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A billboard in St. Petersburg urges passersby, “Avoid crowded places #thissaveslives.” March 25, 2020

COVID-19 vs. the Constitution Kremlin sources explain how the coronavirus pandemic is throwing off Putin’s political strategy for 2020 and what his team is doing about it

Source: Meduza
A billboard in St. Petersburg urges passersby, “Avoid crowded places #thissaveslives.” March 25, 2020
A billboard in St. Petersburg urges passersby, “Avoid crowded places #thissaveslives.” March 25, 2020
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the pause button on most political processes in Russia. The presidential administration’s domestic politics team has suspended its campaign to shape the national vote on Vladimir Putin’s proposed constitutional amendments, switching gears to focus entirely on fighting COVID-19. While Putin’s chances at two more terms hang in the balance as a result, gubernatorial appointments are also up in the air. The Kremlin had been planning to put several regional governors who are up for election to the test by watching their performance in the constitutional referendum. Now that Putin has postponed the plebiscite, which was scheduled for April 22, the Kremlin may have weeks or months to wait before tailoring its regional political strategy. Andrey Pertsev surveyed the effects of the new coronavirus on Russian politics so far.

Multiple sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the president’s domestic politics team has reoriented toward “coronavirus work.” This is despite the fact that the group had pulled out all the stops to focus on the upcoming plebiscite on constitutional reforms that could allow Putin to serve until 2036. After the president himself postponed the vote indefinitely, any justification for large-scale campaigning and get-out-the-vote work fell away with it. The administration’s push for high turnout and approval for the amendments will now just be humming in the background, primarily through online and TV ads.

“Everybody’s working on the coronavirus now, and the presidential administration’s political team is no exception. The person coordinating all that work is the same person who was working on the voting process for the amendments — Alexander Kharichev, the head of the division for State Council affairs,” said one source close to the administration. Two other sources confirmed that assertion.

The administration has requested lists of potential volunteers from political parties and NGOs in hopes of mobilizing those individuals to help the elderly, who have been asked to self-isolate. “Putin likes volunteerism as a theme, so this work is going to look good for the administration’s domestic politics bloc. Those volunteers are going to come in handy now. They’re also planning external advertising to tell civilians to stay home, plus an Internet campaign along the same lines. Combatting the coronavirus has already made it into the KRI for governors,” one source explained.

Volunteer efforts might present the Kremlin with a political opportunity, but on the regional level, delayed gubernatorial appointments are throwing a wrench in the gears. Seventeen federal subjects in Russia had planned to elect a governor this year; two of those elections have been scheduled to take place early, and 15 were set to be on-schedule. Out of those 15, however, two regions had new governors instated in December, leaving 13 regions to hold elections on September 13, this year’s nationwide election day. “The fates of several governors are still hanging in the balance, and the April 22 [constitutional amendment] vote was supposed to decide them: If a given regional leader was able to demonstrate respectable turnout and a respectable outcome, then they would keep their job. Now, there’s no possibility of that kind of performance check in the near future,” said one source familiar with the upper echelons of the president’s domestic politics team.

The Kremlin has been pushing to hold the constitutional plebiscite as soon as late May precisely because of the uncertainty surrounding Russia’s governors and because Putin’s aides hope to keep turnout as high as possible. “[If the plebiscite is in May,] the governors would have time to take their test, and there would still be time to replace the losers. Then, the newbies appointed to replace them wouldn’t have to rush too much with their campaigns, and they’d be able to submit their papers on time. If the vote happens on June 12, then there’ll be practically no room to maneuver,” said one source close to the Putin administration.

Two other sources confirmed that a May plebiscite is currently the most widely discussed option in the works, though they added that it would depend heavily on how the COVID-19 epidemic progresses in Russia. Another option under discussion was holding the nationwide constitutional vote at the same time as the rest of the country’s elections on September 13, but that idea has been decisively rejected. On March 27, Kremlin sources also spoke with the business newspaper RBC about plans to hold a plebiscite in late May or early June.

Unpopular governors with low approval ratings, like the Arkhangelsk region’s Igor Orlov, were supposed to be replaced in the first 10 days of April “to improve the social mood.” “Governors like those handle administrative resources poorly, so replacing them could only be a good thing — the central government’s ratings would immediately go up,” a source close to the presidential administration told Meduza. Now, those planned replacements might be delayed thanks to the coronavirus simply because the Kremlin “won’t have time for that” or because officials will have to focus on increasing Putin’s approval rates ahead of the constitutional plebiscite.

Meanwhile, current bans on mass events have directly affected both established political parties and ones that were recently founded. Because both public rallies and internal meetings (including party congresses, plenaries, and primaries) fall under the ban, even normal party operations have been difficult to keep going. United Russia, the country’s dominant party, has already switched its primaries to an online vote. “For now, offline politics is on pause — [in-person work] makes no sense at this point,” a source within United Russia confirmed.

Political strategist Pyotr Bystrov told Meduza that despite the effects of quarantining and self-isolation, Russian domestic politics haven’t disappeared completely. “As the coronavirus spreads and measures are put in place to fight it, most political activity will move to social media and online platforms, websites, and Telegram channels. I think the role of SMM [social media marketing] specialists and content producers is about to spike in political communications. Tools like targeted and viral ads are about to gain significance. A fundamental technological upgrade is going to sweep through the toolbox currently used in political projects and campaigns,” Bystrov predicted.

Political scientist Alexander Kynev added that the Kremlin’s break from domestic politics is only natural: “When your house is on fire, you put it out — you don’t go to that meeting you had planned.” However, when the epidemic ends, Kynev believes the Russian government will be up against a political crisis: “The negative effect is only being pushed back in time, and all the mistakes the government is making now will come flying back like a boomerang. The economic crisis will remain, and the hurt surrounding the fact that the president and the cabinet are trying to solve these problems on the back of people and businesses isn’t going anywhere. Even in countries where the government was pretty successful in handling this crisis, there have been leadership changes in functioning democracies [i.e. in countries where such changes are possible].” Kynev doesn’t see any good date for a constitutional plebiscite in the foreseeable future: “In May, the situation with the virus won’t be clear, and it’ll be hard to mobilize people. In June, they won’t be able to ramp up turnout, and falsifying [turnout] will trigger protests.”

Text by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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