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Sir, yes, sir Moscow lifted quarantine restrictions because of Russia’s upcoming constitutional plebiscite

Source: Meduza
Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Following a conversation with Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin decided to lift lockdown restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic ahead of schedule. Many assumed that the driving force behind this decision was to improve the results of the upcoming nationwide vote on constitutional amendments, which could extend Putin’s presidency to 2036. Meduza spoke to multiple sources in the government who now corroborate this version of events, saying that the authorities hope to lift Muscovites’ spirits ahead of the July 1 plebiscite by restoring their rights to outdoor walks, recreation, shopping, and services.

Please note! All Meduza content about the coronavirus pandemic is free to distribute according to Creative Commons CC BY 4.0. You can republish this stuff! (Except for any photographs featured in our stories.)

How the mayor changed his mind 

At the end of May, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin still believed that going for walks and playing sports in the capital wouldn’t be allowed until the daily increase in coronavirus cases was down to “tens or hundreds” — not thousands. He even said that some measures could remain in place until there was a vaccine for COVID-19. “The [shelter-in-place] regime and sanitary restrictions will go on for a long time, so long as we don’t have a vaccine […] We are detecting around 2,000 or even 3,000 new patients everyday,” Sobyanin told the television channel Rossiya-24 on May 28.

According to the capital’s operational headquarters for the fight against the coronavirus, Moscow has seen a daily increase of around 2,000 coronavirus patients for the past two weeks (between 1,842 and 2,595 new cases per day). But on June 8, Sobyanin unexpectedly announced the lifting of the city’s self-isolation regime. As of June 9, Moscow has cancelled the digital passes previously required for leaving one’s home, and introduced a weekly walking schedule to keep everyone from going out at the same time; hairdressers and beauty salons are reopening, as well. 

For the first time during the entire lockdown period (the Moscow mayor issued the decree on the introduction of a “high alert regime” in the capital on March 5), quarantine restrictions were revised ahead of schedule. Previous announcements said that the self-isolation regime would remain in place until June 14. Ahead of this date, on May 27, Sobyanin extended self-isolation, as well as the required use of digital passes, and introduced the walking schedule.

But on June 1, Putin declared that the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments (previously scheduled for April 22) would take place on July 1. Although Sobyanin’s comments were supportive, he sounded alarmed: “It seems we are not up to it now. The pandemic, problems with the economy, let alone a vote. Indeed there are problems, and the problems are serious. But unmade decisions pose a serious problem too… Therefore it’s time to make decisions that will help avoid problems, not so much today as tomorrow, in the future. To prepare for any challenges ahead of time, and be strong and independent, regardless of all hardships.”

On June 2, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered the Justice Ministry and other departments to assess the legality of the restrictions introduced, including Sobyanin’s decrees, from the perspective of human rights. Meduza’s source close to the mayor’s office claims that Sobyanin asked the prime minister about such an assessment himself, “so that in the event of something being conducted, there would be no complaints against him.” Meduza’s source in the government confirms this claim. 

At the same time, a source in the government cabinet assures that Prime Minister Mishustin initiated the assessment: “This subject really worries people — [it’s] a hot-button issue.” The government’s press service told Meduza that the reason for the audit was questions from the regions about the practice of applying restrictive measures, and that the decision was made by members of the government’s coordination council for the fight against the coronavirus. The coordination council’s first deputy head is Sergey Sobyanin himself. 

The government’s deadline for completing the assessment was set for June 8, but late in the evening on June 5, the Justice Ministry reported that there was nothing seditious in the mayor’s decrees. In response to Meduza’s inquiries, the Justice Ministry said that the analysis was carried out “in due time” and published as soon as the report was sent to the government cabinet. 

Just two hours earlier, during a broadcast on Rossiya 1, the Moscow mayor had promised to announce a “radical” relaxation of restrictions next week.

The city authorities made this decision in a hurry, as evidenced by a text message that a number of Muscovites received from the mayor’s office on June 8, saying that the self-isolation regime had been extended until June 14. This message went out just one hour before the mayor’s announcement that the self-isolation regime would end the next day. 

How Putin decided when to ease Moscow’s quarantine restrictions 

Lifting restrictions in the capital was a topic of conversation between Sobyanin and Putin over the weekend of June 6–7, a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza. This discussion was preceded by a Security Council Meeting on June 4, “[During which] the growth of protest sentiment in the country was discussed,” the source explained. “According to [Federal Protective Service] polls, it’s strong, and the restrictions due to the virus are now the main reason for dissatisfaction. These sentiments will strongly influence the vote on the amendments.”

According to data from the independent Levada Center, 28 percent of Russians are currently prepared to participate in protests; this marks the “peak” protest sentiment Russia has seen in the past year and a half. Putin’s trust ratings have also hit a historic low of 25 percent (for comparison, his trust rating was 59 percent in November 2017). 

