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It’s all Sobyanin’s fault How Moscow’s mayor tried to tackle the coronavirus but ended up at odds with Putin

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Gerdo / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Throughout the spring, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin was a media darling in Russia, regularly appearing in news broadcasts and articles as one of the leading figures in the nation’s fight against the coronavirus. Moscow pioneered the containment restrictions later adopted by other governors that effectively became the federal government’s response to COVID-19. Meduza special correspondents Andrey Pertsev, Farida Rusatmova, and Anastasia Yakoreva look at how Sobyanin and his team handled the pandemic and concerns about the mayor’s own image. This is how Moscow’s mayor intimidated the Kremlin and exhausted his city’s patience.

Russia’s unofficial coronavirus czar

In mid-March, Sergey Sobyanin had twin appointments in two federal groups created to manage Russia’s coronavirus response. He served under Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in the government cabinet’s task force, and was also tapped to head a working group in the president’s State Council, leading to confusion about who was actually responsible for what. To remove the uncertainty, the Kremlin later told journalists directly that Mishustin is in charge, explaining that Sobyanin’s State Council group is merely an advisory body.

A source with ties to the Kremlin told Meduza, however, that governors say the conferences with Sobyanin have been more useful, complaining that Mishustin’s technocratic fixation on quantifiables often delays proceedings. Governors have issues with Sobyanin, too, says Meduza’s source: many of them blame Moscow for spreading the coronavirus to their territory in the first place, and they’ve advocated suspensions of transport connections with the capital. 

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, President Vladimir Putin, and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin at the government’s coronavirus task force headquarters on March 17, 2020
Mikhail Metzel / TASS / Sipa / Vida Press

The state officials and sources close to the offices of Sobyanin, Mishustin, and Putin who spoke to Meduza all agreed that the Moscow mayor’s leadership in Russia’s fight against coronavirus developed naturally. He simply had more experience and institutional resources than the new prime minister, said an individual with ties to the Kremlin.

A source close to Sobyanin’s office told Meduza that managing the coronavirus pandemic initially strained the mayor’s longtime friendship with Mishustin, but the two soon set aside their competition and worked together to convince President Putin to postpone Russia’s plebiscite on constitutional amendments (originally scheduled for April 22). 

“This is Asia, not Europe”

Multiple sources told Meduza that Sobyanin wanted to model the capital’s coronavirus lockdown on the measures rolled out in China and Singapore, closing the subway, deploying troops, and declaring a curfew. Journalists at Vedomosti reported these plans in mid-March, but the mayor’s office denied the allegations. Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that it was the federal government’s reluctance to take these extreme steps that ultimately restrained Sobyanin.

Manezhnaya Square in Moscow on March 30, 2020
Evgeny Feldman for Meduza
Kursky railway terminal in Moscow on April 7, 2020
Evgeny Feldman for Meduza
Moscow streets on April 7, 2020
Evgeny Feldman for Meduza

One former Kremlin official stationed in the Ural Federal District (where Sobyanin served as the governor of the Tyumen region from 2001 to 2005) told Meduza that local officials favor “Asian traditions.” “It’s Asia, not Europe. It’s an Asian-style urbanism. It’s an Asian quarantine,” said the source. Another source says Sobyanin models himself on Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. 

A new hospital designed for coronavirus patients under construction in Moscow on March 21, 2020. Sign reads: “Builders! Every minute counts!”
Kirill Zykov / “Moskva” News Agency

Sergey Sobyanin is now credited with being quick to respond to the pandemic as it unfolded abroad, before Russia’s outbreak began in earnest. While most state officials adopted a “wait-and-see attitude,” Moscow’s mayor acted on the information available to him, one acquaintance told Meduza.

Meanwhile, Sobyanin’s critics say he overreacted, implementing lockdown policies in anticipation of the carnage that unfolded in Italy, while Moscow has confirmed only 3,600 fatalities, so far (though this could be a serious underestimation). In the rush to save lives, the mayor’s office neglected to support many small- and medium-sized businesses. Despite some relief efforts, more than 100 shops and cafes on Moscow’s main commercial streets have now closed down.

