Coronavirus News Asia

Russia’s leadership vacuum grows as virus spreads

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, unusual behavior is being seen in the Kremlin, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has uncharacteristically loosened his grip on the nation’s helm.

From the outset of the crisis, Putin, widely known nationally and globally for his hands-on, strong-man leadership style, has taken on a low profile. He also seems to have underplayed the threat. In addresses to the nation, he has refrained from announcing lockdowns, only announcing a “month-long holiday” to last until the end of April. 

Lacking clear direction from the top, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin – who replaced Putin’s scandal-struck, long-term number two Dmitri Medvedev in January – has also shied away from implementing nationwide quarantine measures.

That pushes authority out to the periphery. Before entering seclusion in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, Putin delegated the responsibility for handling the crisis to regional governors. 

Some have already failed the challenge, but one has taken the opportunity to push back against a surprisingly non-assertive center.

‘You’re in charge!’

“They must determine a concrete set of preventative measures that are optimal for their territories from the point of view of ensuring the health and safety of people, as well as the stability of the economy and key infrastructure,” Putin said. 

Putin’s delegation of authority comes as a surprise, as it contradicts the Kremlin policy of years, based on highly centralized control over Russia’s vast landmass. It also comes as matters across the world’s largest physical country look increasingly grave.

Russians should be prepared to face “complex and extraordinary” circumstances as the pandemic spreads, Putin said in a video conference call with his cabinet on Monday. The situation “is changing every day – and, unfortunately, not for the better,” he added. 

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