Main Image Credit Courtesy of the public domain
For Russia, control of the coronavirus narrative is designed to ensure President Vladimir Putin continues to be cast as the guarantor of security, as well as to prevent mass panic that could lead to political destabilisation.
The Russian authorities are addressing the pandemic in three ways: by diverting public focus away from the threat, misdiagnosing coronavirus deaths as a result of other respiratory conditions to hide the number of infected people, and delaying overly restrictive control over people’s daily lives for as long as possible.
These efforts are particularly significant ahead of the national vote on important amendments to the constitution, originally scheduled for 22 April. While this has now been delayed, it is seen as a way of gauging public confidence in Putin and the government’s leadership – should the authorities fail to control the narrative about the current pandemic, this could be reflected in voter turnout whenever the actual ballots are held.
As a geographically dispersed country with much of its population located in the West, it is likely that the isolated nature of communities in the Far East and Siberia slowed down transmission of the virus. Incidences of coronavirus – around 6,000 declared cases at the time of writing – are focused around Moscow and St Petersburg, major transport hubs. Russia quickly closed its land border with China on 30 January, and imposed a range of restrictive measures similar to those already in place in European countries, such as social distancing, closing schools and cancelling major events.
Still, since the outbreak began in December 2019, the Russian government’s approach has been to pretend that all is under control. Putin maintained that Russia’s geographical size and government efforts would prevent the country from being severely affected by the pandemic. He has repeatedly insisted that most infections in Russia can be linked to Italy, not China, and that Europe’s handling of the situation led to a spike in the death rate there. Even as Russia’s patchy healthcare system struggles to assist its own citizens, it has sent aid to Italy and offered to assist the US in combating the virus. This could be seen as an attempt to reduce the West’s status to a weak recipient of aid, and to boost Russia’s to that of a stable country that does not need to expend these resources at home.
Despite Putin’s message of calm, the official approach has been inconsistent. The authorities delayed locking down major cities or restricting travel until the last minute, wary this might prompt panic. Putin has only addressed the nation twice, keen to avoid the suggestion of Russia as being in a state of emergency. While schools have been closed, cafes and restaurants remained open until the second week of March, the authorities were slow to evacuate Russian nationals from China and internal flights remain operational, allowing people to spread the virus around the country.
There also seems to be a lack of coordination between state bodies. For example, Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, first put the city on high alert before shifting to a lockdown. As senior members of the Duma were quick to complain that only the president and parliament has the authority to enact such a measure, the Kremlin was forced to release a statement saying it supported Sobyanin’s lockdown.
The authorities appear reluctant to take restrictive measures further, even in the interests of public health. St Petersburg was only put into partial lockdown on 30 March, and initially for just six days. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin suggested that the 80 other regions could look into the possibility of introducing similar measures, but there are no state orders to do so. In Moscow, and anxious not to call it a lockdown, Putin declared a week-long ‘holiday’ from 30 March to 5 April. This prompted an exodus of Muscovites to their dachas (summer houses) – hardly the most effective measure to combat further virus transmission coronavirus. It was only during Putin’s second address to the nation on 2 April that he announced the ‘holiday’ would be extended for one month, but avoided announcing any broader economic stimulus to support businesses.
The Kremlin seems to be promoting the idea of ‘business as usual’ as much as it can. The spring draft for military recruits was delayed, and it was only after much media speculation that the government announced a delay to the 22 April vote on the constitutional amendments until May or June. A definitive date was not given, likely because naming a date implies that an easing of restrictions is planned for around that time, and the authorities cannot anticipate how long they should last.
The authorities are trying to control and shape the coronavirus narrative. Officially, the number of infected people is low for a country of 146 million people. While it is likely that the statistics are manipulated by state-controlled polling agencies, who doctor data to give results that the Kremlin would like to see, it is possible the authorities do not actually know how many people are infected.
For a long period of time, there has only been one laboratory in Russia able to detect the virus – Vektor, in the central Siberian city of Novosibirsk. People have complained that Vektor’s tests are not sensitive enough and give false negatives, and of long waiting times and bureaucratic obstacles required to send off tests and receive results. Two other test centres are being brought into service to mitigate this bottleneck, and more hospitals constructed to receive an inevitable increase in patients.
Still, government agencies have intervened to prevent information deviating from the official line. The Federal Security Services (FSB) removed online posts in early March which suggested that the number of infected people was actually 20,000. Opposition figures such as Anastasia Vasilyeva, leader of the Alliance of Doctors trade union, posted videos on YouTube claiming the government is adjusting figures by reclassifying medical diagnoses as pneumonia, or other respiratory infections. At the same time, state statistics agency, Rosttat, recorded an increase in incidences of pneumonia in Moscow – up by 37% in January, when compared with the previous January. Days later, on 3 April, Vasilyeva was fined and detained overnight by police near Moscow as she inspected hospitals to assess their preparation for dealing with the virus – the police maintained she violated Moscow’s lockdown rules.
Controlling the Narrative
The Coordinating Council – the state-appointed committee hastily assembled to coordinate the approach to coronavirus – has also moved to control the narrative. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko is overseeing communications strategy, including restricting negative coverage of the government. In this vein, the Duma pushed through a new criminal law at the end of March that issues fines to people accused of violating quarantine procedures and disseminating ‘lies’ about the virus. Similarly, Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu has used this opportunity to call for stricter media regulations to counter what he maintains is ‘pro-western’ opposition media undermining the Russian military.
These efforts – comparing Russia’s response to the virus with a weaker West, limiting the scope for negative stories about the infection and the reluctance to impose lockdowns – aim to maintain public confidence in the government at a critical time. The delayed vote on the constitutional amendments that Putin proposed in January is widely viewed as a test of public confidence in Putin and his system. The authorities were already concerned about turnout before the virus took hold – they were hoping for a turnout of 60%, with 70% of participants voting in favour of the amendments.
The way the authorities handle the coronavirus pandemic will have a serious impact on voter turnout. Oil prices – upon which Russia depends for half of its GDP revenues – are in the doldrums, and the rouble lost 20% of its value, which will start to impact on real incomes. The government’s support package for small businesses is vague and has done little to assuage people’s concerns, and there are complaints that Putin’s week of holiday has hit industrial production.
The economic impact, coupled with social concerns as more people die, may mean that the authorities focus their efforts on fighting an information war, rather than preventing the transmission of the virus. This will test Putin and his government’s legitimacy, which doctored figures can only go so far to counter. It is important for the government to get the narrative right, and this explains why most of their efforts seem to be channelled into controlling it.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia
International Security Studies