Is Putin rushing Russia out of lockdown?


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It looks like Vladimir Putin has run out of patience with coronavirus.
On Monday he sent millions of workers back to factories and building sites across Russia, declaring six weeks of full lockdown over.
Regional leaders have been left to manage exactly how and when they lift the remaining restrictions, with the infection rate still stubbornly high – especially in Moscow.
But by Thursday, Mr Putin was telling his government that life was “resuming its normal, familiar rhythm” and urging them to refocus on non-coronavirus priorities.
The message from the top is clear: Russia’s president wants to move on.
“I think for the first time in his active political life, Putin is faced by a problem which is absolutely not under his control and which broke all of his plans,” says Chatham House political analyst Nikolai Petrov.
This spring that included a public vote on reforming the constitution, allowing Mr Putin to rule for another two terms.
Instead, the 67-year-old ended up retreating to his residence outside Moscow, after an attempt to keep up his action-man image by visiting a coronavirus-hospital in full hazmat suit became a close-scrape with infection.
The doctor who showed him round later tested positive for the virus.
Tucked away in self-isolation, the hands-on president has been forced to conduct business via video conferences on a giant split screen.
At 59%, his approval rating has slid to an all-time low and his tetchiness, even boredom, during the long calls has been visible.
“Putin’s eager to finish his plans,” Nikolai Petrov argues, meaning the constitutional reform vote that is still widely advertised on state TV and giant city billboards.
“It’s like he was caught mid-jump over a fence. It’s not a very comfortable position.”
The day Vladimir Putin announced a formal end to lockdown, Russia recorded its biggest spike in new coronavirus cases.
Since then, official numbers have fallen slightly each day but the total is now over 250,000, placing Russia near the very top of worldwide ratings.
Politicians here have preferred to highlight another statistic, though: a mortality rate below 1%.
“This shows that the quality of our healthcare is much better than in the USA,” the Speaker of Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, gloated on Wednesday, when Russia had reported just 2,212 coronavirus deaths.
“We must give thanks to our doctors and our president, who works day and night to save lives,” he gushed, to a smattering of applause from MPs mostly in facemasks.
The low mortality has raised some sceptical eyebrows, but the suggestion that Russia is actively under-reporting fatalities was angrily denied by officials this week as “fake news”.
However, figures for the overall death rate in Moscow in April do suggest an excess mortality of up to three times the official Covid-19 death figure, calculated against an average rate over the past five years.
Excess mortality is considered a better measure of Covid-19 deaths, as it includes people who may not have been tested and those dying outside hospital.
At around 1,700 excess deaths, Moscow’s tally in April was still considerably lower than many places – including London.
The Moscow Health Department has since clarified that up to 60% of suspected coronavirus cases actually died of other causes, like strokes or heart attacks, a fact established during post-mortem examination.
Russia did have more time to prepare for coronavirus to hit.
Widespread testing, now over 40,000 a day in Moscow, early detection and earlier hospital treatment may be helping Russia avoid the distressing scenes of mass graves and overloaded morgues that played out in parts of Europe, though the epidemic here is far from contained yet.
There may also be cultural differences: whilst UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson coughed his way through remote meetings with a raging temperature only to end up in intensive care, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman battled his own fever for three days before being admitted to hospital with double pneumonia.
In an interview with Kommersant newspaper, Dmitry Peskov describes falling ill despite extreme precautions at work, where Kremlin staff even disinfect paperwork before passing it on.
Mr Peskov said he hadn’t been in direct contact with President Putin himself for over a month.
It’s not clear when Russia’s leader might judge it safe to return to the Kremlin.
Many others in Moscow are also still “working from home” as most Covid-19 restrictions remain in place.
It’s down to the mayor to decide when they’re lifted and Sergei Sobyanin is still refusing even to let residents out for a daily run.
On Thursday, he described such decisions as the hardest he’s ever made. The price, he said, was “people’s health and lives”.
That’s less about frustrated joggers, than the many workers now struggling.
Official unemployment has doubled since the start of the epidemic and the independent polling firm Levada this month found that one in four people had lost, or were in imminent danger of losing, their job.
A third have had their wages or hours cut.
Russians don’t save much, and state handouts to workers under lockdown have been limited, so pressure to ease the restrictions is building.
“[Russia’s leaders] know that the policy of no work and no money will provoke collapse, an explosion. So they ruled the pandemic over when it’s far from the peak,” political analyst Lilia Shevtsova argues.
“They needed a victory over coronavirus, and fast!” she wrote in a blog for Ekho Moskvy radio station.
But the virus, still spreading into Russia’s regions, is oblivious to the political wishes of the Kremlin.
And the damage to Russia’s strongman leader may also be hard to stop.
“Even if he gets the constitution vote he wants,” Nikolai Petrov argues, “it won’t change the fact that Putin is now much weaker.”
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