MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin is suddenly seen to be weaker than he has been in years, and economic pain from COVID-19 is one big reason, but not the only one.
“Putin’s approval rating began to decline even before the coronavirus crisis, with oil prices collapsing and the economy deteriorating—and I don’t see what can stop this perfect storm this year,” says Denis Volkov, deputy director of the Levada Center, which does independent polling.
“We see the public mood is changing the way we saw it during the crisis of 2008. (About 25 percent of our respondents say their salaries have been cut.),” Volkov told The Daily Beast. But Putin, like U.S. President Donald Trump, has die-hard fans, and “there is still a big group of people who say there is no alternative [to him].”
Putin’s biggest challenge is poverty, that old Russian disease. During his best years, when oil prices were astronomical and revenues were very high indeed, the Russian president was able to provide people with money—and with pride. He was building the armed forces, sending them abroad, overtly or covertly, to Ukraine, Syria, and Africa, and developing very expensive new weapons systems. Putin seemed able to provide, as economists say, both guns and butter.
But this year the nation’s rapidly shrinking economy has pushed millions below the poverty line, and Putin—whose approval rating was 80 percent in 2014, has seen his numbers, already in decline, drop precipitously. The current number of 59 percent would be positive in the West, but here in Russia, Putin has been used to nearly complete control over television news coverage, and he’s been losing that grip.
The Kremlin's major newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, claims that 70 percent of people still get their news from Kremlin controlled TV, but 58 percent follow news on the internet as well—or instead of—on state media.
So far, dozens of independent news websites have managed to keep functioning, covering news from all angles. But they are under threat, Kirill Kharatyan, editor of Vedomosti, one of Russia's few independent newspapers, told The Daily Beast. As the Putin government’s popularity declines, he said, concern grows “there will be more pressure on independent newspapers"
Where the economy is concerned, the government is quick to point out it has reserves for the state budget, and will meet public sector payrolls. But propping up the economy as a whole is another matter. Last year, even before the pandemic, the Federal State Statistics Service reported 20.9 million Russians, more than 14 percent of the population, living on less than $200 a month.
Smolensk lies about halfway between Moscow and Minsk, in Belarus. It is the poorest region in Russia’s central federal district, and it is in trouble these days.
Simply put, unemployed people cannot afford food. From the first weeks of the pandemic shutdowns, Nadezhda Petrusiva and her charity, Mercy, have been overwhelmed with pleas for help from single mothers with several hungry children, people with disabilities, and people who are simply terrified by the pandemic.
They call her center asking for food as early as 5 a.m. The center’s volunteers or, as they prefer to call themselves, “people of goodwill,” begin their mornings packing and delivering basic foods—parcels with cereal, flour, bread—for those in trouble. Grandmothers arrive with small pails to pick up their hot meals; homeless people eat at the center’s table.
More than 16 percent of the population in Smolensk lives in poverty, trying to survive on less than $5.50 a day. The coronavirus crisis made their situation even more desperate. The Kremlin’s head of the Accounting Chamber, Aleksey Kudrin, predicts that the number of unemployed in Russia as a whole will triple in the coming months.
“Never in my eight years of work in charity have I seen so many hungry and desperate people as during these months of coronavirus pandemic,” says Mercy’s Petrusiva.
Putin declared the economic shutdown in late March, after visiting Moscow’s new coronavirus hospital. That was the last time the nation saw the leader in action, dressed in full anti-plague gear, inspecting the so-called “red zone” full of patients with pneumonia.
Since then Putin’s key men, including the hospital chief doctor Denis Protsenko, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov have been diagnosed with coronavirus one after another.
Russia’s official death toll has not been nearly as bad as in the United States, Italy, or the United Kingdom, for reasons that are still unclear. District clinics monitor every positive patient at home, possibly providing early care that reduces deaths, but experts say that not all statistics are fully transparent.
In April, Moscow’s COVID-19 death toll was 695 people, while the total number of deaths recorded that month was 1,800 higher than usual. “There are people who die from cancer, cardio-vascular disease, but the autopsy shows that they also had COVID-19; their names are not included in the statistics and that’s where, of course, politics appear here, when governors report to the president, to the federal authorities on the COVID-19 death toll,” Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow radio station, told listeners on Saturday. “There will be more dying," he said. “We are in the middle of the process.”
Last Monday Russia saw a huge spike in infections—it is now second only to the United States in total numbers. And Russian authorities seem to have stumbled in protecting medical workers. Nobody, not even the most skillful propagandists, would be able to hide that fact. Due to sloppiness and disorganization, 190 Russian doctors and medics have died from COVID-19, according to a list called “We Remember” compiled by fellow physicians.
Last month, Putin promised $300 bonuses for medics working with coronavirus patients and $600 bonuses for doctors treating patients in so-called “red zones;” but when doctors received their salaries for April, the bonuses were missing. Russian medical workers, repeatedly called “heroes of our times” by state television, are calling for Putin to pay them the promised bonuses. So far 106,762 people have signed their petition.
Putin’s opponents on both left and right are using this shaky pandemic moment to try to rock Putin’s world. “The power is in agony, their authority is running through their fingers,” says a young communist parliament member, Nikolai Bondarenko.
Liberal opposition leader Aleksey Navalny is pressuring the Kremlin online to help poor Russians to stock their empty refrigerators with concrete financial aid in his “Five steps for Russia” program.
Might the Kremlin put more pressure on the independent press and the opposition to shut down critics and help Putin’s approval rating?
“Authorities cannot afford to tighten more bolts now, people already are gritting their teeth,” the founder of Transparency International’s Russian office, Yelena Panfilova, told The Daily Beast. “They might whip a few ministers for a show and maybe put a bit more pressure on the media—they need to look nice for the public.”
That’s getting harder and harder for the Putin regime to do.