Putin is not eternal (with coronavirus or not)
Playing the role as the nation’s leader, Vladimir Putin paid a visit to the Kommunarka hospital in Moscow, the place where those infected with coronavirus are being treated. Just six days later the head doctor of the hospital, Denis Protsenko, announced on Facebook that he had contracted the virus.
After Senator Valentina Tereshkova, famous for being first women in space, called for an amendment to the Russian constitution that would allow Vladimir Putin to run for president again in 2024 and then once more in 2030, independent Russian media covered the story often using phrases and expressions such as “eternal Putin” or “Putin forever”.
For many days I have been reflecting about the media’s reaction much more than I have been thinking about the changes to the Russian constitution and I came to the realisation how counterproductive, at least in rhetorical terms, it is to claim the infinity of Putin’s rule. It is simply wrong, because in one regard Putin is like all of us. He is not eternal.
At the time when the constitutional changes were being introduced in Russia the coronavirus was starting to spread throughout Europe, and it was only a matter of time when it would affect Russia. But that was not what made me question Putin’s immortality. As a matter of fact, it is hard to believe that the Kremlin would have risked making such a huge mistake as exposing the president of the Russian Federation to a possible infection. And yet this is exactly what happened. Playing the role as the nation’s leader, which – by the way – the recent years have showed has not been his favourite role, Putin paid a visit to the Kommunarka hospital in Moscow, the place where those infected with coronavirus are being treated.
The visit took place on March 24th. Just six days later, on March 31st, the head doctor of the hospital, Denis Protsenko, announced on Facebook that he had contracted the virus. This was not the most shocking news, that a medical professional became infected. The scandal that broke out was because of the photos that documented Putin’s visit to the hospital, clearly showed him speaking with Protsenko and not wearing any protective gear such as a mask or gloves, not to mention any social distancing. Suddenly, it became clear that Putin has not been seen in public for ten days. Some Russian journalists pointed out that images released by the Kremlin which show the president having meetings in his office come from the middle of March.
Perhaps it is just a speculation and we may soon see Putin in public again, fit and healthy. Maybe, after the Kommunarka episode, he simply decided to isolate radically. Most likely we will not be allowed to know the truth, at least the whole truth, but one thing is certain, if Putin really has coronavirus no one will spare any money or human resources for his treatment.
Yet, putting the current situation aside, it is already quite visible that Putin’s regime is getting weaker. There is a saying that you cannot steal from thieves; however it seems that a thief can steal from himself. And this is exactly what we see taking place now in Russia around the corona crisis. The state propaganda has proved to be so convincing that it has deceived even its own authors as well as the usual beneficiaries, believing that the virus is either for some reason not spreading in Russia or absolutely harmless. Indeed, in the beginning Russians truly believed that they were resistant to the coronavirus. The Kremlin must have thought the same, which explains why Putin paid such a reckless visit to the infectious hospital.
The zeroing of presidential terms as an amendment to the constitution should also be seen as another sign of weakness rather than strength. This gambit should surely be interpreted as a desperate and poorly directed spectacle which is taking place in the absence of any other idea to resolve the transfer of power issue in 2024. It seems that the Kremlin is losing its creative edge. Gone are the days when it steered the society so masterfully to achieve its goals. Now, it would appear that the Kremlin has no real strategy and put forward the most basic and vulgar idea to introduce the constitutional amendment as a solution.
Everybody knows that foreign policy is one of Putin’s favourite fields. This is what the Kremlin has been focused on most visibly since 2014. Domestic affairs remain neglected and the popular Crimean enthusiasm has long faded. Thus, more and more events which take place domestically confirm that the Russian state, or rather statehood as Gleb Pavlovsky refers to Putin’s Russia, is a colossus on clay legs. The country is managed in an inefficient and sluggish way. The general social mood is that Russia is stuck, there is no progress and no vision for the future.
Listening to liberal-minded Russian public intellectuals and activists one can get the impression that they have no idea how Putin’s regime could be brought down. Its fall, as most of them predict, would likely be caused by a large crisis of an unknown nature. Admittedly, the current pandemic combined with the decreasing oil prices is much more than the crisis they had been anticipating. It could be the event that ruins Putin and puts an end to his reign. But it will also bring years of recession and the tightening of screws since pandemics justify extraordinary measures of public control.
Nevertheless, there is truly only one thing that can seriously shake Russia to its core and put an end to Putin’s regime, the moment after his death. But, biologically speaking, Putin is not on his deathbed yet, although he is surely past his prime. Turning 67 this year he might be, by all means, in good physical shape, which still does not make him immortal. Thus, sooner or later Putin will too start to lose his strength.
Since no one has any idea as who could replace Putin nor how to do it formally, we can certainly expect a further weakening of the internal structures of the Russian state. This might take place even before 2036, the year when at the age of 83 Putin is expected to end his (final) term as president. The association with Brezhnev era seems more and more legitimate.
It is obvious that since Putin is a crucial figure for balancing different interest groups in Russia, when the moment comes that he can no longer be in the picture, some fierce fighting for power and resources will start to take place. This will mean a serious crisis with a dangerously unpredictable outcome. This is why at the moment you cannot hear much enthusiasm in regards to Putin’s alleged coronavirus infection. This is true also because nobody decent dares show joy with somebody else’s health problems, and because such news and its consequence could in fact be too much for Russia to bear for now.
Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.