Russia recently became the country with the second highest number of official coronavirus infection in the world after US. As of May 17, Moscow had over 142,000 of Russia’s more than 280,000 cases and continues to be the epicenter of infections in the country.
This bleak news arrives in the wake of a variety of highly stringent steps to counter the virus, along with a wireless permit scheme that allows people to register a code to get through their town by car or through public transport. Moscow launched such a scheme on April 15, and it was announced that 21 federal regions had filed requests to start their own systems subsequently.
President Putin who has ruled Russia with a strong grip for over twenty years is now frustrated. His attempt to consolidate power has been shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic and the following economic crisis and the situation is aggravated by the global oil crash. The number of COVID-19 cases is increasing at a dangerous rate putting Putin’s political agendas off the course. He has gone as far as to make changes in the constitution to extend his term for another decade. Putin has imposed strict regulations against mass gatherings, and installed tracking devices to handle the pandemic which in turn could be used to fight off any opposition.
Although more restrictive travel controls might prove a great respite after weeks of stagnant official response to the coronavirus pandemic, human rights activists remain worried that the Kremlin may use such and other unprecedented steps to excuse or even speed up the enforcement of repressive policies already thought of before COVID-19 started.
It is observed by Makarov that the courts and detention centre may use the adverse instances as a justification for consolidating authority over citizens within their jurisdiction. This would include restricting prisoners’ right to disclose hazardous situations within jails and penal colonies, and switching their place of detention without consulting their families. Prisoners’ rights organizations like Russia Behind Bars usually post reports they collect from within jail system but have lately been placed under strain by new legislation preventing the dissemination of so-called misleading knowledge regarding the virus. Such laws, introduced in March and which bear fines of up to imprisonment for a term of five years for distributing “fake news” regarding the epidemic, are particularly troubling because they may be used to regulate and prosecute anyone who question official reports and statistics.
How President Putin is dealing with the pandemic
Recently, the legislation pressured Novaya Gazeta, one of the nation’s leading investigatory newspapers, to delete a recent analysis exploring contentious anti-virus initiatives in Chechnya, a highly violent area in the south of Russia. The columnist, Yelena Milashina, who reported the news of suspected gay prison camps in Chechnya back in 2017, stated that citizens were reluctant to reveal ailments for danger of being identified as terrorists. The Office of the Prosecutor General issued an order to take down the article, mentioning the law on false news, and warnings were issued against Milashina and the newspaper by Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator on Chechnya. Kadyrov earlier went on record stating that perpetrators of quarantine would be executed.
The implications of the fake news legislation will stretch outside the boundaries of the country. Speaker of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, reported only last week that legislators ordered the ministry to withhold accreditation from the New York Times and the Financial Times owing to the latest reports of the low official death count of Moscow. Zakharova said this will be a drastic and unprecedented move but that “further steps will depend on whether they publish retractions.”
Over the last few months arrays of repressive programs have been set in operation. One of them was announced in January “Safe City”, a facial recognition technology which comprised of over 200,000 cameras installed around residential complexes, subways and other public places.
The Kremlin also reported the introduction of a controversial new step to collect and evaluate mobile-phone info. On April 20, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, called for a plan to be implemented by the end of the month to map the position of infected people, and earlier in April it was announced that visitors can be monitored using SIM cards once borders are reopened.
President Vladimir Putin also discussed the prospect of involving the military if required to help combat the pandemic, but he refused to explain what role they would play. The nation has to be equipped for perhaps the “most difficult and extraordinary” situations, as he said in an April 13 speech. The Russian National Guard reported on May 3 it had already started using drones and choppers to locate quarantine infringes, giving data to ground officials who would then impose fines or arrest people.
Aftereffects and criticisms of the policies:
As soon as the system was launched it attracted immense criticism over a Chinese woman being led to detention for being incorrectly diagnosed as having the virus. Reports haven made that infected people were visited by law enforcement officials when they went to take out the trash. Residents of Moscow who travel within a distance of 100 meters (330 feet) from their buildings may be detained by police.
“There are serious concerns that a system for controlling the movement of citizens will remain after the quarantine measures have ended,” said Dmitri Makarov, the co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading human rights monitoring organization in Russia. These controls could limit the movement of citizens deemed a threat to public safety, and the subsequent collection of location data could allow government officials to know who has come into contact with whom. “There is also the risk,” he added, “that the data collected will be used to combat dissent or sold to cybercriminals on the black market.”
“There are significant suspicions that a mechanism for regulating citizens’ activity would continue after the quarantine steps have ended,” said Dmitry Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Community, Russia’s leading human rights monitoring organization. These regulations could restrict citizens’ travel deemed a danger to public safety, and the subsequent data collection would enable city authorities to make out who has come into touch with whom. “There is also a risk,” Helsinki said, “that the information gathered will be used to fight opposition or be sold to dark web cyber-criminals.”
Russia currently has one of the fastest rising COVID-19 caseloads in the planet. While certain isolation restrictions have been withdrawn by France, Austria and other European nations, Mr Putin has expanded those remaining in Russia for few more months. Putin confronts a multi-faceted challenge that has rattled his dominance and the tacit social compact underpinning his rule: ensuring people security and economic prosperity in return for constraints on democratic freedoms. Just 46 per cent, when questioned about this pandemic treatment, told Levada researchers that they felt his actions were right. Thirty per cent said their response was insufficient; 18 per cent said it was unreasonable. Worrying for the Kremlin, infection data appears to show that the outbreak is spreading fastest in provincial cities and rural regions far from Moscow, which lack both the capital’s medical provisions and financial firepower.
Last week Mr Putin asserted his stance that local governors should bear accountability for their areas and not depend solely on Moscow instructions or resources. He cautioned that even though the country as a whole sees a peak in outbreaks “the situation in certain regions may remain tense … the threat won’t disappear immediately.” That could lead to a long, stretched-out economic downturn and a sluggish recovery that will further crush Russia’s spending power, and could corrode support for the ruling government as the September 2021 approach to parliamentary elections.
“We see that there is a divide in society as towards Putin and his government, between those who are active, urban, and more modernized, and the elderly,” says Mr Volkov of the Levada Centre.
- Foy, H. (2020, May 04). Russia: Pandemic tests Putin’s grip on power. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://www.ft.com/content/d4d61de4-8aea-11ea-9dcb-fe6871f4145a.
- Nadeau, J. (2020, May 18). Putin Is Using the Pandemic to Consolidate Power. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/18/putin-is-using-the-pandemic-to-consolidate-power/
- Coronavirus: Is pandemic being used for power grab in Europe? (2020, April 18). Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52308002
- Higgins, A. (2020, April 30). Putin, Russia’s Man of Action Is Passive, Even Bored, in the Coronavirus Era. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/world/europe/russia-putin-coronavirus.html
- Baunov, A. (2020, May 27). Where Is Russia’s Strongman in the Coronavirus Crisis? Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2020-05-27/where-russias-strongman-coronavirus-crisis
 “Russia to Adopt Moscow’s Digital Pass System for Coronavirus Lockdown”, The Moscow Times, April 23, 2020
 “Russians Face up to 5 Years in Jail for Spreading False Coronavirus News”, The Moscow Times, March 31, 2020
 “Russians Face up to 5 Years in Jail for Spreading False Coronavirus News”, The Moscow Times, April 16, 2020.
 “Honour Kill: How the ambitions of a famous LGBT activist awoke a terrible ancient custom in Chechnya” (translated), Novaya Gazeta, April 3, 2017.
 “People Who Violate Coronavirus Quarantine Should Be Killed, Chechen Leader Says”, The Moscow Times, March 25, 2020.
 “60% of Coronavirus Patient Deaths Not Counted Toward Total, Moscow Officials Say”, The Moscow Times, May 14, 2020.
 “A Coronavirus Mystery Explained: Moscow Has 1,700 Extra Deaths”, The New York Times, May 11, 2020.
 “Russia to Use Cellphones to Track People at Risk of Coronavirus”, The Moscow Times, April 21, 2020.
 “Moscow Plans Coronavirus Surveillance for Foreigners – Kommersant”, The Moscow Times, April 9, 2020.
 “Metropolitan Rosgvardeytsy observe compliance with restrictive measures from the air”, ROSGUARD, May 03, 2020.
 “Dmitry Makarov: There are serious concerns that a system for controlling the movement of citizens will remain after the quarantine measures have ended”, Rights in Russia, May 18, 2020.
 “Inside Russia’s Secretive Prisons as Coronavirus Takes Hold”, The Moscow Times, April 27, 2020.
 “Life after Lockdown: welcome to the empty chair economy”, The Financial Times, May 1, 2020.