“It’s like in war: who needs saving? Businesses or people? If you’ve got 50,000 people dead, nobody’s going to remember your little small business,” said a source with ties to the mayor’s office.

Failures on the job

Though Muscovites largely supported the mayor’s early containment measures against the coronavirus, the city’s increasingly disorganized response frayed the public’s goodwill by mid-spring. On April 15, when the capital rolled out digital passes needed to use mass transit, passengers were caught in long lines as police officers stopped people to scan their permits. The launch was a disaster and led to dangerously large crowds at subway entrances.

A source close to Sobyanin’s office told Meduza that Deputy Mayor Natalia Sergunina was responsible for managing the digital pass system, but another deputy mayor, Alexander Gorbenko, was in charge of coordinating permit-verification with the police. In other words, the mid-April subway screw-up was the result of miscommunication and clumsiness inside Sobyanin’s team. The mayor’s office also botched “Social Monitoring,” a mobile app designed to track suspected coronavirus patients in self-isolation that often failed to install and sometimes issued fines to people who never left their homes.

As these mistakes grew, so did resistance to Moscow’s quarantine. Two sources told Meduza that Sobyanin’s PR response faltered because of conflicts between the mayor’s “political wing” manager, Natalia Sergunina, and Anastasia Rakova, who had Sergunina’s job until 2018, but nevertheless maintains strong influence on this policymaking. Both women mobilized their resources on social media to defend Sobyanin’s reputation and undermine critics, a source close to the mayor's office told Meduza, but closed polling available to the Kremlin allegedly shows that his popularity is now declining. 

Muscovites return to outdoor summer dining. June 20, 2020
Evgeny Feldman for Meduza

Relations with Putin

Multiple sources close to the presidential administration and one individual inside the Kremlin told Meduza that quarantine restrictions seriously strained the relationship between Putin and Sobyanin. “Everything started back in January, when Putin was interviewing candidates for the prime minister’s position, for which Sergey Sobyanin was one of the likeliest picks. But he made it clear that he wanted to see Anastasia Rakova succeed him as Moscow’s mayor — a decision that belongs to the president and Putin didn’t like being pushed into anything. Later, Putin lost his patience with fighting the epidemic and needed an early opening of the economy. On this, the mayor and the president had opposing views,” one source close to the Kremlin told Meduza, adding that the disagreement became visible to the public, which Sobyanin’s adversaries in the government started using against him.

Additionally, Sobyanin’s media prominence throughout March in reporting on the coronavirus and governors’ nationwide pivot to Sobyanin alarmed the Kremlin, leading to perceptions in the Putin administration that Moscow’s mayor was working to position himself in the race for a presidential successor. “It really did seem like Sobyanin was on the rise and soaring to new heights. It started to look like a full-fledged bid to be next. Rival groups in the Kremlin quickly seized the moment, [knowing] that the president dislikes any enthusiasm about the race for a successor,” a Kremlin official told Meduza.

Vladimir Putin and Sergey Sobyanin discuss Moscow’s epidemiological situation on May 27, 2020
Alexey Nikolsky / Pool / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

As a result, says another source close to the Kremlin, it’s become common in Putin’s inner circle to blame Sobyanin for various problems: “He led people to panic, necessitating a quarantine, which caused economic problems and drove up protest sentiment. It’s all very convenient: it’s all Sobyanin’s fault.”

This bad blood was never aired in public, but Moscow’s mayor quickly grasped the situation and adjusted his behavior, says one acquaintance. “He reached his own limits — the limits of his office, his authority, and his ability to reason. They’ll listen to you up to a point and then the window of opportunity closes. You hit a wall and you can either leave or adapt,” a source told Meduza.

“It’s easier now to go after Sobyanin and say he broke the economy. Maybe it’s true and it was on his initiative that everything closed down and they went too far,” wonders a source close to Russia’s federal cabinet. “But maybe he actually saved Moscow!”

Story by Andrey Pertsev, Farida Rusatmova, and Anastasia Yakoreva, edited by Pyotr Lokhov

Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock

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