Sobyanin himself was in favor of lifting the restrictions later: the digital pass system and walking schedule should have remained in place until June 15, at which point, according to the mayor’s plan, beauty salons would have reopened. Catering establishments and museums should have remained closed until the end of June.

“Sobyanin hoped that the vote would be postponed until the fall, and that he would have a margin for self-isolation to last until June 1. But since everything was moved up, the exit had to happen two weeks earlier. He isn’t losing anything here, for Sobyanin this isn’t critical,” confirms Meduza’s source close to the mayor’s office. “He isn’t opening the city according to a decree from the presidential administration, he didn’t want to dance at the order of the [Kremlin]. This is clearly a request from the very top.” Meduza’s source in the Putin administration also says that lifting restrictions in Moscow was Putin’s personal initiative.

The mayor’s office was forced to rush for the sake of the upcoming vote on constitutional amendments, says Meduza’s source close to both the Kremlin and Moscow mayor’s office: “That’s exactly what happened. We are voting for the Constitution.” 

Nevertheless, a Meduza source close to the mayor’s office political bloc insists that Sobyanin was “saving face” and delivered the lifting of restrictions on time anyway: “Sobyanin understood that this would have to be done before the vote, this is now a priority for the Kremlin. By election day, people should already be more or less thawed, moving away from quarantine, and not voting in an embittered state immediately after the lifting of restrictions.”

The final stage in the capital’s lifting of restrictions — the reopening of pools, restaurants, gyms, daycares, and social services — will take place on June 23, right on the eve of the start of voting. 

In time for Russia’s second coronavirus wave?

News about the end of the lockdown did not come from the capital’s mayor, but rather from the chairman of the Moscow Public Chamber, the editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Konstantin Remchukov. He announced the lifting of restrictions during a chamber meeting on the organization of monitoring for the vote, which was publicly broadcast over “Zoom” (as a result, journalists were also privy to the meeting). “When the livestream of the meeting was about to end, I received a message about the lifting of restrictions from a reliable source whom I trust. And I read it out loud to the members of the chamber as good news,” Remchukov tells Meduza. 

The chamber will have to form its own corps of observers, since only they are allowed to monitor the vote on the amendments to the Constitution and the “zeroing” of Putin’s terms. Meanwhile, members of the opposition are warning against the dangers of holding such an event against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Opposition politician and Anti-Corruption Foundation founder Alexey Navalny, as well as former Yekaterinburg mayor Evgeny Royzman, and the Yabloko party, are all calling for a boycott of the constitutional plebiscite, due in part to the threat to public health. Navalny’s supporters are campaigning for a boycott of the vote among members of local election commissions for the same reason. “Maybe you should reach out to [the members of local election commissions] and talk with them? Explain that they should not participate in all of this for the sake of their own safety and the safety of voters,” Navalny wrote on his Telegram channel on June 4, encouraging the collection of members of local election commissions’ signatures on an appeal titled “We are not disposable material” (the petition has 101 signatures, but there are more than 800,000 of them in Russia). 

The head of Navalny’s headquarters, Oleg Stepanov, believes that the authorities could be taking this into account in the easing of restrictions, as well. “This could be an attempt to be proactive, rather than react — to make it difficult to launch a campaign on the dangers of voting during an epidemic. ‘What coronavirus? We defeated it long ago,’” he explains for Meduza.

If, due to the lifting of restrictions, the number of coronavirus cases and deaths begin to grow, these numbers will most likely be smoothed over; this data will be added to the statistics retroactively in July, Meduza’s source close to the mayor’s office suggests. “Then this will be explained by the alleged second wave of the epidemic,” Meduza’s source said. 

Another Meduza source who works with the Moscow mayor’s office and the Putin administration says the same thing: “[The federal authorities] are already preparing the idea of a ‘second wave’ ‘for later.’” Recently, with the vote approaching, federal officials have started being less discriminate when reprimanding governors for rising infection counts in their regions. “That’s why more and more governors are now very consciously working ‘hard’ [to underestimate cases],” says Meduza’s source.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin maintains that the restrictions in Moscow were lifted in good time and that Mayor Sergey Sobyanin was responsible for this decision. “Why [were the restrictions lifted] too quickly? Some restrictions remain, some will be lifted after a week or two. This is not a complete cancellation [of restrictions],” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, in response to a question from Kommersant-FM. “In this case, Sobyanin used this authority and, taking into account the analysis of the situation on the ground, made such a decision,” he added. 

Text by Andrey Pertsev, Farida Rustamova, Anastasia Yakoreva, and Tatiana Lysova

Translation by Eilish Hart

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