MOSCOW (AP) – Spring is not going as planned by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A national vote on April 22 was to complete the broad constitutional reform that would allow him to remain in power until 2036, if he wishes. But the spread of the coronavirus in Russia forced that plebiscite to be postponed, a decision so sudden that posters announcing the referendum had already been placed in Moscow and other major cities.
Now the grandiose celebration of Victory Day on May 9, which commemorates Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II in 1945, is under threat.
The holiday has become the most important on the Russian calendar, and this year marks the 75th anniversary of the victory, with world leaders invited to a celebration highlighting Russia’s exceptional role in history. Every year thousands of people gather in Moscow, including many elderly veterans who proudly display their medals.
Military units have already rehearsed the traditional parade on Red Square, practicing outside Moscow, and leaders such as Frenchman Emmanuel Macron and Indian Narendra Modi had promised to attend.
Now it would be impossible to hold such an event, with much of Russia and the world in isolation to halt the spread of the virus.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that a decision had not been made to postpone the parade, although authorities were considering “options” such as holding it without the veterans, a group especially vulnerable to the virus. Peskov added that the Kremlin would understand if foreign leaders decided not to attend because of the pandemic, adding that the celebration would take place even if it was not on May 9.
Most of those infected suffer moderate or mild symptoms such as fever and cough, which pass in a few weeks. But the virus can kill or cause serious complications for some people, especially the elderly or patients with previous medical problems.
The pandemic, initially underestimated by Russian authorities, has posed an unexpected challenge for Putin, whose political position now depends on whether he can contain the damage from the virus.
On March 24, the president donned a yellow containment suit to visit an infected patient hospital.
Later, the authorities postponed the vote on the constitutional reform that would allow Putin to serve two more mandates more than six years after 2024. Those amendments have already been approved by lawmakers, but the government wants a national referendum to give a democratic veneer. to changes. The campaign calling for participation had already started in dozens of Russian regions.
Ahead of the vote and Victory Day, Russia’s state news agency Tass had begun publishing excerpts from a three-hour interview with Putin, in which the 67-year-old leader talks about what he has done for the country. in the last 20 years and what remains to be achieved. But Tass suspended the daily broadcast of the extracts, indicating that it was no longer relevant to a public more concerned with the coronavirus.
The outbreak has completely reconfigured the Kremlin’s political agenda, said Nikolai Petrov, a researcher with the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House.
“Everything that was going on before (the outbreak) has basically disappeared,” Petrov told The Associated Press. “All that political agenda (of constitutional reform) that had been developing since mid-January has ended.”
For the moment, he noted, “I think we can forget about the constitutional amendments.”
The coronavirus crisis poses many difficulties for Putin, whose popularity – which has declined steadily in the past two years – reached 63% in March, the lowest since 2013.
The outbreak coincides with a collapse in oil prices, Russia’s main source of income, in a price war with Saudi Arabia and which has caused a sharp fall in the ruble. The pandemic brought with it the prospect of further economic devastation.
While much of Russia was quarantined, something Putin optimistically described as “non-working days,” many companies halted their activity, sparking fear of a massive company shutdown that would leave millions of people unemployed.
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a government-backed business association, predicted that 3 million firms could close and 8 million people, nearly 11% of the Russian workforce, could end up without jobs.
An economic setback and a deteriorating standard of living, widely regarded by analysts as the basis of Putin’s popularity, have already become the main fear of the Russians.
When people start to fear that things will get worse, “that’s when popularity starts to plummet,” Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the independent pollster Levada, told the AP.
The Kremlin’s management has been questioned both inside and outside the country.
In Russia, Putin has been criticized for paying little attention to the epidemic at first and after distancing himself by delegating difficult quarantine decisions to the cabinet and regional governments.
In the West, some have questioned the low official numbers of cases of the virus in Russia and branded its operation to send planes of medical equipment to help Italy, the United States, Serbia and other countries as an advertising maneuver.
Putin tried to reassure the country with a televised message on April 8, but part of his message comparing the coronavirus to invaders of the 10th and 11th centuries provoked ridicule on social media.
“The risk of (Putin) looking disconnected is very real,” Samuel Greene, director of the Russian Institute at King’s College London, told the AP.
Before, Putin could regain control of the political agenda by diverting the conversation from internal hardships to Russia’s geopolitical greatness, unifying the population around the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or fighting what he described as terrorists in Syria. But this time, with Russia forced to fight a real global crisis, that strategy seems much more difficult.
“There can be nothing that interests people more than the hardships they are going through and will continue to go through for a long time,” Petrov said.