COVID-19 and Russians’ political sentiments

Yesterday Riddle published an article “COVID-19 and Russians’ political sentiments” written by Margarita Zavadskaya and Boris Sokolov (Senior Research Fellow, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, HSE). Based on the ‘Values in Crisis’ survey, they have compiled original data on how the coronavirus pandemic is changing Russian society and its political moods. The results show little sign of any ‘rally round the flag’ effect.

To sum up, Russians have not ‘rallied round the flag’ in response to the epidemic, as predicted by political science theories. On the other hand, the economic situation has not yet had a very noticeable impact on political sentiments. Here, the situation can change if the recession caused by the coronavirus and authorities’ response is protracted. The subjective perception of what is happening has a stronger impact (albeit small in absolute numbers) on the attitude towards the government than direct experience of the disease or its economic consequences. Interestingly, pandemic-related concerns are conducive to a favourable rather than negative attitude to the authorities; perhaps the government is perceived as a source of some stability and social guarantees.

 

The most interesting result is the close link between the perception of COVID-19 as a hoax and distrust in the government and state institutions. This may indicate that the authorities are suffering the greatest reputational loss among the conservative section of society, where the share of supporters of various conspiracy theories is quite high.

The full version of the text is available in English and Russian online.

Political Consequences of the COVID-19 in Russia: Another Blame Game?

Yesterday Aleksanteri Institute organised a discussion panel at Tiedekulma on COVID-19 in Russia and its effects on politics, Central Asian migrants, and prisons. The event was streamed online and consisted of three presentations by postdoctoral researchers at the Aleksanteri Institute – Margarita Zavadskaya, Sherzod Eraliev (“Covid-19 pandemic on Central Asian labour migrants in Russia”), and Olga Zeveleva (” Prisons and punishment in Russia during the COVID-19 pandemic”) and was chaired by Mikhail Nakonechnyi, also a postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute. After the discussion, the participants answered the questions that were sent by the audience online.

ElMaRB project leader, Margarita Zavadskaya gave a talk titled “Political Consequences of the COVID-19 in Russia: Another Blame Game? “. The talk in many ways reflected what Margarita was exploring within the “Politics and Pandemics” special series that we started at the beginning of April in our blog. Margarita discussed how Russia is dealing with the pandemic, and what are the economic and political consequences of it.

Dr. Zavadskaya pointed out some interesting features of the political support dynamics in Russia. For instance, from social studies, we know that events like natural disasters, external threats usually provide rallying around leader effect. However, we do not observe it in Russia. Even state-sponsored pollsters report stable figures around 67% (i.e. no rise). According to the independent pollster Levada Center, political support for V. Putin reached its historical low of 59% in May. Moreover, before April, Levada registered a rise in support for regional governors.

Second, there is a rise of mass concerns with the economic situation, purchasing capacity, and employment prospects, especially among the vulnerable groups of the population, small business, and medical workers. The Russian economy has been experiencing problems before the pandemic – it was hit hard by the drop of oil prices on March 8th and earlier decrease in trade with China. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown aka ‘non-working days’ or even sometimes referred to as ‘holidays’ lead to an immediate rise in official unemployment, bankruptcies, and an overall slowdown of economic activities. As we know, people tend to “punish” their governments for a deteriorating economy and hold them accountable for the economic grievances. Thus, in Russia, we can observe two warring tendencies – the expected rallying effect and blaming the authorities for the declining economy.

What can be expected from all this? The experts generally agree that the implemented by the government supportive measures fell short of the Russians’ expectations. The official statistics number may show that the support of the government and the president is still relatively high, but actually, even the so-called pro-Putin loyal majority is unsatisfied with the current situation and the social contract has eroded. At the same time, there are no channels for Russians to express their discontent – while people in electoral democracies can just throw the rascals out with voting, Russian elections do not allow voters to punish the executive for the ‘bad governance’. Protest – another form of expressing political discontent – also seems costly under repressive regimes due to various restrictions on the public gatherings (especially during the pandemic), even solitary pickets. Besides that, people don’t tend to protest when the economic situation is hard. Therefore, all the grievances will be just accumulating for a while.

To finalise, the COVID-19 helped the regime to experiment with a new toolkit of manipulations and repressive measures – new restrictions on gatherings, new forms of voting. There are grounds to believe that the vote on constitutional amendments is better to take place as soon as possible because political support is not expected to remain high. On the other hand, this time the regime attacked its loyal voters. Loyal majority kept voting for the regime, but when the state was most needed, it backed down from its ‘duties’. Ironically, excessive regulatory intervention of the state in business and non-commercial sectors turned out to be a laisser-faire strategy when it was most needed. Thus, Russia will remain about the same, but poorer and more repressive.

The full recording of the panel discussion is available below:

Neither Referendum, nor Vote: How COVID-19 Helps V. Putin to Maintain Political Power

On Monday, 1st of June, President Putin signed the executive order on setting the date for the nationwide vote on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The vote was originally scheduled for the 22nd of April, but it was postponed until further notice in late March due to the spread of the coronavirus in Russia. According to the executive order, the nationwide vote will take place on the 1st of July. The vote will start after the postponed to 24th of June Victory Parade and will end before the start of first school graduation exams, which were also postponed. All Russian regional legislatures and the Federal Assembly have already approved the amendments in March. After that, on 14th of March, Putin signed a bill according to which the amendments will be effective after Russian population approves them through the national vote. Amendments will be passed if more than half of the voters support them, and there is no requirement for a voter turnout percentage for voting to be eligible. This week, in our ninth post of the “Politics and Pandemics” special series, Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva comment on the national vote and how the ongoing pandemic will and already is affecting it.

 

Voting on constitutional amendments is heavily loaded with symbolic value for the current regime and most importantly aims at extending V. Putin’s presidential terms. All this comes in a single package with extravagant textual novelties such as support for ‘traditional family’ to shift the attention and to lure conservative and unsophisticated electorate. Usually, natural and health disasters boost political support thereby spurring the rallying effect in the population. On the other hand, the economic situation is getting grimmer and there is a large consensus among observers that the existing policy measures to support citizens, vulnerable groups, and business are ill-designed, insufficient, and untimely. So far, political responsibility has been shared in a way that the president delivered ‘the good news’, while dealing with unpleasant practicalities was delegated to the government agencies and regions. The question is whether the regime is attempting to catch the wave of national rallying around the leader in the times of the pandemic? 

As long as the decision to extend V. Putin’s presidential terms by means of the constitutional vote had taken place before the COVID-19 emergency, further postponement of the vote is utterly undesirable as the economic conditions will worsen. This is not to say that Russian voters would immediately withdraw their support from the president – usually, under non-democratic regimes, political support has significant inertia and may remain high even under dramatic economic downturns – however, this increases the uncertainty and may give more leverage to the opposition. At the meeting with Vladimir Putin on 1st of June,  co-chair of the working group to draft proposals on amending the Constitution Taliya Khabriyeva stated, that the relevance of the amendments was highlighted during the pandemic, as, in Khabriyeva words, the breakthrough in COVID-19 treatment is not possible without proper legal regulation of science, which is not possible under the current Constitution. Thus, the timing is of utmost importance to have the mission accomplished. 

How the vote is going to look like given the alarming situation with the COVID-19 in Russia? Chair of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova promised that all people participating in the voting will be equipped with face masks, gloves, and single-use pens, and there will also be hand disinfectants at place. All members of election commissions will be tested on coronavirus, and voters’ temperature will be checked. Additionally, Pamfilova suggested that the voting would be taking place for 6 days before the official date on the 1st of July so that fewer people would be present at polling stations. Voting at home opportunities will be also enhanced for those who cannot come to the designated stations, and online voting might be organised in 2-3 regions. Pamfilova also mentioned that Russia reflects on the experience of other states who held elections during the pandemic, and said that Russian procedures will be even more efficient. For example, Russia will not use voting by post, as this procedure, according to Pamfilova, cannot be efficiently controlled neither in a sanitary sense nor under considerations of election observation. Vote by post was, however, enabled on the 13th of May this year.

Restrictions due to coronavirus are still largely intact in Russia: in Moscow, for example, the citizens are still obliged to wear masks and gloves on the street, and from June they are allowed to go on walks 3 times a week according to their house schedule. Besides, chief sanitary doctor of St. Petersburg Natalya Bashketova said this Tuesday that the city is absolutely not ready for the lifting of restrictions. The daily increase of registered coronavirus infections is still more than 8.000 cases in the whole country.

Figure 1. Expected Turnout on the National Vote on the 1st of July, 2020, Russia

Source: Levada-Center, Survey of 22-24.05, N=1623 aged older than 18; CATI & RDD sampling procedure.

 

How many Russians plan to participate given the pandemic restrictions and how their attitudes towards the amendments changed throughout this Spring? So far, the number of those who intend to participate in the constitutional vote has increased since March 2020 from 33% to 45%: those who were undecided in early Spring have been ‘activated’. While the number of those who decided to refrain from vote remains stable – 21% (see Figure 1).  The share of people who are in favour of the amendments has somewhat increased – from 40% in March to 44% in late May. The share of oppositionists has slightly dropped from 34% to 32% (see Figure 2). More than 20% of respondents do not have a strong opinion. Figure 3 vividly shows that most of the supporters plan to turn out at the polls, while non-supporters will stay home – 58% of non-participants express negative views on the proposed amendments. All in all, loyalists tend to be more active, while the opposition seems to ignore the very event. There is little doubt that the amendments will pass, however, it will leave more than one-third of Russians unsatisfied, not taking into account that the share of those with no clear opinion is also high – 24% (Figure 3). To argue that there is a consensus behind the new constitutional terms would be a strong exaggeration.

Figure 2. Support for the Constitutional Amendments from March to May

Source: Levada-Center, Survey of 22-24.05, N=1623 aged older than 18; CATI & RDD sampling procedure.

 

Figure 3. Support for Constitutional Amendments by Expected Turnout

Source: Levada-Center, Survey of 22-24.05, N=1623 aged older than 18; CATI & RDD sampling procedure.

