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Putin ducks tough coronavirus decisions as aides step up

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Via Financial Times

When it comes to containing coronavirus, the Kremlin has a solid plan: Russia’s president Vladimir Putin promises everyone a month-long holiday; regional governors have to come up with painful restriction measures to then keep people in their homes.

“I have decided to prolong the official non-work period until the end of the month,” Mr Putin said in a brief speech on Thursday. “Let me stress that wages will be retained. Regional heads . . . will have to plan out a set of specific preventive measures that are the most rational for their regions.”

As the coronavirus pandemic presents Mr Putin with arguably the greatest challenge of his 20-year rule, the typically hands-on president has been conspicuous by his absence.

As Mr Putin distances himself from lockdown measures that look set to plunge the country into a sharp recession, regional governors and local officials have been thrust into the leadership vacuum.

None more so than Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who has emerged as the public figurehead of Russia’s initiatives against Covid-19, overshadowing other officials and shaking up the country’s well-established system of top-down government.

In a televised meeting last week, Mr Sobyanin warned Mr Putin that government figures showing low numbers of infections underestimated the true scale of the outbreak. And last weekend he announced that Moscow would be placed under near-total lockdown. These moves have left other parts of the Russian power structure scrambling to follow the mayor’s lead.

“It’s a strange situation for the Russian government that it has to, in fact, follow Sobyanin’s measures, and it creates some uncomfortable positions,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R. Politik, a Russia-focused political analysis firm.

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The result has been a muddled approach in which some branches of government have taken Russia’s response to the extreme, while others have done next to nothing.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, has closed off the region from the rest of Russia, and publicly pondered killing people who violate quarantine. 

Shortly after Mr Putin ended his national address on Thursday, three regional governors tendered their resignations.

Russia’s parliament had to rush through a law this week making Mr Sobyanin’s lockdown measures legal post facto. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said he supported the measures, but shied away from imposing them nationwide, leaving governors in Russia’s 84 other regions to implement them individually.

The Kremlin rushed out a statement saying that it supported the Moscow mayor’s directives, and rebuffing claims that by law only the central government could impose restrictions on the internal movement of people.

“Sobyanin is responsible only for Moscow, but it feels like he acts in a parallel reality compared to the federal government,” said Ms Stanovaya. “On one hand, Sobyanin is a deputy head of Mishustin’s co-ordination council, but on the other hand he has autonomy, answers directly to Putin and has a direct link to the president.”

That role as the public figurehead, overshadowing Mr Mishustin, who has only been in office for 11 weeks, brings not insignificant danger.

While Russia’s tally of 4,149 cases of coronavirus and 34 deaths is far lower than other major European countries’, experts believe a surge in infections could overwhelm the country’s underfunded medical system.

At the same time, forcing employers to shut down while also expecting them to fund five weeks of paid time off for employees will cause mass bankruptcies, industry analysts have forecast.

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Mr Putin’s low profile stems from a reluctance to take responsibility for potentially unpopular measures, according to a former senior Kremlin official, who said the president initially sought to delegate them to Mr Mishustin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has stressed that Mr Mishustin’s cabinet had been given the authority to introduce a state of emergency — normally a presidential prerogative — because it remains in charge of combating the pandemic.

“There is a coordinating commission which is empowered to make the decisions that it considers expedient . . . chaired by head of the government Mr Mishustin,” Mr Peskov said on Friday.

Mr Mishustin, however, was himself reluctant to introduce stricter measures earlier, prompting Mr Putin to act through Mr Sobyanin, the former official said. “Most people have wanted strict quarantine for a while already. [But Mr Mishustin] wants the governors to take all the responsibility.

“Then the situation clearly became lousy and they had to do something. So [Mr Putin] had to interfere in that way,” he added. “He doesn’t want to do it either, but he’ll have to.”

Mr Sobyanin has long been seen as one of the president’s key lieutenants. A former regional official whose ties to a billionaire oil tycoon brought him to Mr Putin’s attention, Mr Sobyanin was appointed the president’s chief of staff in 2005 and mayor of Moscow in 2010.

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

Feted for his regeneration of the city centre and management of the capital’s role in the 2018 Fifa World Cup, Mr Sobyanin has previously been seen as one of Russia’s most influential politicians. But a clumsy attempt to bar opposition candidates from local elections last summer — and his heavy-handed crackdown on the resulting protests — saw his stock fall, and his partial withdrawal from the headlines.

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The pandemic has offered him an opportunity to reverse that.

Moscow accounts for 70 per cent of Russia’s Covid-19 cases. After Mr Sobyanin unilaterally placed the capital under restrictions tougher than those imposed by the national government, Mr Putin endorsed them as “justified and essential”.

Yet few believe that the mayor acts with complete autonomy, and his apparent elevation is an example of Mr Putin’s preferred method of rule during difficult times.

“Most of the measures have been proposed by him but surely approved and agreed by Putin,” said Ms Stanovaya. “Sobyanin will not move a finger without Putin’s assent.”

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