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How coronavirus helps Putin – POLITICO


MOSCOW — For Vladimir Putin, the coronavirus outbreak may have come at a convenient time.

The global pandemic has allowed the Russian president to argue his rule must be secured until 2036 to avoid “upheaval,” while also conveniently ruling out any mass protests on safety grounds.

“We can see how difficult the situation in the global policy, security and the global economy is,” he said in a speech in parliament, explaining why a “reset” of the presidential term limits that would allow him to run for a fifth term should be included in constitutional amendments. “We are also battling the coronavirus now, oil prices are fluctuating, together with the national currency exchange rate and stock exchanges.”

To be sure, Putin didn’t need the coronavirus outbreak to push through his constitutional amendments. Although nearly half of Russians in January said they see the changes as nothing more than an attempt to keep him in power, a poll last week found 57 percent of Russians would still be willing to vote for him in 2024.

Still, the epidemic has helped him to clear a path to return to the presidency in 2024 and 2030 with almost no dissent at all — and provided an excuse to crack down on demonstrations.

The fast-moving coronavirus story also continues to distract from the dubious legality of the constitutional changes.

Just hours after opposition groups announced a protest for March 22 in response to the constitutional amendments — which were passed in parliament last week — Moscow banned all public events of over 5,000 people as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. The timing was suspicious given that Russia had yet to begin ringing the alarm bell or take wide-reaching measures to restrict travel and cancel school and events.

Although activists initially called on Russians to ignore the ban, they were forced to postpone the demonstration as the number of coronavirus cases began to rapidly increase. The one-person pickets that began last week have also petered out in the face of health concerns.

The fast-moving coronavirus story also continues to distract from the dubious legality of the constitutional changes. On Monday, more than 350 professors, lawyers and writers signed a letter arguing the term-limit reset was unconstitutional. Their call was quickly drowned in a deluge of coronavirus news as the number of reported cases jumped from 63 to 93 and the government closed the borders to foreigners.

“People are less interested right now in the amendments and will increasingly be concerned about their health, how to live their lives in conditions of an epidemic,” said analyst Masha Lipman.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 17, 2020 | Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

In February, a poll found that 30 percent of Russians were afraid of contracting coronavirus, and that number is almost certain to rise amid stricter measures from the government announced Monday.

Already that evening, many supermarket shelves in Moscow were empty as residents bought long-term supplies of toilet paper, buckwheat and other dry goods.

“For now it seems this terrible epidemic’s arrival in Russia couldn’t have come at a better time for the ruling regime,” opposition pundit Alexander Ryklin wrote. “Now they’ll blame it for the slump in the domestic market and the collapse of the ruble exchange rate and the fall in oil prices and all the related economic problems that are coming.”

Some have even suggested that the problems with coronavirus and the oil price prompted members of Putin’s inner circle to persuade him to stay on as president, rather than taking a less taxing job as head of the state council or another body. It has also allowed Putin to rally Russians behind him in the face of yet another external threat and warn against false information being spread “from abroad.”

But as Ryklin and other analysts have pointed out, if economic troubles continue long-term, the coronavirus smokescreen could wear thin.

Politically, coronavirus is a double-edged sword. If it spreads through Russia, that could not only call into question the state response to the crisis but also undermine Putin’s efforts to bring the economy out of stagnation.

Even Putin seems unsure of how exactly to proceed.

“The official figures are a bit more than 100 infected, but there are reasons to think the scope of this could be significant,” Lipman said. “That could affect public opinion and raise questions about the government’s ability to implement economic promises that are now fixed in the constitution.”

The government planned to be more generous to citizens to keep up the good mood and the political acquiescence that is important for the authorities,” she added.

Since Moscow walked away from oil production cuts with Saudi Arabia in early March, reportedly in an attempt to put U.S. shale producers out of business, the price of Brent crude has dropped from around $50 a barrel to $30. As oil is Russia’s main export, the ruble exchange rate slipped as well.

With more than $100 billion in its sovereign wealth fund, Moscow has said it’s prepared to weather the storm and can still balance the budget at these prices.

But the economic costs of the severe and long-lasting coronavirus restrictions were not originally part of these calculations. Last week, Russia’s former finance minister warned that the economy might not grow at all this year.

That’s a problem for Putin, who couched the constitutional reform in promises of economic growth. The amendments include the indexation of pensions and a guaranteed minimum income, and he has also ordered a massive program of social spending on health care, education and housing.

A man wearing a protective face mask walks at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on March 18, 2020 | Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

As coronavirus takes its toll — Moscow is reportedly considering shutting down most businesses besides grocery stores and pharmacies — paying for all this will become more difficult. And this is happening right before a national vote on the constitutional changes.

Although the vote has no legal bearing on the amendments, it was meant to be a final show of support for Putin’s continued rule. Instead, many have been expecting it to be postponed. How can the state ask citizens to line up at polling places when it’s telling them to stay home from work and school? Yet a delay would allow the fear factor of coronavirus to wear out and for the economic costs to begin building up, said analyst Yekaterina Schulmann.

“Also there will be deaths, cases of neglect, conspiracy theories, a general distrust of the authorities, so I doubt [coronavirus will be a] net benefit,” she said. “There are immediate effects and then there are after-effects.”

Even Putin seems unsure of how exactly to proceed. On Tuesday, he signed a decree setting April 22 as the date of the vote. At the same time, he said it could be moved back “if the situation demands it.”

“There’s nothing more important than the life and health of our citizens,” he said.





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