democracies”): a central government absolutely unprepared to manage the situation and, to put it mildly, very lacking in transparency, it has only one way to maintain some degree of consensus: find a scapegoat. And in this case in Moscow they hope to be able to use it, in the future, to increase their influence even more. To make you understand how serious the economic situation is, think that even before the pandemic, the National Credit Rating Agency estimated that at low oil prices 62 of the 83 regions would deplete their reserves this year.

Especially regions that rely on the export of oil and other commodities face up to 560 billion rubles ($ 7.5 billion) in lost corporate and mineral extraction tax revenues, while federal transfers to replenish their budgets barely reach 200 billion rubles ($ 2.7 billion). In 2019, by comparison, transfers from the Federal Government amounted to 2.6 trillion rubles ($ 34.7 billion), counting on projected regional revenue (excluding Moscow Oblast) of 9.6 trillion rubles ($ 128 billion) in 2020.

Vladimir putin confronts Regional Governments in a videoconference. Photo: kremlin.ru.

The Governors will therefore have only the concrete possibility of maneuvering with the money they will have in hand, while they will have to bear the “responsibility” for any discontent. For example, regional institutions can block movements within their borders, but not prohibit movements between them (those who attempted have their requests immediately rejected, even a “risk” area such as Chechnya) Despite having the highest infection rate, the citizens of Moscow can continue to move around the other Oblasts, fueling the clash between the city’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and the other governors, only some of whom have managed to impose limited measures quarantine for those coming from infected areas. As if that were not enough, regional governments do not have the possibility to secure areas considered economically strategic by the federal government (the case of an outbreak in a hostel that housed IKEA workers in Leningrad Oblast) or which belong to whom, like Gennady Timchenko’s Novatek, it is closer than they are to the President.

Only a few governors, those belonging to the “system” opposition (that is, linked to the Kremlin, but not belonging to the majority party, “United Russia”) have dared to publicly complain about the limited means available to public health or to use of masks. In a country where trust in institutions has always been very low, this continuous rebound of responsibility and inaction (on one side or the other) or contradictory measures have enormously increased the general confusion and mistrust. While on the one hand more restrictions and adequate measures are called for, others, in particular the men most linked to Putin (like the Governors of Tula and Yaroslavl Regions, who where President’s former bodiguards), the restrictive measures were limited to “recommendations” to avoid riots.

The diversity of treatment has rekindled many of those centrifugal thrusts that seemed to have been dampened over the past few years. In recent months it has become clear, even to less astute or politically committed citizens, that there is a clear difference in treatment and even more stringent room for maneuver, depending on whether or not one is “organic” within the entire system of power.

In a country that has so far been held together by the strong figure of the President, it is not easy to imagine how those who are now suddenly seeying that power so distant, or unprepared to handle the situation, can feel while people die near them. The construction of a system of such wide consensus, centered on a very specific figure and with peculiar characteristics, finds itself disoriented and in disarray when this “image” fails. And those who should act more concretely cannot do it, even if they want to, as they are now reduced to a figurehead of true power, who intends to preserve themselves by offering citizens other heads when they ask for them. Or at least that’s what they hope in the Kremlin rooms.

In the next part we will see how all this is already having concrete effects at the local level, and will help explain to you why the role of Russia, apparently launched (by the media) towards a new golden age, has suffered such a strong setback.

Thanks for reading these few lines, see you next week with the second part.

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