28 May 2020

The crisis that brings the rain. In the Red Square, after 75 years

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

It was supposed to be a spring that was going to change Russia’s Constitution through a popular vote and allow the continuity of a presidency which already brought Russia power and recognition. It was supposed to be the spring of the 75th celebration since the Great Victory from the Second World War. And it was also supposed to take place the most impressive parade ever seen, organized for this celebration. And it was supposed to be a bright day in the Red Square, just like each moment they do parades under the Spasskaya Tower from Kremlin. But it was cloudy on May 9th in Moscow. 74 aircrafts have glided over city’s sky, at big distance to make the moment last longer, and a small ceremony gave president Vladimir Putin the opportunity to put a wreath at the grave of an unknown soldier, close to the Kremlin wall. And that’s it. Over a sad capital, rather than military aircrafts were gliding the invisible threats Russia did not find the response weapon yet to combat them.

Image source: Mediafax

How quickly can history change

When in other parts of Europe the states were already taking measures to combat the outbreak, on March 10th, in Moscow, the Duma was adopting a decision on the approval of constitutional amendments about to be subjected to a referendum. Through these changes, president Vladimir Putin would have been allowed to stay president after 2024 and even until 2036. In the already fretful history of Russia, there were only a few personalities who went through Kremlin’s dark corridors for such a long time.

But it was not to be. For now. The referendum, initially planned for April 22th, got postponed in this constitutional carousel and it will be organzied later, but no one knows when.

Two weeks after the vote, Putin was already visiting Kommunarka, dedicated to Covid-19 patients and two months later the military parade dedicated to the 75 years celebration of the Great Victory was being replaced with a flight of 75 military aircraft, which were going to draw on Moscow’s grey sky the Russia’s tricolour flag. The 15 000 military men, huddled in Moscow’s garrison were sent back to their barracks. Many of them having high temperature. There was no need for the clouds-seeding above the capital, as usually for each parade. The Muscovite participants were anyhow inside, behind their windows, due to the isolation measures the government took. Paradoxically, also behind the windows was the prime-minister Mikhail Misutin after at the end of April he reported to the president that he was tested positive for the covoravirus.

Nothing went according to the plan for Russia’s leadership, in this 2020 spring. Neither the constitutional projects, the May 9th parade or the crisis combat measures.

After the crisis seemed to have a slow start in Russia, the online space being wounded with images of the Russian president managing the situation as a true military commander, then it followed the first week of activities interruption of salaries’ full payment, then a month, until April 28th, and then the extension of that month.

In the meantime, there were also some issues for the “macho” of the crisis image, for the country and its president. The medical personnel proved to be ineffective, untrained and weakly equipped. Even in Kommunarka, where doctors and nurses resigned big time. There was some estimation on how much Russia could pay salaries for this period when everyone stays at tome. Additional, other estimations placed Russia on the second place, after the US, in a top Kremlin wished to be in but for different things. Confident, the Russian presidency spokesman, Dimimtrii Pesko, was anticipating, at the end of April, that in May the infections will stop in Russia. He did not anticipate that he was going to be part of this development, as he was, also, tested positive. Russia is still doing well, if one can say so, in terms of the death toll. Suspiciously well.

But the recession is on the door

In a meeting with the Russian car industry directors, Putin told them that the situation is even worse than in the 2008-2009 crisis periods. At that time, the national GDP decreased with 7,8%. The following crisis, from the 2014-2015 periods, provoked by the Crimea’s annexation and the East of Ukraine conflict led to a 2,3% GDP decrease. People’s incomes are still not as before 2014. According to some public polls, two thirds of the Russian population is still feeling the effects of the last crisis, and, additionally, the Statistic Federal Service was recently announced that 20,9 million Russians are living below poverty’s limits. When this limit is 170 dollars per month, things are even more serious.

For 2020, the Russia’ Central Bank estimated a 4 to 6% decrease. But there are also other opinions around this thing.

Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, one of the reformers of Russian finance within the framework allowed by the Putin regime, says that GDP will fall by 8%, and a former deputy minister of economic development, Aleksei Vedev, also an inside man, but still one of the best analysts of the Gaidar Institute, goes up to 10%. Beyond the differences, the forecasts go in the same direction.

One reason is, of course, the unexpectedly severe Covid-19 pandemic in Russia, but another could be added as well: the sudden drop in oil and gas prices to levels similar to the period  before Putin came to power (1998-1999).

Russia still has considerable monetary capitalization in the state reserve ($ 564.4 billion as of April 3, 2020), and the National Wealth Fund, which is the last buttress for the pension system, is also $ 165 billion. A lot of money. The fund alone is about 11% of GDP. But the initial stimulus package has already halved it. Russia's state employees are many and necessary to the system. And expensive. While the state provides them with salaries for periods of quarantine, it does not happen the same with employees of private companies. It's their problem where they get their money from.

But, as expected, it also becomes a problem for the state and the Russian economy, because in addition to natural resources, whose prices have fallen dramatically, budgetary sources - taxes and duties - come also from these areas that Kremlin let to develop according to the market economy criteria. Russia is also part of the world market economy, right?

Can the actual crisis turn into a new Chernobyl?

A number of analysts believe that the Kremlin's current difficulties in managing the crisis could have the same meaning as the events that followed the Chernobyl catastrophe. And in that case, things moved slowly, they were denied in the initial phase, and later, when the magnitude of the tragedy spread, the state leadership did not sent a feeling of confidence to the population. Although even then things had changed to some extent in society, or were starting to change, the feeling was one of a deadlock.