 

The forthcoming vote has a number of issues from the legal viewpoint: 1) the vote does not qualify as a referendum as it did not pass all the necessary requirements according to the federal law on referendums¹; 2) unclear legal criteria to define if the voters supported the cause (is absolute majority enough?); 3) as long as it does not fall under the existing electoral legislature, requirements for voters’ identification, the secrecy of vote and public campaigning are loosened. As the experts from the independent observer organization “Golos” argue, ‘such decisions – carrying out of ‘the vote-that-is-not-a-referendum’  – undermines the law’ and it shows that ‘any legal prohibition may pass through the invention of new extra-legal mechanisms’. Legal experts claim that it is unacceptable to pass constitutional amendments as ‘a package’ not united by a common subject.

To make a long story short, it is not a referendum. The vote’s ‘extra-legal status opens up a wider range of tools to compromise electoral integrity and to use most of the options from ‘the manipulation menu’ (Schedler 2002): turning a blind eye to the violations that aim to support the cause and sanctioning selectively the attempts to protest, to mobilize against, or even to observe the voting process. This is why, this is neither a referendum nor an expression of voters’ preferences in a strict sense of the term. What we are dealing with is a sort of ‘electoral event’ with a dubious legal status.

The impact of COVID-19 on electoral innovations turns out ambiguous as well. The pandemic helped to justify a number of innovations that, at first sight, may even look progressive, but in reality will serve to lower the costs of rigging elections. These innovations include 1) extension of the voting period; 2) online voting²; 3) restrictions on mass gatherings. The online vote was used for the first time at the Moscow city elections in 2019 and proved to favor loyal candidates – in all competitive districts with electronic vote loyal candidates won. Mobile voting strongly correlates with the vote for the incumbent (see Saikkonen and White 2020), so voting online will operate in a very similar way and will make voting less transparent. An extended number of polling days will provide more information on how the vote proceeds and facilitate technical adjustments. However, it is not the expected violations and how to prevent them that pose a challenge for the Russian opposition, but rather the very status of the vote. The opposition faces a dilemma whether to focus on procedural legitimacy and technicalities of a legally ambiguous event or to challenge the core of it – the nullification of the terms served by the current and former presidents of the Russian Federation.


¹ At the same time, according to the Russian legislation, the chapters of the Сonstitution that are being changed do not require any referendum in order to be amended.

² The possibility to cast the ballot online will be available in a maximum of 3 regions.

PANDEMIC POWER: HUNGARY BEYOND CURE

Our “Politics and pandemics” special series continues, and this week we are going to take a look at what changes did COVID-19 bring into the political life of Hungary. This week’s blog post is written by Katalin Miklóssy, University Lecturer, Discipline coordinator in Eastern European and Balkan Studies at the Aleksanteri Institute.

The struggle against the COVID-19-epidemic forced the democratic states to take on extra measures. In this upside-down world, we got quickly used to new manners of political speech where government officials wondered if people were trustworthy enough to behave responsibly. In this frightening new normality, we grouped up around strong leadership and obeyed without protesting when our freedom, livelihood, and constitutional rights were restricted. Transparency of decision-making processes became fuzzy – but we accepted it because crises demand quick solutions. We admired power-holders who talked to us as we were children, explaining repeatedly and clearly enunciating what we are supposed to know in their opinion. Borders became sealed around and within our countries, justified in the name of the national interest. While this modus operandi of the ‘people-power’ relationship relies on stable democracies with strong parliamentary institutions, this extraordinary situation gave ammunition to countries with authoritarian tendencies.

Authoritarian backsliding of some Eastern members of the European Union, Hungary in particular, have acquired increasing public attention. The erosion of the rule of law, high degree of corruption, expansion of government functions, overconcentration of administration, limitations on media, and civil freedoms have openly challenged the common values of the EU. Hence, developing a discursive strategy was necessary to come to terms with growing Western criticism and discontent that could endanger these countries’ budgetary interests in EU-funds. In the center of this strategy is the practice of doublespeak, which has been in good use ever since the 1950s, invented to show the Soviet satellites’ ideological obedience to the Kremlin while driving national interests and using a language on the home front that actually meant something. This well-tested practice was transplanted into the EU-context. By cultivating the required EU-liturgy the countries were able to maintain leverage vis-a-vis the EU and the national interpretations of the EU-intentions ensured domestic popularity at the same time.

The new steps towards a more dictatorial regime were justified by the global pandemic and the following events where also Hungary’s Western critiques started to apply crisis legislation and a more centralized method of governance. This provided the means and the opportunity to take full advantage of the global situation where it was not difficult to find versatile references from various international examples.

The people also had to be prepared for new ways of ‘crisis-management’ by informing them extensively of death tolls in other countries and of the fact that the disease was dragged in from abroad, by foreigners – and as it happened the first two registered patients were Iranian students. This was an important development from the two perspectives. On the one hand, the government emphasized that they were right to block immigration since immigrants were obvious virus-centrifuges. So, all higher education institutions were closed in early March because of the danger that international students’ cause to their Hungarian colleagues. They also abolished the transit-zones of refugees, the target of frequent EU-criticism, but the refugees were now to apply for asylum in Hungarian embassies instead, far away from Hungary. More importantly, however, this was a textbook example of what the Copenhagen school called in the late 1990s ‘securitization’. The concept, introduced by the seminal work of Barry Buzan, Ole Weaver, and Jaap de Wilde (1997), indicated that crisis rhetoric is always a powerful political instrument by which politicians appeal to people’s insecurities and acquire exceptional entitlements for their mandates. This was seemingly happening around the world and also in Hungary.

The focal point of the Hungarian crisis management became known as the Enabling Act’, issued at the end of March, with the blessing of the parliamentary majority. The law would be in force as long as ‘crisis and its consequences’ would demand it, depending on how the government assessed the situation, without any predeclared time boundaries. The administration got free hands to govern by statutes, and besides it immediately forbade all assemblies or voting, it also recalibrated the Criminal Code. Rumours and disinformation on the crisis or the way it is handled would be punished by up to 5 years of imprisonment – in the times when the courts of law did not function because of the limitation on assembly. This was an effective way to bring back communist-time memories of self-censorship and not only for the journalists. By mid-May, it became obvious that this was an excellent means to strike against civil society, independent local governments, healthcare professionals, and even ordinary citizens active in social media. All critical voices could be silenced by a simple redefinition of the public space.

Crisis legislation already existed in the Constitution and various codices in the Hungarian legal system, so the Enabling Act was not inevitable. In addition, at the time the virus arrived in early March, the Hungarian administration in fact did not need the extra Covid19-assistance to acquire new constraints on the residual space of democracy. The governing Fidesz-party had it all: with its two-thirds parliamentary majority, it could pass even a new Constitution by itself if it wished so, without any checks and balances on its overwhelming power. And yet, the Fidesz could not help leaping at the chance. The question is why did they need it? This is even more puzzling since the PM Viktor Orbán declared that the Enabling Act will be renounced in June.

The answer lies in the magician’s trick. The audience’s attention is caught by the more visible smoke-screening hand in front of them whereas the other, unnoticed hand actually does the magic. The smokescreen in the Hungarian case was the securitization discourse under the flag of the Enabling Act, which induced growing EU-pressure. But in reality, it has been a medium of introducing new regulations in a number of fields and while the administration can easily give up the Act itself – other statutes stay in power. The real magic is taking place in a field that the EU did not monitor because of the legislative smokescreen, and it was economics.   

The administration declared that in the fight against the epidemic, it paid special attention to strategically important enterprises, some of which, like a carton-firm, were simply taken over. There are over 100 businesses on the list. The government also established special economic areas where the taxes and revenues are taken away from the local governments’ jurisdiction and concentrated into government-controlled larger units, one could add in China-style. Furthermore, since the last local elections in 2019 brought considerable victory in many regions for the opposition forces, now as part of the crisis management agenda, the main income sources, various forms of local taxes were withdrawn from these independent local authorities. The concentration of media companies is growing and now over 500 firms are transferred under a state-controlled media holding. This is not only a showcase of state intervention in the market, altering competition and rules of the game for business; it also represents primarily a foundation of a new more controlled era. The independent media sector is shrinking fast and the change of the criminal code is punishing ‘disinformation’ thereby strengthening self-censorship and accelerating authoritarian consolidation.

As a result, the popularity of the ruling Fidesz party is growing, due to the very successful communication in the handling of the crisis and the concentrated media landscape. The Copenhagen school-type of securitization was, however, not necessary in the domestic arena because all the major cards of the magician were already on the table. Securitization was instead a very useful instrument to direct international attention away from the real deal. People group up around strong leadership actually regardless of the crisis, taking into consideration that the Fidesz has not lost any elections since 2010. It is seemingly important for them that the problems are explained in a language that they understand  and they value the emphasis on the ‘nation comes first’ discursive strategy. 

Concentrating Benefits and Delegating Costs: How the president undermines the governors’ chance to raise their own political credentials while handling the pandemic

This post, written by Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva, is the seventh in the special series “Politics&Pandemics”.

Three days ago, on May 11th, during his latest address to the nation, Vladimir Putin stated that from the 12th of May the regime of non-working days is over, and each region should proceed to gradually lift off restrictions according to their own schedule. Does this imply that the pandemic has reached the long-awaited plateau and Russian authorities handle the corona crisis successfully? This does not seem to be the case: since the beginning of May, there have been more than 10.000 new cases of coronavirus infections recorded daily in Russia. At the moment, Russia has the second highest toll of the number of COVID-patients in the world after the US. Not to mention the growing number of complaints from the business, doctors, and impoverished citizens locked in their homes.

In his first of the five addresses to the nation about the coronavirus situation on 25th of March, President Vladimir Putin declared a non-working week from 28th of March, that was prolonged several times until the 11th of May. He also outlined some support measures for business and families, but hasn’t declared the state of emergency in the country. On 1st of April the law on emergency situations in Russia was amended, and the power to declare the state of emergency was granted to the Russian government – until then only the president and the state commission on emergency situations had the right. Until this day, none of them has exercised this right. In his second address on 2nd of April, President Putin announced that he has issued an Executive Order, granting additional authority to the regional heads. From now on, the heads could decide themselves about which measures to introduce in their regions and when. After the address to the nation on the 2nd of April, the heads of Arkhangelsk region, Komi Republic, and Kamchatka Krai, resigned. All of the regions were criticised for their inefficient measures of fighting the coronavirus. The situation was especially severe in Komi, where a coronavirus explosion occurred in a hospital when a “superspreader” infected 50 people.

Alongside social and business support measures, the state planned additional support for the regions. For instance, federal subjects are exempt from paying the budgetary loans in 2020, and the governors received rights to change sources of budget deficit financing and objects of regional budget expenditures. The government allocated 65,4 billion rubles ( 817 million euros) from its reserve funds to the regions to spend on additional medical equipment. The president also ordered to forward additional 200 billion rubles (2.5 billion euros) to the regions for social and business support.

How regional diversity in terms of threat and infrastructural capacity affect the popular evaluation of anti-corona measures? Recent polls by Levada-center have registered an increase of trust in regional heads. Meanwhile, according to VTsIOM (a state-sponsored polling agency), the majority of Russians positively assess the authorities’ actions aimed at fighting the coronavirus. Denis Volkov, the leading Levada-Center analyst argues that the decline in mass support will occur months after the eruption of the economic crisis, which makes sense as public assessments usually arrive with some delay.

On the other hand, we observe a rise in new forms of protest that signal distrust with the existing policies. According to the HSE poll, half of Russians do not believe the official coronavirus statistics in Russia. On the 20th of April, online protests against insufficient state measures were organised via “Yandex. Navigator”: they started in Rostov-on-Don and continued in Krasnoyarsk, Samara, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some other places. Offline demonstrations are rarer for the reasons of movement restrictions. However, on the 20th of April in Vladikavkaz a COVID-dissident organized a mass protest. The protesters, who declared that the Republic of Severnaya Osetiya should support the people who lost their job due to the restriction measures, also demanded the republican heads resign.

Is there any way to look at how unhappy Russian citizens are with public measures to handle the crisis? The lack of open regular polls prevents us from exploring whether governors’ support has changed during the time of the coronavirus emergency as well as the data on regional protest in Russia is scarce. Moreover, usually, the number of protests tends to decrease in times of severe economic hardship as civic engagements presume that people enjoy sufficient resources such as time, money, and education (civic skills) (Brady et al. 1995; Beissinger & Sasse, 2014). In general, protesting under non-democracies is usually more costly, especially during quarantine measures imposed by the state and prohibition to gather in public spaces. Authorities are fully authorized to prevent and detain protesters and a significant share of compatriots would deem such actions as extremely irresponsible. 

Given these limitations, we decided to take a look at how Russians respect the rules of self-isolation in the regional capitals using the data provided by Yandex. The Index of Self-Isolation is based on peoples’ traffic, movement within a given location. During the quarantine, it has to be as high as possible. Following the rules and sticking to self-isolation reflect 1) the degree of trust that the danger is real and collective action should take place; 2) the degree of trust in publicly imposed restrictions and their necessity; 3) the minimal capacity to uphold the household economic well being for the quarantine time without regularly, for instance, sneaking to work illegally elsewhere, 4)  the cost of disobeying the restrictions and control over them. Not to mention that it approximates the degree of civic responsibility and respect towards fellow citizens. If the index takes on high values, this stands for a high level of self-isolation and, vice versa, lower values mean that there are too many people on the streets. Thus, we assume that low levels of self-isolation even under strict quarantine regimes and higher risks of virus exposure indicate more troublesome situations in a regional capital.

As we know, the Russian president de facto delegated the adoption of counter-pandemic measures to regional administrations. Some experts even spotted the signs of ‘federalization’ in this step. First of all, it is reasonable to expect stricter quarantine regimes where the threat is more tangible and, consequently, more respect for the self-isolation regulations. Figure 1 shows how the Self-Isolation Index varies depending on a number of active COVID-19 cases as of 12.05.2020. We see a slight positive correlation: in Samara and Moscow, the number of cases per capita is higher that came with tougher restrictions. However, we also observe over-performers such as the Chechen Republic, Komi, and Astrakhan Oblast (above the line of expected self-isolation rates, regression line) and under-performers such as Khakasia and North Ossetia. Interestingly, the strictness of counter-virus measures does not seem to correlate exposure to the virus (Figure 2). Although median values of active cases tend to decrease with tougher quarantine regimes (quarantines in most of the Russian regions were introduced in late March-early April, data on COVID-19 cases are from 12.05.2020). Three groups of regions do not significantly differ from each other. No wonder that citizens adhere to the self-isolation restrictions more tightly under stricter quarantines like in Moscow.

Figure 1. Number of active cases and Self-Isolation Index

Source: Yandex; Оперативный штаб по борьбе с коронавирусом (данные на 12.05.2020) 

 

Figure 2. Number of Active Cases (logged) by regions with various quarantine regimes (high stands for the most strict restrictions, low – for the least).

Table 1 shows the list of regional capitals with lowest self-isolation scores and their restriction regimes. Half of the cases concentrate in Siberia, only one case in Urals and Far East, three cities are from Central Russia. The latter looks particularly worrisome, while exposure to the virus is lower for more remote regions and significantly lower population density.

Table 1. The list of cities with low self-isolation scores (less than 2.5) and quarantine regimes

Source: Meduza; Yandex; Оперативный штаб по борьбе с коронавирусом (данные на 12.05.2020) 

Another conjecture is that the ability to maintain self-isolation and to prevent the virus from spreading depends on the overall managerial capacity of governors, i.e. to squeeze the resources from the center and thereby upholding better infrastructure in a region including police forces, digitalization, healthcare systems, social services, etc. We approximated this managerial capacity through the number of doctors per 1000 inhabitants and the Political Management Effectiveness Score. The latter is based on expert surveys and reflects popular support, elite unity, and ties to the center (the same measure is used by Smyth et al. 2020 to compare governors’ political vulnerability). Indeed, in the regions with higher management scores implementation of quarantine seems more slightly more successful. The absolute leaders are Moscow and Grozny – the two most unrepresentative regions one could imagine – with the most powerful and politically autonomous leaders Sobyanin and Kadyrov. Meanwhile, there is very little correlation between managerial capacity and self-isolation in the rest of the regions. The number of doctors per capita does not seem to correlate with higher self-isolation either.

Figure 3. The Self-Isolation Index by Governors’ Managerial Score

Source: Apecom; Yandex

 

Figure 4. The Self-Isolation Index by the number of doctors per 1000 inhabitants (2018)

Smyth et al. (2020) in their freshly published policy memo show the vulnerability of certain regions due to structural factors such as the number of doctors per capita and share of pensioners. Those regions with higher numbers of vulnerable populations and weaker healthcare capacities are expected to be hit harder: Komi, Arkhangelsk, Tula, Vladimir, Kurgan. We already witnessed the dismissals of governors in Komi and Arkhangelsk oblast because of the virus outbursts in regional hospitals). However, it is not necessary that the largest discontent will rise in the places hit the hardest. We would rather expect citizens to protest in regions with relatively calm epidemic situations such as Khakasia. 

Decentralization of decision-making is de facto a delegation of reputational and material costs to the governors. Even those who managed to capitalize on the COVID-19 challenge will likely lose these credentials as the President announced “the good news”, i.e. the end of “the non-working days”. The latter seems risky as most of the regions have not reached the peak of the pandemic yet and even in Moscow, where the speed of the pandemic is the highest, the strict quarantine remains in place. According to the vice prime-minister Tatiana Golikova, the regions are allowed to start gradual lifting of restrictions if they fulfill three criteria: the R₀ should be less than 1, at least 50% of hospital beds of the normative number should be vacant, and the test ration should be at least 70 tests per 100.000 of population. By the 13th of May, 35 regions had started to lift off certain restrictions: in Moscow, for example, even though lockdown remains, industrial and construction enterprises were allowed to resume working. In Kaliningrad, in turn, shopping centres and beauty salons reopened. Under such circumstances, the governors are facing a dilemma whether to keep the quarantine with limited resources or lift the restrictions to send a sign of relief to the citizens and business and potentially expose the citizens to the virus.

The bottom line, decentralization or devolution in the realm of fighting COVID-19 in Russia is anything but federalization or regional empowerment. This is mostly the part of “the blame game” (also see Smyth et al. 2020) where costs of painful measures are shifted to the regions and ‘good news’ are delivered by the president even at the price of the premature celebration of victory over coronavirus. Rates of self-isolation somewhat depend on the strictness of quarantine, but there is surprisingly a lot of variation where citizens do not stick to the self-isolation even under tougher control and, vice versa, there are regions where citizens respect the regulations despite the more permissive conditions. Since there is no direct way to know people’s approval, it could be a proxy for more problematic territories. One way or another, economic factors will be decisive in determining who is to blame and for what and the growth of public discontent is yet to come.

Figure 5. The Index of Self-Isolation by Quarantine Regimes

Source: Yandex; Фонд “Петербургская политика”

The Privatization of Rosneft: An Unintended Consequence of the Coronavirus Pandemic and the 2020 Oil Crisis

Some day in the future, economic historians will likely consider the dramatic decline of international oil prices, which occurred in March 2020, as a turning point in the development of the global petroleum industry. This collapse puts the end to the era of expansive oil, which began after the Iraq war of 2003. That era is over now as the global economy seems to return to a period of low oil prices, similar to the one at the end of the 20th century after 1986.

There are a lot of explanations for the collapse of oil prices in the business and academic literature. Some experts think that the coronavirus pandemic undermines the global demand for petroleum, while other economists suppose that the dissolution of the coalition of OPEC countries and Russia in March 2020 was responsible for the destruction of the previous oil price equilibrium at the international oil market. However, the question of why this collapse of the oil price equilibrium happened is no longer relevant. The questions scholars should focus on now are how the decrease in oil prices will impact the economies of oil-exporting countries in the world after the pandemic? What reaction to this crisis can we expect from the governments of oil-producing countries? Finally, what will happen to the Russian economy?

The oil crisis and the escalating oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia of 2020 might open intellectual debate on what is the best way of the organization of the petroleum industry in the conditions of low oil prices. What model of petroleum ownership is optimal for the economy in the new age of cheap oil prices? What will the reaction of the state to this problem be? Could we expect the mass privatizations of state-owned oil companies around the world? This essay is an attempt at addressing the problem. This is the sixth blog post of the Politics & Pandemics special series, written by invited researchers Aleksei Pobedonostsev* and Nadezhda Stepanova+.

*Aleksei Pobedonostsev, Ph.D. candidate in political and social sciences (European University Institute in Florence), Aleksanteri Institute visiting fellow, Aleksei.Pobedonostsev@EUI.eu

+Nadezhda Stepanova, Ph.D. in economics, Aleksanteri Institute, Invited Researcher nadezhda.stepanova@helsinki.fi

What Will the Russian Economy Look like after oil prices collapse?

The 2020 oil crisis might become very painful for the Russian economy in the context of the detrimental consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the six years of economic stagnation since 2014. There is a consensus among experts that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in a global recession and a significant decrease in global oil demand (IEA, 2020). The International Monetary Fund predicts that the Russian economy will lose 5.5% of its GDP in 2020, while the Central Bank of Russia estimates a future decrease of 4-6% (CBR, 2020). Scholars and public policy experts argue that the Russian public finance is relatively well prepared for the decrease of oil prices, but it is not ready for the combination of such adverse factors as a pandemic, the global economic crisis, and the fall of oil prices at the same time. The sharp drop in oil prices will negatively impact the Russian economy as well as the state’s budget. Oil export generates 10% of Russian GDP, determines investment dynamics, and forms 37% of the federal budget income.

The last ‘black swan’ event of 2014, when the oil prices fell unexpectedly from 98 to 51,5 US dollars per barrel, led to the economic crisis of 2014-2016 in Russia. Moreover, in 2014 the crisis of oil price coincided with the imposition of international sanctions and the decrease of prices of other natural resources such as natural gas, gold, silver, and coal. During 2015-2016, oil prices have plunged several times but finally stabilized around 53 US dollars in 2017.

However, the crisis of 2014-2016 was not shaped by external factors only. Some experts point out that the economic crisis was driven also by some objective problems of the Russian economy (Aganbegyan, 2016; Aleksahenko, 2019). The economic indicators such as GDP, the level of industrial production, investments, and external trade indices decreased in 2014-2016 and returned to a weak growth only in 2017. Over all these years, the real income of Russians was decreasing or stagnated. So, in 2019 the average income of Russian households was 9,6% lower than in 2013.

Table 1. The dynamics of basic indicators in Russia

Indicators 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
factual data estimation
GDP 101.8 100.7 98.0 100.2 101.6 102.3 101.3
Industry Index 100.4 101.7 96.6 99.1 102.1 102.9 102.3
Retail 103.9 102.7 90.0 95.4 101.3 102.6 101.6
Export 99.2 95.2 68.7 104.0 103.8 104.2 102.3
Import 101.7 90.2 62.7 101.7 116.4 101.7 102.3
Capital Investment 100.8 98.5 91.6 99.1 104.8 104.3 103.1
Consumer Price Index 106.5 111.4 112.9 107.1 103.7 102.9 104.7
Real Incomes Rate 104.0 99.3 95.7 94.9 99.5 100.0 101.0
Unemployment Rate 4.1 5.4 5.9 5.6 5.2 4.8 4.7

Source: Rosstat, the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation

In Russian economic history, all previous recoveries from the economic crises and return to growth trajectories were associated with the increase of international oil prices. The ‘perfect storm’ of 2020 differs substantially from all previous crises. The COVID-19 pandemic is ruining economies around the world. The problems of the global economy lead to a lack of energy resources demand and disruption of oil logistics. So, the ‘end of the oil era’ seems to be looming.

First, the oil incomes of Russia are expected to decrease dramatically. Following the new OPEC obligations, Russia will have to decrease the level of oil production in the second half of 2020. Oil production can decrease from 564 to 450 million tons or by 23% in 2020. The Russian Ministry of Economic Development (Ministry, 2019) expected that the average price of Urals oil will be between 42,4 and 57 USD in 2020. However, the price of this sort of oil dropped to 19 USD per barrel on 14 April 2020. The Central Bank of Russia estimated the average oil price at 27 USD per barrel (Urals, 2020) in its recently issued medium-term forecast (CBR, 2020). The oil export duty in the Russian Federation dropped from 52 USD to 6.8 USD per ton starting from May 1, 2020. So, both mineral extraction tax on oil, which is calculated monthly on the basis of the actual price and currency exchange rate, and export duty, which forms the oil-related revenues of the Russian Federal Budget, are decreasing significantly. At the same time, the government expected that oil-related incomes will form 36,7% of the federal budget in 2020 (7 472,2 billion roubles of 20 379,4 billion roubles of total revenue). It is strikingly clear now that the financial plans of the Russian government, as well as the three years budgetary project, should be reviewed or postponed in the nearest future.

Table 2. The indicators of the Russian petroleum industry

Indicators 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Factual data estimation forecast (basic) 1st quarter
1 2
Oil price, USD per barrel (world) 109.3 97.6 51.2 41.7 53.0 70.0 62.2 57.0 27.0 54
Oil production, m tons 520.6 525.0 533.2 545.6 547.0 555.7 561.0 564.0 140
Oil export, m tons 236.6 223.5 244.5 254.9 255.7 260.2 265.6 270.2 40.7
Oil export, bn USD       154.0 193.5 261.4 235.2 222.4 18
Currency rate, rubles per 1 USD 29.4 38.4 61.0 66.9 58.3 62.5 65.4 65.7  
1 – RF Ministry of Economic Development, 30.09.19
2 – The Central Bank of Russia, 24.04.20 

 

Second, the ‘lockdown’ imposed by the Russian government generates devastating effects on the economy through the decrease of domestic demand and requires additional measures to support individual citizens and firms. In March and April 2020, the total sum of 2,1 trillion rubles is designated for the measures against COVID-19.

Third, the government will have to amend the so-called ‘national priority projects’, which were announced by Vladimir Putin in 2018. According to these priorities, the federal government plans to spend 13.2 trillion rubles on the realization of various projects until 2024. However, in the context of the economic catastrophe of 2020 the Russian government will have to reduce the budgets of these projects or totally drop them.

Does it make sense to privatize oil companies when oil prices are falling?

The most expected reaction of governments could be the radical rearrangement and reorganization of the state-owned oil companies, which are losing great money. Transformations can take various forms, the most obvious of which is the privatization of national oil companies if they face tremendous financial difficulties. Under the conditions of low oil prices, state-run oil companies lose their attractiveness for national governments as profitable assets. Therefore, some scholars think that the fall of oil prices increases the probability that the government of an oil-producing country will privatize the state-owned oil company in that country (Warshaw, 2012).

The government’s interest in petroleum privatization is determined by two factors. First, when prices are low, the nationalized oil industry does not generate good money for the government. At the same time, the government has to subsidize state-owned oil companies rather than reaping the gains of oil production. Second, the privatization of the petroleum industry could help increase the efficiency of the sector. Christopher Warshaw calculates that the greatest number of petroleum company privatizations happened at the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s (see Figure 1). Bars show the number of petroleum company privatizations in developed and transitional economies per year. Those were the last years of decades of low oil prices before the oil boom of the 2000s started and the oil price skyrocketed. Warshaw believes that at the end of the 1990s governments of several oil-producing countries had powerful incentives to carry out the full or partial privatization of state-owned oil companies. The reason is that the petroleum industries of these countries were not very profitable after 15 years of low oil prices.

Figure 1. The numbers of petroleum privatizations by years

Source: Ch. Warshaw ‘The political economy of expropriation and privatization in the oil sector’ (2012). 

The greatest number of privatization events occurred at the end of the long time period of cheap oil prices (see also Appendix). From economic history, we know that the level of oil price dropped in 1986 and remained low until the 2003 invasion of Iraq (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The dynamics of real oil price (US dollar in 2000)

If we juxtapose the dynamics of oil prices and privatization, we will notice that during a long time period after the fall of oil prices in 1986, governments of many countries did not privatize the petroleum industry despite the low level of oil price. And this goes against our expectations. It seems that cheap oil price is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the privatization of the petroleum industry. The profitability of state-owned oil companies should fall over a long time period before the government decides to get rid of its petroleum assets.

Privatization of Rosneft in 2020: an unexplained paradox?

In March 2020, the government of Russia exchanged 10% of Rosneft shares, the biggest national oil company of Russia, for the risky assets of this company in Venezuela. The background is that during many years Rosneft, headed by Igor Sechin – a close friend of President Vladimir Putin, has been involved in the development of some projects in Venezuela. Rosneft’s participation in these projects was an important element of the Russian foreign policy in Latin America, despite the fact that the petroleum industry of Venezuela was in crisis and did not generate good profits. Eventually, Rosneft concentrated a lot of problematic assets in Venezuela, which failed to bring any revenue to the company.

Oil production in Venezuela is a rather risky business, not only because of the political and economic situation in this Latin American country is unpredictable but also because of the international economic sanctions. Hence, having petroleum assets in Venezuela makes a political risk for Rosneft because the international community could introduce new sanctions against the assets of the Russian oil company around the world at any time. Trying to get rid of toxic Venezuelan assets, Rosneft sold these assets to the Federal Government of Russia for its own shares.

However, the consequences of the 2020 deal are very significant for the Russian petroleum industry. The loss of 10% of Rosneft shares means that the Federal Government of Russia does not have the majority of shares in the company anymore. As a result of the deal, the state participation in Rosneft decreases from 50% to 40%. Therefore, from a theoretical perspective, the deal of 2020 should be classified as the privatization of the national oil company. The key beneficiary of the privatization is the top management of Rosneft, including Igor Sechin personally. Here we see the transition from state to private ownership. What is more important is that this transformation occurred immediately after the fall of oil price in March 2020. 

In light of this coincidence, we wonder to what extent the privatization was driven by the decrease in oil prices. Existing academic literature predicts that the dramatic decrease in oil price stimulates the privatization of state-owned oil companies in the long-run (Guriev et al, 2011; Warshaw, 2012). At the very least, under the condition of cheap oil prices, the government does not have incentives to privatize (Jones Luong and Weinthal, 2010). On the other hand, it seems unrealistic that the fall of oil prices generated such a detrimental impact on the profitability of Rosneft in March 2020 that the Government of Russia decided to privatize this company immediately. Usually, there is a long-time gap between the collapse of oil prices (e.g. in 1986) and the implementation of decisions on the privatization of state-run oil companies. In most countries, this gap was longer than one decade. 

Why then did privatization happen in March 2020, if the company was faring so well? We suggest that the privatization of 2020 was determined by the general logic of ‘bad governance’ in post-Soviet Russia (Gel’man, 2017) rather than the decrease in oil prices per se. This logic implies the nationalization of loss and the privatization of profits. Thus, Rosneft was privatized because it is quite profitable and not because of some financial difficulties. Thus far, the oil crisis and coronavirus pandemic have created uncertainty about the future of the Russian economy.

What is to come?

On April 20, a historic event happened in the international oil market. Oil prices plunged to negative values. This practically means that oil producers are expected to pay money to sell their oil. What can we say about this paradoxical situation?

On the one hand, from a long-term perspective, the age of oil is over. In the future, oil will be replaced undoubtedly by various alternative sources of energy. There is a general trend towards low-hydrocarbon energy in the global economy. On the other hand, from a short-term perspective, the period of extremely low oil prices is not to last. Oil producers cannot extract oil under the condition of negative oil prices. The global market must achieve a new oil price equilibrium soon. However, the new equilibrium oil price will not be high.

If global lockdowns and the crisis of oil prices continue, Russia will have to carry out structural economic reforms and implement very painful policy measures to adjust the economy to the new reality. In the best-case scenario, Russia will be able to use the cheap currency and natural resources advantages to develop the non-oil sectors of the economy as well as oil-refining capacities. Moreover, Russia could even participate in the restoration of collapsing global production chains, form regional product chains, and develop the infrastructure of alternative energy.

Appendix

 Privatization events (1965-2006)
Argentina, 1993 Italy, 1997
Argentina, 1999 Italy, 1998
Brazil, 1985 Italy, 2001
Brazil, 1992 Norway, 2001
Brazil, 2000 Norway, 2004
Brazil, 2001 Norway, 2005
Canada, 1991 Romania, 2004
Canada, 1992 Russian Federation, 1994
Canada, 1995 Russian Federation, 1999
Canada, 2005 Thailand, 2001
China, 2000 United Kingdom, 1977
India, 1999 United Kingdom, 1979
India, 2004 United Kingdom, 1983
Italy, 1995 United Kingdom, 1987
Italy, 1996 United Kingdom, 1996

Source: Warshaw, 2012, p. 58.

Does trust help fight the COVID-19? A brief overview of the pandemic situation in former Soviet and communist societies

By now, the COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the world, and only a handful of dictatorships and tiny island countries have not yet reported on confirmed infections. At the same time, the social and political dimensions of the crisis have come more and more apparent. There have been concerns, for example, about how authoritarian political leaders might use the crisis as an excuse to consolidate their power, discussion about whether authoritarian or democratic countries fare better in handling the pandemics, and how the situation has affected elections coinciding with the crisis. In this post, Eemil Mitikka is going to consider how the COVID-19 crisis relates to one of the key concepts in social sciences, which is trust. This is the fifth post of our “Politics & Pandemics” special series.

Since trust is an essential feature of any modern society, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has proliferated discussion about its significance in tackling the crisis. In Finnish public debate, for example, it has been suggested that high trusting countries – such as Finland and other Nordic countries – would have an upper hand in the fight against the COVID-19 compared to low trust societies. The reasoning behind this argument is that citizens of high trust societies are more likely to obey emergency legislation enacted by their governments (e.g. quarantines and other social distancing) and to play by the common social rules (e.g. respect other people and comply with social restrictions) during the pandemic, than their peers living in low trust societies. For the aforementioned reasons, one could indeed think that Nordic countries and other high trust societies could fare better in handling the current COVID-19 crisis compared to such low trust societies as, say, former Soviet countries with the long legacies of public and social distrust. However, what does the existing evidence tell us about how trust relates to the COVID-19 crisis? Is the number of COVID-19 infections actually lower in high trust societies than in low trust societies?

In the light of existing data, a short answer to the latter question is ‘no’. Somewhat counterintuitively, many poor and distrusting former Soviet and communist countries have actually suffered so far from fewer per capita COVID-19 deaths and cases than rich and trusting North and West European societies. Figure 1 illustrates how political trust relates to COVID-19 deaths per million people in European societies by the 29th of April 2020 (NB: country abbreviations may be found in the appendix at the end of this text). The data for political trust are drawn here from the eighth round of European Social Survey (conducted in 2016), and for COVID-19 deaths by million people from the Worldometer website. Political trust is operationalized here as a summated scale that measures trust in parliament, the legal system, police, politicians, and political parties.

Figure 1. Political trust and COVID-19 deaths by 29th of April 2020 in Europe (former communist countries highlighted with red).
Sources: European Social Survey (2016) and Worldometer.

 

As we may see from the figure, differences in deaths per million people between Western/Northern European and Eastern European countries are stark. Out of the seven former communist countries examined here, only Slovenia (41), Estonia (38) and Hungary (31) have slightly more deaths per million people than those North/West European countries with least deaths (Iceland, 29; Finland, 36 and Norway, 38). Yet, despite their low trust society status, former communist countries of Eastern Europe investigated here seem to have thus far fared significantly better in terms of relative COVID-19 death rate than their North and West European peers.

What makes this observation interesting is that countries with communist legacy are known to face particular difficulties in establishing trusting social relationships (Kornai et al. 2004; Mishler & Rose, 2001; Shlapentokh 2006; van der Meer 2017). Therefore, one could expect that if people in post-Socialist countries do not trust each other or their political institutions, they would be more skeptical towards public measures that aim to prevent the spread of the virus and more reluctant to comply with enabling acts than their peers in more trusting societies – which could result as more COVID-19 cases and deaths, than in trusting societies. However, as can be seen from Figure 1, the evidence so far suggests that this is not the case.

A similar pattern occurs if we look how social trust relates to the number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe (see Figure 2) – though it should be mentioned here that these similarities might not be so surprising, as some studies suggest that political and social trust tend to correlate with each other (Bäck et al., 2016; Newton & Zmerli, 2011). Social trust is operationalized here as a country means to a survey question ‘Most people can be trusted, or you can’t be too careful?’, where 0 means ‘You can’t be too careful’ and 1 denotes ‘Most people can be trusted’. Again, many former socialist countries have both low levels of trust and COVID-19 deaths.

Figure 2. Social trust and COVID-19 deaths by 29th of April 2020 in Europe (former communist countries highlighted with red).
Sources: European Social Survey (2016) and Worldometer.

 

What is interesting here is that the overall picture of how trust relates to the number of COVID-19 cases does not change radically even if we expand our selection of countries. Figure 3 depicts the levels of political trust in relation to COVID-19 cases per million people in 25 OECD and post-Communist countries. The data for political trust here are drawn from the sixth wave of the World Values Survey (conducted in 2010–2014). For the COVID-19 cases by 29th of April 2020, I use again the Worldometer data. Political trust is operationalized here as trust in police, courts, government, political parties, parliament, and civil service, and spread of the COVID-19 as infections per one million people.

Again, we may see how former communist countries have notably less COVID-19 infections than many Western or OECD countries, although the differences are not as stark as with European comparison. The inclusion of authoritarian Central Asian and South Caucasian former communist societies partly repaints the picture, because many of these countries have above the average levels of political trust, and only a few reported COVID-19 cases (for example, Uzbekistan, 58 cases; Kazakhstan, 164 cases and Kyrgyzstan, 112 cases). Yet, the total number of COVID-19 cases per million people is below the average in almost all post-Communist countries, as only Estonia (1251 cases) and Belarus (1292 cases) exceed the average (973 cases) of COVID-19 cases per million people in countries examined here.

Figure 3. Political trust and COVID-19 cases by 29th of April 2020 in Europe (former communist countries highlighted with red).
Sources: World Values Survey (2010–2014) and Worldometer.

 

Figure 3 offers an overview of how social trust relates to the number of COVID-19 cases. In order to look at the situation from a slightly different angle, social trust is operationalized here as trust in ‘people you meet the first time’ (for discussion about how to measure social trust, see Almakaeva et al., 2018; Sturgis & Smith, 2010). Out of the six countries with the highest levels of social trust, only Australia (264) has a below-average number of COVID-19 cases per million people. This is somewhat counterintuitive because one could assume that higher levels of social trust would make people stick with the quarantine rules and respect other people, and, consequently, there would be less COVID-19 infections in high trust societies.

Figure 4. Social trust and COVID-19 cases by 29th of April 2020 in Europe (former communist countries highlighted with red).
Sources: World Values Survey (2010–2014) and Worldometer.

 

Naturally, it is important to keep in mind that the findings discussed here are quite speculative for various reasons. First of all, the COVID-19 crisis is still ongoing, and hence we do not know yet how many people actually got infected or died during the pandemic in different countries. The number of COVID-19 infections will still increase in all countries – including former communist societies – and this can repaint the picture on the relationship between trust and COVID-19 cases. Secondly, the current pandemic is likely to reshape people’s attitudes towards their governments and compatriots, and this can be reflected in how much people trust their governments, public institutions, and compatriots in the future in different societies. For instance, we may already witness how support for incumbent political leaders rises in many countries in Europe and elsewhere. However, this surging support is rather likely to reflect a rally around the flag/leader effect than an actual increase in more deep-rooted political support. Moreover, previous research (Prati et al., 2011) suggests that public trust in specific institutions, such as trust in health authorities and media, might play a more important role in people’s compliance with the posed public restrictions and recommendations during the pandemic than the overall aggregate levels of political trust (which was used in my examination here). Finally, it has to be noted that many formerly communist countries have less developed health care systems, which, among many other things, might have affected people’s behavior and political decisions when the COVID-19 started to spread in Europe. According to Wall Street Journal, for example, Central and Eastern European countries were quicker to enact strict social-distancing measures, because they feared that their health-care systems would be otherwise soon overwhelmed by the virus, whereas in the West governments were perhaps more confident of their health-care systems’ ability to fight a sudden pandemic. Thus, it is possible that citizens in poorer low trust societies took the crisis more seriously at the beginning than their peers in richer countries.

Another concern is about the validity of both the COVID-19 and survey data. In Russia, for instance, half of the population believes that the official COVID-19 statistics are underestimated. Moreover, comparing levels of political trust globally is problematic due to dissent political traditions of different political regimes. In global comparisons, political trust is found to be highest in such authoritarian regimes as Uzbekistan, China, Azerbaijan, and Qatar (Rogov, 2017; van der Meer 2017; see also Figure 2). Thus, high levels of political trust in illiberal countries may reflect lower expectations of citizens towards the political system compared to people’s political expectations in established liberal democracies (Kestilä-Kekkonen & Vento, 2019). Citizens of authoritarian countries might also avoid criticizing state institutions or express support towards the regime because they have been socialized to it (Welzel & Dalton, 2015). All this naturally complicates global research on the effects of political trust.

However, although trust – be it political or social – does not seem at the moment to result to the lower COVID-19 infection rates, it may still have a significant role after the pandemic. Previous research suggests trust is connected, for instance, to higher rates of economic growth (Knack & Keefer, 1997; Zak & Knack, 2001) and better governance (Bjørnskov, 2011), which will have crucial roles when the post-pandemic reconstruction truly begins. In other words, one could expect high trust societies to have better odds to recover faster from the economic and social crisis that the COVID-19 has caused than the low trust societies do.

Appendix: country means for political and social trust, and for relative numbers of COVID-19 deaths and cases per one million people by 29th of April 2020

Country Abbreviation Political trust (ESS) Social trust (ESS) Political trust (WVS) Social trust (WVS) Deaths/1M people Number of infections / 1M people
Armenia AM 0.52 0.44 652
Australia AU 0.60 0.58 264
Austria AT 0.52 0.56 63
Azerbaijan AZ 0.67 0.34 169
Belarus BV 0.63 0.49 1292
Belgium BE 0.49 0.53 633
Chile CL 0.54 0.50 751
Czech CZ 0.45 0.51 21
Estonia EE 0.49 0.57 0.63 0.50 38 1251
Finland FI 0.61 0.66 36
France FR 0.42 0.51 362
Georgia GE 0.55 0.49 130
Germany DE 0.53 0.56 0.64 0.54 75 1909
Hungary HU 0.47 0.47 31
Iceland IS 0.55 0.67 29
Ireland IE 0.47 0.59 235
Italy IT 0.37 0.45 453
Japan JP 0.60 0.46 109
Kazakhstan KZ 0.67 0.46 164
Kyrgyzstan KG 0.63 0.45 112
Lithuania LT 0.43 0.52 17
Mexico MX 0.49 0.39 130
Netherlands NL 0.57 0.61 0.59 0.53 266 2242
New Zealand NZ 0.64 306
Norway NO 0.65 0.67 38
Poland PL 0.36 0.43 0.51 0.52 16 328
Portugal PT 0.38 0.46 93
Romania RO 0.49 604
Russia RU 0.41 0.48 0.55 0.47 7 681
Slovenia SI 0.36 0.49 0.46 0.44 41 677
South Korea KR 0.60 210
Spain ES 0.39 0.49 0.55 0.56 510 4965
Sweden SE 0.57 0.64 0.67 0.63 233 1943
Switzerland CH 0.62 0.61 196
Turkey TR 0.67 0.49 1359
Ukraine UA 0.50 0.52 226
United Kingdom GB 0.49 0.56 319
United States US 0.58 0.55 3129
Uzbekistan UZ 0.87 0.42 58
Means (total) 0.47 0.54 0.59 0.49 169 946

Electioneering in the times of pandemic: an overview of the elections and referendums from February to July 2020

Pandemic throws a monkey wrench into many plans, including national elections and in some special cases like Russia – attempts to call ‘a referendum’ or symbolic vote to support constitutional amendments that will extend the president’s term in power. Electoral timing has always been a highly sensitive issue for political elites: in Westminster democracies, early elections are a way to extend the government’s longevity and to surf the wave of massive support, in others – electoral time-table is exogenous and can be altered only under extreme circumstances. The COVID-19 epidemic is definitely one of those. Here we collected the data on all the countries that scheduled elections and/or referendums, whether these countries altered electoral schedules given the pandemic and how it affected electoral outcomes. This is the fourth post of our special coronavirus series “Politics & Pandemics”, written by Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva.

We summarized the data on the pandemic, COVID-19 counter-measures, and voting from the IDEA and V-Dem datasets (see Table 1). In total there are 25 elections from February to July 2020: 10 legislative elections, 3 presidential, 7 general elections, and 6 referendums. Among these countries, we have 9 autocracies that hold elections (aka electoral authoritarian regimes, Schedler 2002, Morse 2012) and 16 democracies. In this set, there is only one EU country – Poland that introduced strict restrictions already started to lift them and refuses to postpone the national vote. All in all, 8 electoral bids were postponed and 8 took place according to the schedule; 6 elections are still scheduled.

Elections are a political focal point that allows key political actors to coordinate on a number of hot policy issues. Sometimes, not just metaphorically, but literally  – on polling stations and while rallying in case they are unhappy with electoral outcomes or procedures (e.g. Israeli protests against the government respecting the 2 m distance between the protestors). In the times of the pandemic, gatherings are banned and social distancing is required. Not surprisingly, most of the autocracies from our table immediately introduced the restrictions or bans on all sorts of gatherings and events, including Russia. Meanwhile, other measures came with a delay and most of the autocracies never introduced full lockdown and state of emergency.

Do political leaders deal with the electoral time-table responsibly and how unexpected disruptions affect the governments and regimes? Autocracies that hold elections tend to introduce milder restricting measures: partial lockdowns, ban on public gatherings. Only two countries declared the state of emergency – Guinea and Mali (no taking Syria into account that it is already in the state of war). Democracies are somewhat stricter, although there are countries with light restricting regimes such as Iceland and Mongolia – countries with low population density, Vanuatu – a tiny island state with no registered COVID cases, and, finally, South Korea where the peak has already passed. No doubt, that the number of countries – just 22 cases – does not allow us to provide any strong evidence of a linear or perhaps inverted U-shaped association between the level of democracy and restrictive measures. But it still gives some grounds to speculate that autocracies – including Russia – may want to strike the balance between unwanted protest activity and allowing the business and main constituencies to avoid economic harm with a full lockdown.

It must be noted that in all 8 elections that had taken place so far, all ruling parties and groups remained in power and even gained additional support (see Table 2). In the case of South Korea that triumphantly defeated the virus, the governing Democratic Party in coalition with ‘Together Citizens’ won with a landslide results of 49.91% and 33.36% respectively and with the highest turnout of 66% since 1992. An important side note: the vote took place under a new electoral reform that introduced compensation seats within the proportional representation (PR) tier of the mixed electoral system. As observers comment, “in response, both major parties set up satellite organisations that only competed for PR seats”. In Israel, another reshuffle in the governing coalition occurred, but without dramatic changes. In non-democratic Iran, Guinea, and Mali with weak or non-existent political parties the results do not reflect genuine people’s preferences, but rather states’ mobilization capacity. 

Figure 1. Restrictive measures across democracies and autocracies (N=23)

Sources: IDEA, V-Dem, and variety of media reports

Table 1. Overview of elections and referendums whose time overlapped with the COVID-19 outbreak: February – July 2020

No. Country Elections Scheduled date Status Type Regime
1 Iran Leg 21.2 Held* Moderate Autocracy
2 Israel Leg 2.3 Held Moderate Democracy
3 Guyana General 2.3 Held Strict Democracy
4 Vanuatu General 19-20.3; 19.4 Held No Democracy
5 Guinea Leg+referendum 22.3 Held Strict Autocracy
6 Italy Referendum 29.3 Postponed Strict Democracy
7 Mali Leg 29.3 Held Strict Autocracy
8 Armenia Referendum 5.4 Postponed Strict Autocracy**
9 North Macedonia Leg 12.4 Postponed Strict Democracy
10 Syria Leg 13.4 Postponed Moderate Autocracy
11 Kiribati Leg 14.4 Held na na
12 South Korea Leg 15.4 Held No Democracy
13 Russia Referendum 22.4 Postponed Moderate Autocracy
14 Sri Lanka Leg 25.4 Postponed Moderate Democracy
15 Serbia General 26.4 Postponed Strict Democracy
16 Chile referendum 26.4 Postponed Strict Democracy
17 Bolivia General 3.5 Postponed Strict Democracy
18 Poland Exe 10.5 Still scheduled Strict Democracy
19 Dominican Republic General 17.5 Postponed Strict Democracy
20 Switzerland Referendum 17.5 Postponed Strict Democracy
21 Burundi General 20.5 Still scheduled Light Autocracy
22 Iceland Exe June Still scheduled Light Democracy
23 Mongolia Leg 24.6 Still scheduled Light Democracy
24 Malawi Exe 2.7 Still scheduled Light Autocracy
25 Singapore General 2020-21 Unclear Moderate Autocracy

* Second round of elections postponed from 17th of April to 11th of September

** This is a V-Dem estimate, although the country is in the democratic transition.

Sources: IDEA; V-Dem, and variety of media reports

Table 2. Election results

# Country Elections Date vote share now vote share before turnout Delta Winner
1 Iran Leg 21.2 76.2 29 42.57 47.2 Principlists
2 Israel Leg 2.3 29.46 25.1 71.5 4.36 Likud
3 Guyana General 2.3 49.82 50.3 72.49 -0.48 APNU-AFC
4 Guinea Leg+referendum 22.3 88.94 46.26 58.24 42.68 PRG
5 Mali Leg 29.3 19.83 29.4 35.58 -9.57 Rally for Mali
6 South Korea Leg 15.4 83.27 62.5 66.21 20.77 Democratic Party/ Together Citizens

NB! Vanuatu and Kiribati are dropped.
*Mali’s official results are not announced yet
Source: IDEA, and variety of media reports

Elections at the onset of the pandemic: downplaying the threat?

Iran exemplifies an autocracy that prioritized political survival over public health by downplaying the threat and the spread of coronavirus held parliamentary elections on 21st of February, without introducing any restrictive measures. High turnout at the elections was important for legitimising the regime that suffered from the November protests against the fuel price-strike by the authorities, which the state brutally suppressed, and from the armed conflict with the US, during which Iran mistakenly shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane, killing 176 on board. The turnout at the election on the 21st of February, nevertheless, was record low. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Iran’s enemies of spreading negative propaganda about the coronavirus in order to dissuade Iranians from voting. Autocracies usually enjoy more of a leeway in meddling with electoral time-tables as they rarely prioritise electoral accountability over public safety as a common good.

However, electoral democracies also faced the dilemma of whether to hold elections or to postpone. In Poland, the state of emergency was not declared, and the country is already starting to lift the restrictions (despite passing the peak 3 days after announcing the gradual lifting). Six by-elections were organised on 22nd of March and the presidential election on the 10th of May is still being prepared, despite the criticism of the opposition that states that the ruling PiS party chooses elections over the health of the population. The incumbent president Duda, the candidate of the PiS at the 2015 election, is currently predicted to win elections in the first round. In both cases, countries introduced the quarantine measures with a significant delay. In the case of Iran, electoral victory is clearly at the public health’s expense.

Postponing the Constitutional Vote in Russia: An Untimely Virus

Six referendums – in Armenia, Chile, Guinea, Italy, Russia, and Switzerland – were to take place during the pandemic. In cases of Russia and Guinea – these are popular voting for the constitutional amendments that aim to extend the existing presidential terms. In Guinea, an overwhelming majority voted for the incumbent Alpha Conde – almost 92%. The amendments adopted will allow him to stay in power for another 12 years. The most dramatic point here is that Conde is a former leader of the opposition who had survived earlier military junta’s regime and in 2010 was the first democratically-elected president. In Russia, the constitutional vote is yet to come. However, the main goal is quite the same – to adopt the clauses that would extend Vladimir Putin’s presidential term until 2036 (in case he wishes to run for another re-elections). Although, technically speaking, this vote does not qualify for a referendum as its initiation does not conform with the existing federal law on referendums.

One may speculate that the social distancing and other movement restricting measures were not implemented in Russia until the last week of March because the authorities wanted to carry on with the Constitutional plebiscite until the very last moment. On 17th of March, Vladimir Putin had a meeting with the chair of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Russia Ella Pamfilova, he mentioned that in the states where the epidemic situation was much worse, the elections were still held. On 25th of March the president signed a decree postponing the Constitutional referendum until later. 

Carrying out the vote that is so heavily loaded with symbolic value for the current regime in mid-April,  threatening the population and especially the elderly voters would give the upper hand to the opposition. On the other hand, the political support in the times of rallying around a natural threat usually boosts public support everywhere (e.g. look at the South Korean electoral results where the incumbent coalition won with a landslide victory). And there are grounds to believe that by midsummer the state of Russian economy deteriorates to the extent that the current support will start to fade away. For instance, the Vladikavkaz protests against the lockdown are not about COVID-dissidents, they are mainly about growing unemployment and insecurity.

From the regional perspective, the pandemic affects not only scheduled elections but might also bring about new elections. For instance, the head of the Komi Republic Sergey Gaplikov had to resign after there was a COVID-19 outbreak in the region in one of the hospitals. Vladimir Uiba, Doctor in Medical Sciences, has been appointed as the acting head, and the elections for the new head will be held on the 13th of September 2020.

The bottom line, when deciding upon coronavirus fighting strategies, the states have to take many things into account. The leaders, of course, care about their support and when national elections are at stake, their response to the coronavirus outbreak might be affected by it. There are more elections still scheduled for the second half-year of 2020, including the US presidential elections. More data are yet to come and to be analysed. However, we can already say that there are some patterns in how various regimes prioritize public health: in more accountable regimes restrictions are expected to be tougher, while less accountable regimes will try to balance between a crumbling economy and silencing the opposition.

Uzbekistan faces COVID-19

During the last months, we observe a dramatic variety of how countries with diverging healthcare systems and regimes react to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to several accounts, the Chinese coping model of containing the disease seems to provoke a lot of interest if not admiration. However, China is infamously known for systemic misreporting on the state of affairs and this experience should be taken with caution. Communist and post-communist states share the common legacy of a universalistic welfare system based on political compliance (putting aside special services for the privileged groups) (Cook 2011) and it is the case of former-USSR states. Today we are glad to publish a short analytical entry by Mirzokhid Karshiev, Doctoral Candidate in the Global Processes and Flows in the Eurasian Space research group, with an insider’s view on how Uzbekistan – another example of a closed state with communist legacy – manages the challenges of COVID-19. Mirzokhid Karshiev is currently conducting fieldwork in Tashkent in the H2020 MSC RISE project New Markets.

Many residents of Uzbekistan will probably for a long time remember the day when the first person with a new COVID-19 infection in the country was publicly announced because it was immediately followed by very drastic measures on social distancing.

On 15 March 2020,  I was in a southern city of Karshi, in a public park, where hundreds of people assembled to celebrate the traditional Navruz holidays. All of a sudden, the organizers canceled the event and told the public to go back to their homes. The news that people were following on the screens of their TVs and phones about a virus outbreak in China, later on in Italy and Spain, suddenly became a reality.

At a press conference on that day, the country’s Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov informed that from 16 March all schools, kindergartens, and higher educational institutions would be closed for quarantine, all international air, road and rail passenger transportation canceled (from 19 March), as well as all sports competitions, cinemas, theatres, and other public events. The Government reported that around 80,000 students were sent back from Tashkent to the regions on these days on organized transport.

“From now on, all people, who will be arriving from other countries will be subject to mandatory two-week quarantine in the facilities, chosen by the government”, said the Prime Minister. Those, who have arrived in the country at the beginning of March, including a fellow researcher from the University of Rotterdam, also reported that they were placed under home quarantine post-factum.

A taxi driver, who drove me two days later from Dehqonobod district in Kashkadarya region to Denov district in Surkhandarya, told me that shared taxi (a popular mode of public transport in the country)  fares from Tashkent to the regions tripled those days because of a mass exodus of students. I hoped that most of the travelers didn’t have to pay these hefty prices, but could use cheap and sometimes free transportation, hastily arranged both by the authorities and ordinary people.

That driver was driving home to a border district of Sariosiyo from Samarkand, where he worked at a local bazaar, selling vegetables and fruits, to see his ailing mother. At the time, he was quite optimistic that a virus will go away with the coming heat and happy that he could sell all his potatoes in a day, which in normal times would take a week. I don’t know if he was able to go back to Samarkand, as days later, social distancing measures started to increase in cities: Tashkent and regional centers have soon closed down for entrance and exit for ordinary people, all flights, inter-city trains, and buses, as well as public transportation within cities, have been stopped. From March 22, the people were required to have face masks when they were outside home, even in their cars and faced a hefty fine for breaking the new rules.

With numbers of detected coronavirus transmissions increasing, the restrictive measures were strengthened. Starting from 30 March, private cars, passenger vans and motorcycles have been banned from the streets in Tashkent and other regional centers, with only a selected list of governmental cars, as well as those, who have obtained special permission, allowed.

On 13 April, after six cases of community transmissions of the virus were reported in Namangan city, the local government imposed measures very similar to the ones in Wuhan, ordering everyone to stay at home, allowing a single person from each household to leave the house per day to a nearby (up to 100 meters) supermarket/shop to buy food and other essentials.

The restrictive measures have had an effect. According to the self-isolation index, developed by Yandex, which uses data it collects through different web-services, Uzbekistan’s cities have shown far more isolation than other CIS countries. Below you could see how self-isolation levels in Tashkent have changed starting from 23 February to 13 April.

Figure 1. The Dynamics of the Self-isolation Index (Yandex) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; April 13, 2020. The green (4-5 pts) stands for high self-isolation (no people on the streets), the orange and yellow – 2.5-3.9 pts (few people on the streets), and the red – 0-2.4 pts – a lot of people on the streets.
Source: Yandex

 

As of 15 April, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the country stands at 1275, with 99 recovered and 4 deaths.

Figure 2. Total Coronavirus Cases in Uzbekistan.
Source: Worldometers.info

 

Decision-making practices

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a son of a doctor-phthisiologist, has won plaudits for his actions during the pandemic from both national and international media. He has been quite active, frequently chairing governmental meetings on different issues as well as conducting telephone conversations with the leaders of neighboring countries, offering help and discussing joint coordination.

While most of Uzbekistan’s residents have supported the swiftness and early introduction of social distancing and self-isolation policies, some criticized the government’s habit of last-minute decisions, causing anxiety and the sense of urgency among the population. Some of these decisions seem not to have taken into account different life situations. My mother, who works in a local clinic in Chirchiq, currently has to depend on her colleagues to drive her to and from work or walk a 3 km. distance one way.

Most of the decisions on lockdown measures have been made by the special republican commission on preventing entry and dissemination of a new coronavirus in Uzbekistan, established on 29 January 2020 with a Presidential resolution, however, the full texts of these decisions haven’t been made available. Answering the questions in this regard, head of the state inspection for sanitary-epidemiological control N.Atabekov implied that the relevant parts of these decisions were being publicised through the websites of the Ministry of Public Health and the inspection, and other communication channels. Furthermore, the questions remain over the details of the delegation of the decision-making powers to the commission, as the resolution from January envisages commission will only prepare recommendations to the President.

The centralised decision-making system in the country allowed rapid lockdown, however, the different epidemiological situations in various parts of the country, requires local governments to take more decisions on their own, which might prove a challenge.

Mobilized state

Researchers have frequently noted the mobilization techniques the state in Uzbekistan used in the past to kickstart big infrastructure projects, to organize cotton and grain harvesting, overcome economic difficulties. While in the last 4 years, there was more talk of using incentives and rule-based governance, the COVID-19 situation prompted a vast mobilization effort by the government. Enormous human and financial resources have been mobilized towards the construction of two hospitals for COVID-19 patients for 10,000 patients, as well as a big quarantine zone for another 20,000 people in the outskirts of Tashkent, some of which were completed in just over two weeks.

The sanatoriums, a legacy of the communist past, have proved to be useful for the pandemics. Tens of thousands of people, mostly arriving from foreign countries, were placed for 14-day quarantine in those sanatoriums all over the country, which have been hastily converted into isolation units. There have been reports in the social media that not all protocols have been complied with in some of them, resulting in virus transmissions. While the state media have not bothered to investigate this further, the President in one of the meetings criticised an unprofessional approach in the sanatorium in Bukhara, where a contact tracing map shows a surge in the number of cases.

 Local government officials together with the tax office staff were sent to local bazaars to ensure price stability for essential foodstuff. The personnel from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Guard and even the Armed Forces have been dispatched around the country to control and limit people’s non-essential trips out of home. With schools closed indefinitely, the Ministry of Public Education took over the lot of several TV channels, preparing and broadcasting video lectures in Uzbek and Russian for schoolchildren all over the country.

Economic concerns

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Uzbek government, as well as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, projected a growth rate of 5,5% for 2020. While the Government has not reported its new projections yet, most of the economic commentators are questioning if growth is possible. The World Bank and IMF baseline models project the growth will slow down to 1,6 and 1,8% respectively. It seems a big portion of the population might be very hard hit by the global lockdown measures. The Central Bank reported that remittances from foreign countries have been down by 23% in March compared to February 2020, on the first 8 working days of April contracted by 3 times in comparison to March. The Ministry of Employment of Uzbekistan estimates that there are around 2,6 million labour migrants in foreign countries, which roughly makes up 14% of the working-age population or 19% of the labour force. The Center for Economic Research and Reform, a government-affiliated think-tank, estimates that approximately 45% of the labour force is informally employed, most of whom depend on the daily income for their livelihoods.

Challenges ahead?

According to official statistics, Uzbekistan might be better prepared for the pandemic than many other countries. It had on average 153,6 hospital beds in total or 4,66 hospital beds per 1000 people at the end of 2018, which is significantly lower than in Germany, South Korea,  Japan, and Russia, but 50% more than in Spain. There is over 500,000 medical staff, working currently in the public and private healthcare sector.

Figure 3. The number of hospital beds per 1000 inhabitants.
Source: OECD, State Statistics Committee of Uzbekistan.

 

However, the government has not clarified the number of intensive care units in the hospitals and the number of ventilators available for the healthcare sector. In one of the meetings on the COVID-19 situation in the country, the President of Uzbekistan informed that 500 ventilators have been ordered from Russia in March and they will be made available as soon as possible. There is a concern to what degree local medical staff is acquainted with and operate the new equipment or in general, can cope with increased pressure if the number of infections continues to rise. While social media was full of praise and support for healthcare professionals, many people have also voiced their deep concerns on the current state of medical healthcare in the country.

In demographic terms, the ratio of those over 70 years old (2,6%), is lower than in most developed countries. Most of the elderly people live with their children, an average household having three or more generations. Actually, living in a nursing home or away from children is considered to be the fate of losers.

Most of the population, especially in rural areas, live in close-knit communities (mahalla), where very close social interactions even among distant relatives, neighbors and sometimes strangers are a norm rather than an exclusion. An average wedding party gathers around 300-500 people, which the Senate of the country has lowered to 200 from the beginning of this year. Throughout history, the to’y (wedding or circumcision party), a quintessential part of the Uzbek society, has been very resilient. As an American anthropologist Russell Zanca put it: “Financial burdens aside, to’y must go on!”. With different forms of social distancing measures, projected to stay for this year, for anthropologists and other social scientists it would be interesting to see how the institution of “to’y” will evolve.

In urban areas, social distancing measures could be complicated through increasing urban densification processes (in Russian – уплотнение) in  Tashkent and increasingly other regional centers, as more and more public space in and around residential quarters have been allocated for the construction of new houses in recent years.

Consequently, it might seem that harsh social distancing measures could be a proper response, but there is a strong pressure for the government to slowly open for economic activity. In an early hint of what’s to come, this week local governments started talking to local business people on the gradual opening of construction and production sites. Until now, the government has been strictly following the Chinese experience with an emphasis on early detection and strict lockdown. Definitely, these measures have allowed to slow down the virus dissemination and buy precious time. However,  in a desperate bid to balance containment measures and economic stimulus, the Government seems to look to other countries, especially South Korea. In a telephone conversation between the Presidents of the two countries, the Uzbek side has requested the assistance of Korean medical professionals and the sharing of best practices.

It’s clear that  Uzbekistan needs to develop its own long-term exit strategy taking into account the structure of the economy and how society functions. This requires not only evidence-based policy-making, founded on robust scientific data and methodology, but also taking ethical and strategic decisions, which will have repercussions far beyond the current pandemic situation.

The centralised decision-making system, that characterizes the governance system in the country, could turn out to be both an advantage and a hindrance.  The evolving situation requires a differentiated approach as well as the flexibility to ease or restrict distancing measures in different regions and districts. The problem could be exacerbated by low legal culture among the ordinary people and state officials, as well as practices of selective justice. 

The crisis has reinforced the image of the nation-state in Uzbekistan and reinvigorated the calls for a more paternalistic state, interfering in an individual’s freedoms for his/her own good. However, in the long-term, the challenge will remain to get to and stay within the narrow corridor that protects citizens’ rights and freedoms while allowing the state and society to function effectively.

Shifting the Blame: Does COVID-19 Undermine Political Support for Putin?

We continue with our special coronavirus series “Politics & Pandemics”, and this week’s post is written by ElMaRB project leader Dr. Margarita Zavadskaya. In the series, we provide weekly updates on the coronavirus outbreak and its effects on politics, media, and activism. We will publish blog entries written by us and invited experts,  where we will try to look at the current events through the prism of political and social sciences.

You self-isolate while I withdraw myself. Source.

The COVID-19 has reached Russia. As of April 9, the number of confirmed coronavirus patients amounts to 10131 in 81 regions with 1459 new corona-positive cases. The head of the Medical and Biological Agency (FMBA) and  Veronika Skvortsova expects the epidemic to peak in late April. The outbreak of the disease seems to spread faster in Russia and in a more uncontrolled manner despite a number of severe quarantine restrictions implemented recently – fully sealed borders with tens thousands of tourists remaining outside, web cameras, specialized smartphone apps and QR-codes detecting violators of mandatory quarantine and tracking people’s movements in Moscow. There is little doubt that the consequences of the epidemic will not only overload the capacity of the Russian healthcare system, but will lead to a protracted economic recession in the country, the collapse of the business, especially services and retail, and considerable rise of unemployment.

Less than a month ago, Russian authorities tried to play it cool by ‘ridiculing’ the panicking West on TV and pushing forward an all-Russian vote over the constitutional amendments that would extend V. Putin’s legal terms in power. The very nature forced President V. Putin and his administration towards two decisions: to postpone the vote on the constitutional amendments and to give three national addresses to make the best of a bad job. It is likely that the postponement of the ‘constitutional’ vote will downplay the Kremlin’s mobilization efforts and rip away the symbolic value of the whole enterprise. However, it does not mean that voters will not show up, it rather means that the state will have to rely on a forced mobilization more intensely.

Exogenous shocks affect political support differently conditional to the nature of the challenge. During the wildfires crisis of the hot summer in 2010, scholars observed systematically higher political support in the settlements of Central Russia engulfed in flames compared to those bypassed by the fire (see Lazarev et al. 2014). The reason is that citizens directly observe the state in action and do not attribute the blame to the authorities. Scientists came to the similar conclusion studying the consequences of Hurricane Katrina in the US or river floods in Leipzig, Germany (Bechtel and Hainmueller 2011). The bottom line, if natural disasters normally boost political support, economic crises kill it (Healy and Malhotra 2013). The latter usually translate into massive discontent with the incumbent governments almost everywhere. For instance, most of the national governments resigned after the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008-9 no matter their ‘colors’ (Armingeon and Ceka 2014).

According to the independent Levada Center surveys, respondents’ concerns regarding the virus seem to grow slower than fears of inflations and deterioration of current living standards. Some experts like Alexander Kynev expect dramatic erosion of popular support of the current political regime: 

The second ‘coronavirus’ address by the president whose content boils down to three points (two openly announced points – a month extension of ‘the quasi-quarantine’ and shifting all the decisions to the governors, and one point that remained unsaid – no state assistance for the citizens and business) seems to be – to say at least – a major blunder from all possible angles. This is a mistake from the viewpoint of maintaining an image of a strong leader in the eyes of the population, if the ultimate goal is upholding popular support. This is a mistake in the eyes of the (any) business, if the goal is to keep the latter on the regime’s side. (…) Creeping empowerment and bureaucratic decentralization coupled with the center’s self-withdrawal from decision-making look unavoidable. 

Russian polls have produced ambiguous results. Levada Center reports that the president’s support has declined by 6% from 69% in February to 63% in March, and there are grounds to expect further decreases. At the same time, the state-controlled polling agency VCIOM asserts that Putin’s rating has risen after the first two presidential addresses (74%). Although these data are not publicly available and the Kremlin decides what data are released. Another pollster, FOM confirms the short-term positive dynamics and explains it by the rallying effect against the common threat. Similarly, the post-Crimean recession in fall 2014 did not result in any decline in support because of the patriotic rallying and the fact that most Russians attributed political blame to external political forces and international sanctions imposed by the West (Frye 2019; Sirotkina and Zavadskaya 2020). This time the blame is very likely to be attributed to the executive power together with the president. The downward trend has already started in summer 2018 after the announcement of the unpopular pension reform.

These dubious polling results can be easily explained by two mechanisms: 1) popular disappointment may replace a short-term rallying effect reported by polling agencies, and 2) Russian respondents differ in the way they attribute political blame: the president is mostly held accountable for international affairs, while the government is in charge of domestic politics (although, blaming depends primarily on citizens’ political views: oppositionists punish the president first, while supporters tend to blame the State Duma and the government). So far, the Kremlin strives to delegate unpopular decisions to the government and its agencies and governors who do not enjoy any leeway here. As professor Vladimir Gel’man warns, such attempts may come at greater costs for the governability and state capacity: 

Russian regime (and not only Russian) depends on visible mass support and rightly fears that exogenous shock may (but not always) trigger a mass demand for regime change. Here comes the strive to shift the blame for unpopular measures from the president to the government and regional heads. But to play in ‘good cop vs. bad cop’ seems to be a bad idea as an uncontrolled decentralization of ‘the overregulated state’ (a term by Ella Paneyakh) would just make the situation worse… 

On one hand, personalist authoritarian regimes usually sustain themselves for a fairly long time even under a crumbling economy and lingering recession. On the other, the speedy character of the unfolding crisis can trigger more dramatic consequences not just for the government and some officials, but the regime as a whole. One way or another, the upcoming vote on the constitutional amendments will take place under the circumstances that are completely unforeseen by the Kremlin.