Opinion: The Kremlin is terrified that Putin will catch Covid-19
30 March 2020
Dr Ben Noble (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) comments on Vladimir Putin's succession problem in the context of the coronavirus.
With “unusually high” activity levels of the Russian navy in the North Sea and the English Channel, it might be tempting to picture a menacing Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin directing operations from a position of total control. But that would be wrong. This show of strength comes at a time of Russian anxiety in the face of the coronavirus pandemic – and Putin’s own succession problem.
Russia’s political leadership has only recently started to acknowledge the severity of coronavirus. In an address to the nation on 25 March, Putin reluctantly postponed a nationwide vote on constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power as president until 2036. He said the vote would be held once the epidemiological situation has improved. The worry for the regime, though, is that developments in popular opinion might make holding a vote risky. The poll will be widely seen as a plebiscite on Putin personally – and, if economic woes associated with falling oil prices, a weaker rouble, and the coronavirus worsen, then Russians could well take out their anger at the ballot box.
Putin is already in a vulnerable situation. According to data from an independent Russian polling agency, the Levada Centre, Putin’s approval rating has dropped markedly from February to March this year. His approval figures now hover around levels last seen before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. This event produced an enormous rallying around the flag effect in the country – and Putin’s approval ratings soared.
The Kremlin’s unease will be compounded by additional polling data. Asked by Levada about whether they approved of the constitutional change allowing Putin to remain president from 2024, 47 per cent of Russians said they do not approve of the reform – and only 46 per cent of citizens want to see Putin as president following 2024. For a political system in which democratic institutions such as elections, parties, and legislatures do not provide accountability and accurate information on the mood of the nation, this type of polling is particularly important for the regime to keep a finger on the pulse of the population. These figures will make for uncomfortable reading for the Kremlin.
If Putin does not run for the presidency in 2024, then who will? Questions of succession become even starker during a pandemic. By most accounts, the Russian president is in good health. But his age – 67 – puts him in a clear risk category for the virus. What happens if Putin becomes incapacitated or dies?
Formally, article 92 of the Russian constitution states that, in case the president is unable to fulfil their duties, the prime minister becomes acting president. However, politics in Russia does not operate according to the black letter of formal political institutions. Of far more importance are informal dynamics and the balance of power between rival elite groups. One reason that Putin has stayed in power for so long is his apparent ability to keep the peace between these warring factions.
That Putin has not groomed a clear individual, or group of individuals, to take over leadership of the country might make him feel safer when in power, but it puts the system and the country at risk if he were taken out of the picture without warning. In other words, concern for security in the present puts the structural stability of the regime at risk in the long-term – a key weakness of personalist rule.
The Kremlin is aware of this existential threat. It also knows that members of the elite are aware of this weak spot. That explains the flurry of news briefings outlining the steps being taken to protect Putin from the virus. On a recent visit to Crimea – to mark the six-year anniversary of the Ukrainian peninsula’s annexation by Russia – those attending events with Putin had to clear a new screening process. Participants could not have visited areas badly affected by Covid-19 in the preceding month and they had to return a negative test for the virus. More recently, Putin made a high-profile visit to a hospital treating coronavirus patients near Moscow. The visit itself was, perhaps, overshadowed by commentary on Putin’s protective yellow suit and respirator. And, when noting that a member of the Presidential Administration tested positive for the virus, the Kremlin made sure to stress the individual's lack of direct contact with the president.
These measures are in themselves not surprising. Protecting the political leadership is important in any state; governance continuity is key. But the information campaign is interesting. The aim is not only to reassure the public: it is to pre-empt any speculation within the elite that Putin might become ill and unable to rule, with the possible early jockeying for power that this might lead to. And this accords with existing political science research, which shows that palace coups are responsible for the overthrow of non-democratic leaders in more cases than popular uprisings from the streets.
Last week saw the 20th anniversary of Putin’s first election to the Russian presidency. Although Russian warships have given concern in the UK, the Kremlin itself is anxious about Putin’s vulnerability to the uncertainties associated with coronavirus – and what this means for his political future.
Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics at UCL in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies; and Senior Research Fellow at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow
This article was first published on The Telegraph.
- Source: The Telegraph
- Dr Ben Noble’s academic profile
- UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies