Trust fall The Kremlin plans to reboot Russia’s mass vaccination campaign, but there are worries this will bring down Putin’s ratings
Russia is reporting 38,893 new coronavirus cases on average each day. Despite that, most Russians have little desire to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Indeed, only 35 percent of the country’s population is fully vaccinated. The authorities in the Kremlin are well-aware of this fact — and, according to Meduza’s sources, they want to change the situation. As Meduza found out, President Vladimir Putin’s Executive Office (the Presidential Administration) is going to take charge of rebooting Russia’s mass vaccination campaign. Officials in Putin’s administration complain that anti-vaccine rhetoric has “become mainstream” on the Russian Internet, and therefore plan to focus their efforts on promoting vaccination online. But although the Kremlin expects to be able to win over people who are on the fence about getting the jab, there are worries that forcing vaccinations could bring down Putin’s ratings.
Step 1: Don’t ‘tie’ it to Putin
According to Meduza’s sources, the Presidential Executive Office’s internal political bloc has begun a reboot of the campaign to promote vaccination against COVID-19 (these plans were previously reported by Kommersant). The relaunch will be handled by two of the executive office’s subdivisions: the State Council Directorate, under the leadership of Alexander Kharichev, and the Social Projects Directorate, which is headed by Sergey Novikov. Both officials are considered close associates of the political bloc’s leader, First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko (Kharichev and Novikov both worked at Rosatom when it was under Kiriyenko’s leadership).
Putin’s administration intends to concentrate its efforts on promoting vaccination online. However, according to a Meduza source close to the Presidential Executive Office, the directorates aren’t carrying out “systematic work” as of yet. This was confirmed by another Meduza source close to the internal political bloc. At present, they said, Putin’s executive office is only conducting qualitative sociological research to study the motivations of people who don’t want to get vaccinated, as well as their attitudes towards the actions of the authorities. A new strategy will be developed on the basis of this research.
A source familiar with the results of these sociological polls said that the main findings so far are a popular lack of trust in the authorities and a fall in Putin’s ratings. “Covid turned out to be the best sociological poll out there. Putin is alienated from the population, they no longer listen to him, it’s his trust rating that’s falling,” the source explained, adding that people also aren’t listening to what they hear on television.
Another source who saw quantitative survey data from Russia’s Secret Service (the Federal Protective Service) confirmed that Putin’s ratings are in decline. The source cited the example of the Volga Federal District, where the president’s trust rating currently hovers around 20–30 percent; before the pandemic, it was around 35–40 percent. Putin’s trust rating is similar in the Northwestern Federal District, where before, depending on the region, it varied from 35 to 65 percent, a source close to the president’s local plenipotentiary representative told Meduza.
A potential drop in Putin’s ratings is what worries the Kremlin's internal political bloc the most. The topic of vaccination is believed to be “splitting” Russian society, so Putin’s executive office is trying not to “tie” the president to it — in fact, they’re trying to show in every way that Putin is removed from this divisive topic.
Thus, rather than promoting vaccination by imposing a single policy from above, proposals are being gathered from the regions and coordinated, explained a Meduza source close to the Presidential Administration. In particular, he said, there’s a desire for “grassroots” proposals that seem “eccentric.”
To give examples, Meduza’s source pointed to authorities in the Khabarovsk territory raffling off three tons of coal to vaccinated residents, and the Sverdlovsk region requiring QR-code vaccine passports for purchasing alcohol. Policies like these ensure that the population’s complaints are directed towards “eccentric governors or mayors,” the source explained.
Step 2: Soft power
Thanks to sociological research, Putin’s Executive Office already has an understanding of why many Russians don’t want to get the coronavirus jab. As previously mentioned, one of the main reasons is distrust in the authorities.
A source close to a major sociological campaign commissioned by a government agency said that survey respondents often cite arguments against vaccination such as: “They [the authorities] have their own production of the ‘Sputnik’ [vaccine], and it’s not what they give us. They have another, secret vaccine for their own [people]. They don’t tell us anything, they don’t properly explain, they just scare us.”
One of Meduza’s sources close to Putin’s administration added that against this backdrop, “anti-vax has become mainstream on the Internet.” “There’s always clickbait,” he lamented, blaming “vociferous anti-vaxxers” for obliterating the administration’s “very meager efforts” at an online strategy, as well as its “curators” attempts to promote vaccination and discredit anti-vaxxers. By way of an example, the source sent Meduza several links to anti-vaccination videos on TikTok that have racked up tens of thousands of views.
Asked how to counteract vaccine skepticism, Meduza’s sources close to Putin’s Executive Office found the question difficult to answer. However, the Kremlin is inclined to use “soft power.” Despite the protests from Russians who are unhappy about draft legislation that would require QR-code vaccine passports for access to many public places and certain forms of transportation, Putin’s administration believes that the majority of residents aren’t die-hard anti-vaxxers, but rather people who are “wavering” between getting or refusing the shot. The Kremlin’s new campaign will be designed to target this particular demographic.
“It’s necessary to show that they’re ready to talk to them, to convince them that they’re heard too. People — perhaps some opinion leaders — for whom everything is also ‘not so simple’ will work [to target] this audience online. At first, they will write about vaccination with skepticism, to gain trust, and then they will publicize an authoritative opinion on the safety of the vaccine — or research about how it alleviates the disease. They’ll say that the vaccine is in principle safe and healthy, and that obtaining a [vaccination] certificate makes everyday life so much easier: it’s easier to travel, to go to the cinema, and so on,” explained one of Meduza’s sources close to Putin’s administration.
The Kremlin’s full strategy for “restarting” vaccination in Russia isn’t ready yet. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Meduza that “the president’s administration isn’t involved in a PR campaign for vaccination.” “The relevant departments, the government’s [anti-coronavirus] headquarters, are working on this, nothing fundamentally new is planned. You can see that the campaign is continuing. It’s happening on television channels, doctors are making appearances and so on,” he maintained.
Asked about whether the authorities have recorded a drop in Putin’s ratings amid the controversy over QR-code vaccine passports, Peskov said there’s no such correlation. “There’s no direct relationship, we aren’t seeing it. There’s the usual minor volatility. The level of trust in the president is quite high,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
“Don’t forget that all of this is being conducted by the [anti-coronavirus] headquarters. The initiative of the bill on QR codes specifically belongs to the Cabinet of Ministers,” Peskov added. “As for the QR codes, this is the case all over the world. Many people don’t accept it, but, as they say, the dissenters will be better off alive. Unfortunately, the pandemic is taking a lot of lives.”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart