Covid-19 started to spread in China in December 2019. The health authorities in Wuhan (Hubei province) reported the disease on New Year’s Eve. The suspected source of the disease – the Huanan wet market – was closed down on the 1st of January.
Beijing officially identified the virus as belonging to the SARS family within six days, and four days later announced the first Covid-19 death. The first case outside China was reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the 13th of January, a woman who had arrived in Thailand from Wuhan.
Russia’s president and his comrades likely knew about these developments, either because China informed Russia (before any other country) of the dangerous unknown disease, or because the Russians got to know about it themselves. The question of how seriously was it taken by the Kremlin at that time remains unclear.
On the 15th of January, Putin unexpectedly announced his plan to change the country’s Constitution. The proposed amendments were clearly meant to pave the way to ensuring and consolidating the grip on power of the so-called ‘Collective Putin’ far beyond 2024. Putin made no secret of his intention to proceed rapidly and, indeed, the process went ahead at full speed. As yet, there is no full and convincing answer to the question of why Putin (or the ‘Collective Putin’ for that matter) decided to start the transition process so early (four years before the end of his presidential term) and was so eager to complete it as soon as possible. Covid-19, meanwhile, started to alarm the world’s virologists, if not yet the politicians and the media.
Working groups spun up by the Kremlin in late January produced and assessed hundreds of proposals to amend Russia’s Constitution. Foreign and domestic experts tried to figure out the scheme that the ‘Collective Putin’ would most likely use to cement its power while creating a false impression of change. On the 30th of January, the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and Russia closed its border with China on the same day.
In China, the Lunar New Year holiday helped to spread the coronavirus. President Xi Jinping appeared on the 10th of February for the first time after the outbreak of Covid-19 and urged his people (and the world) to have confidence in the battle against the deadly virus. The last week of February marked the actual recognition of a pandemic even if the WHO only declared it officially on the 11th of March. The coronavirus became Putin’s competitor and tormentor.
The 150th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth
Nevertheless, on the 27th of February, the Kremlin announced that the referendum for the adoption of the amendments to the Constitution would be held on the 22nd of April. It cannot be a coincidence that this date also commemorated the 150th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth, and would be just 17 days before the 9th of May celebrations marking 75 years since the end of World War II in Europe (what Russia calls its Victory Day) and the associated military parade on and above Red Square. The referendum was probably intended to both build and benefit from the atmosphere surrounding these events. Putin extended invitations to most world – including all Western – leaders and likely expected to be able to greet them with the full confidence of Russia’s president for life.
As Covid-19 transmission slowed in China in the second half of March (at least according to official statistics) Beijing began to reopen the country’s economy. Western Europe had by that time become the new epicentre of the pandemic, soon to be followed and surpassed by the USA. The first two coronavirus-positive cases in Russia (both Chinese nationals) were officially declared on the 31st of January, but the next ones were not announced until early March, suggesting that the Kremlin imposed a de facto ban on officially recognising the spread of the disease in Russia during February, when Covid-19 cases and deaths were very likely registered as pneumonia or the other diseases whose incidence rose sharply when compared to the previous year’s figures.
The working groups, national and regional legislators, governors, Constitutional Court and others were at this time engaged in swiftly drafting and approving Putin’s proposals. However, Putin clearly had (and still has) a major problem with how to handle the Covid-19 crisis. He apparently decided to simply pretend that it did not affect Russia. The legendary astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, a member of the State Duma and iconic figure, was the perfect choice to propose the Putin forever formula for the Constitution on the 10th of March. By that time Russia had declared only a small two-digit number of coronavirus-positive cases, while the Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu was adamantly repeating even as late as the end of March that the Russian military had had no positive tests.
Putin finally declared on the 25th of March that the referendum – the last formal requirement for securing an amendment to the Constitution – would be postponed, saying on television: “You know how seriously I feel about this [vote]. However, our absolute priority is the health and safety of our people, which is why I think it is necessary to move the vote to a later date.” It took him another three weeks – by which time the official number of coronavirus-positive cases in Russia had reached 28 000 – to postpone the 9th of May Victory Parade, which may now be held, if conditions allow, in early September on the anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia.
In just five days following the announcement of the postponement of the parade, the number of Covid-19 cases in Russia then almost doubled (to 52 800). The Russian authorities imposed draconian rules and limitations – especially in Moscow – that are being severely implemented by the police. The coronavirus thus spoiled Putin’s grandiose plans for April and May.
While the parade may be ultimately abandoned altogether the referendum will not. Most observers believe that the post-Covid-19 world will be different, and indeed it has already changed. Why then should Russia remain the same even if the ‘Collective Putin’ has pledged to do anything to prevent dangerous change and to preserve stability?
Putin said recently that “post-Soviet countries” will soon get over their fears of the renewal of the USSR and that the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) will continue to slowly enlarge. He claimed that such fears are “continuously fading” and that “common efforts benefit everyone”. This straightforward statement illustrates the mentality and goals of Putin’s regime is a clear signal to Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Central Asian countries that do not belong to the EEU.
Russia’s President, however, has first to manage the Covid-19 crisis in his own country, and then to complete the referendum (provided his popularity remains sufficiently high). Only then can he continue with his ambitious project of recreating the Soviet empire in a new form. His popularity among the Russian people and local governors may quickly decrease if he continues to offer support to Russia’s regions without allocating the necessary financial resources. The Kremlin regards Russia’s (liquid) state reserves both as a means of the regime’s survival in extreme circumstances and as a solid buffer in case of conflict (as was the case in 2014 when Russia had gathered sufficient reserves for Putin to give the order to occupy and annex Crimea). But the collapse in oil prices on the world market and the double pressure on Russia’s hard currency and gold reserves means that almost no money is coming in while Russia still needs to pay its debts and start supporting its regions.
This is not a good time for President Putin or for the ordinary Russian people. The worst-case scenario envisaged by the Kremlin is probably that Russia will suffer from the pandemic at about the same level as the average Western country (or perhaps the US). But even this could result in a serious economic setback and would probably shake Putin’s regime, and its dream of a new USSR. Would the Russians still accept fabricated referendum results if Putin’s popularity were to fall to a record low? Would Putin be ready to renew high-intensity warfare in eastern Ukraine in order to avoid domestic social unrest? Putin’s best chance of survival is to learn to manage the pandemic and to prove that he really cares about the Russian people.