It is no coincidence that such analyzes happen. In recent years, developments in the economy have not been satisfactory. Maybe this also led to changes in the executive. The expected economic growth, combined with the effects of sanctions, plus the current crisis, are directly felt by the population, they cannot be hidden as easily as human losses in the case of foreign military operations, such as in Syria or eastern Ukraine. The crisis is affecting everyone, it is a tangible, threatening reality.

Reforms are needed, some of them to be structural. The status quo does not work. The problem with reforms is, however, that you only know the beginning. If the social and economic breaches are deep, the changes produce other needs for change, the cleavages deepen and, at some point, people suddenly forget where they started from and want something completely different. Possibly democracy.

But the proposed constitutional changes are quite far from this goal. A reading between the lines of the reform of the fundamental law rather refers to the construction of a more conservative, more ideological, more anti-Western regime.

There is, however, an increasingly obvious difference between what the Kremlin anticipated as events’ developments and the reality of the crisis.

And crisis management, say relevant international examples, has required the direct, massive, coordinated and effective employment of national executives and leaders. Which, in Russia’s case, but is not the only example of this kind, did not happen according to plan. Contrary to expectations, the crisis in Russia, where everything is centralized and authoritarian, had to be managed locally, with the president’s orders. And local leaders, untrained in initiative’s exercise, waited or decided only what they thought would be approved.

It was proved that the unity of power is only present on paper, that the influence zones form the highest level are as many as in previous periods, just as different, with often contrary interests.

The US-Russia relations. Stop and rewind.

Given that the crisis has highlighted the primacy of the US-China competitional binomial, Moscow is somewhere in the background in Washington's priorities. Which is bad but also good. Moscow has fewer arguments in the panoply of force to convince Washington on the economic sanctions or the expansion of nuclear agreements. The US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty is relevant to that end.

But, as in 2001, when hr unconditionally expressed his immediate support for the terrorist attack, Putin once again tried to create a new relationship with the United States, right at the beggining of the crisis, not necessarily offering support - although it was , symbolic - to combat the pandemic, as a statement of empathy for the challenge that Americans are facing. The fact that, in the meantime, things have become more complicated at home has not helped much in this endeavour, but he proved that in Moscow, the Chinese saying about the opportunity in a crisis is taken seriously.

Since 2018, President Putin has regularly presented new achievements of Russian research in the field of military technology, hoping that they will get the US back to the negotiating table. The START Treaty, negotiated under the Obama presidency, is the last agreement in force matters, but it will also expire in February 2021. Russia cannot afford what the Soviet Union did not allow itself, an arms race that would dry up all its resources. Therefore, it tries to get an agreement, while it is still possible to negotiate from supposedly equal positions. And the crisis, paradoxically, is hoped to help.

The announcement made on Thursday, May 21, by Marshall Billingslea, the US representative for talks on nuclear weapons control, according to whom talks could resume immediately after the end of the crisis, shows that there are some results to that end.

A difficult to protect border: with China

More complex, or they have become complex in recent months, are the relations with China. Russia's harsh measures at the beginning of the crisis: closing the border, sending Chinese students home (the media uses the term "deportation"), and attacks on Chinese citizens in some Siberian towns, have drawn official reaction from Beijing.

Developments have calmed down as China has managed to stabilize the pandemic, and Russia has sunk deep and not very effectively in managing it. The April 16 talks between Presidents Putin and Xi, the first to declare Russia's support for China's "people's war" against the virus, calmed things down and silenced Chinese criticism. Of course, Moscow was not satisfied with the level information received from the Chinese side about the spread of the epidemic. The same reaction was recorded in other Central Asian states.

The distrust between the leaders of the two states was also fuelled by China's post-crisis stance, for which the Russian-Chinese alliance is no longer the same as in the pre-crisis period. If for Russia, this partnership was an antidote (also) to the US and EU economic sanctions regime, for China it was always important the military component.

Proving that there are also some similar reactions, in the short term, Beijing did the same, blocking the access of Russian citizens to the border area of ​​Manchuria (Harbin city), reasoning that there are several cases of infection came from across the border.

Indeed, this crisis will not fundamentally change the relations between the two countries, which need each other for different reasons and objectives. However, it helped to reveal more clearly the hierarchical relations between them, demonstrating, more for the rest of the world than for the two capitals, how the Euro-Asian partnerships work.

Between East and West, China chooses the North

Of course, it is a figure of speech, but there is also some truth there. The crisis has allowed Moscow do the diplomatic courtesy to some of the European capitals (Rome, Madrid, Paris, Belgrade), accompanied by the fraternal, but not always competent, support for crisis management. In the real world, however, Europe has responded by calling for less natural gas, renegotiating prices, and maintaining sanctions imposed after 2014. European leaders thanked President Putin with many words and few actions. Dividing the European identity is difficult for Moscow to achieve, and European states have proven, beyond this period’s nationalisms, that they do not give the good neighbourhood they have for the Eurasian promises.

At the other side of the map, towards Central Asia, Moscow's attitude was different. It is known from Dostoevsky the Russian bivalence towards the two directions: В Европе мы были татарами, а в Азии и мы европейцы ”/„In Europe we were survivors and slaves, but in Asia we will be masters. In Europe we were Tartars, but in Asia we are also Europeans”.

Thus, the several million seasonal workers in the Central Asian republics, about four in Moscow alone, were the first to lose their jobs during the pandemic, stuck in dormitories in the suburbs of big Russian cities, and they spent their money for their own survival. Life is difficult in the former empire, especially when you come from the east.

And Russia still has good relations only with the North which, maybe, with all this global warming, if it will not come up being a laboratory creation, will turn the permafrost into a chernozem.

For that, the sun should first be up on the sky, on the street military parades take place, even if the May 9th victory might be celebrated on November 7th. In the end, the past does no change.

English version provided by Andreea Soare