Officials ruled that 60% of workers in ‘customer-facing’ service sector roles must be fully vaccinated by mid-August. Although workers are free to refuse the jab, their employers are allowed to suspend them without pay if they do so.
Russia registered a record number of daily coronavirus fatalities for the third straight day on Thursday, as the virus ripped through the country. Long gone are the falsely reassuring words of President Vladimir Putin: “The end is in sight and we can soon return to normal life”. His words last year were targeted at Moscow’s mayor, designed to lift the city’s lockdown in order to comfort residents that it was safe to vote in the constitutional election scheduled for 1 July. This was also the moment that the other world medical expert, Donald Trump, was telling Americans that coronavirus was “mere flu”, which would “dissipate with the oncoming warm weather”.
Others were less convinced. “Everyone knows that this is madness being carried out for one person” said Alexei Navalny, pointing the finger at Putin “sitting in his bunker for two and half months, afraid of catching the virus”. A week earlier, Russia held its postponed Victory Day military parade, which turned out to be a super-spreader event. People also turned out in super-spreader droves to approve the changes to the Constitution, allowing Putin to remain President for life. The Kremlin’s priorities were clear; Putin’s ambitions were far more important than the health of the people.
A year of confusion and feeble leadership later, Russia is battling a severe third wave of Covid-19, driven by the highly infectious Delta variant. Some 5.88 million people have caught the virus so far, according to Russia’s Coronavirus Task Force, taking the death toll to 146,069. Most Russians, however, treat Kremlin figures with suspicion, knowing that they are always massaged in favour of the authorities. In the current pandemic, if anyone dies of pneumonia or other respiratory failure caused by the coronavirus, they are not recorded in the Covid statistics; only the word “pneumonia” will be on the death certificate as the cause. Experts argue that a more reliable indicator of the human cost of the coronavirus is “excess fatalities”, the difference in the number of all registered deaths compared to what would be expected. Since the start of the pandemic, Russia’s excess fatality is around 483,000, more than three times the reported coronavirus figure, and as a percentage of the population, one of the worst in the world.
So why is Russia performing so badly? After all, it’s almost a year since Vladimir Putin boasted about Russia winning the race to develop the first vaccine, named Sputnik V to remind the world that Russia put the first satellite into space. At the time, experts raised concerns about the speed of Russia’s vaccine development, suggesting that researchers might be cutting corners by missing out important trials. But it’s now confirmed that this Russian vaccine offers high levels of protection against Covid-19, leading to Putin claiming in May that Sputnik V vaccines were as “reliable as Kalashnikovs”!
Yet only 18.9 million of Russia’s population of 146 million people had been fully vaccinated by last month, a mere 1.46%. In Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s outbreak, just 1.8 million of the city’s some 12 million people (1.2%) had been fully vaccinated, despite free jabs having been available since December. Compare these figures with the UAE (66.6%), UK (66.2%), or even Mongolia (55.7%).
The simple reason for the low vaccine take-up is that Russia has a high level of vaccine scepticism. The independent pollster, Levada, reported in a poll taken in May this year that a whopping 62% of people did not want to get Russia’s domestically produced vaccine, and that the highest level of reluctance was identified among 18- to 24-year-olds. Most respondents cited side effects, such as fever and fatigue, as the main reason for not wanting to get vaccinated. The poll also revealed that 64% of people thought that the coronavirus was created as a biological weapon, and, alarmingly for the Kremlin, as many as 56% were not afraid of catching the disease.
Kremlin watchers are not surprised by Levada’s findings. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Russian state-owned media has spent a huge amount of time ridiculing other nations for their harsh lockdowns while trashing their vaccines. They gleefully amplified every complication and casualty from vaccines produced by Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca and gloated over every developmental hiccup. “Thank God we have not seen such tragic situations after vaccinations as we have seen with AstraZeneca and Pfizer”, said President Putin during a phone-in press conference early this month, failing to understand that the Russian people listen to his words and, rather than being reassured, become increasingly worried not only about their own vaccines, but vaccines in general. The result is rampant vaccine scepticism, especially as one of the three domestically produced vaccines, EpiVacCorona, has been embroiled in a constant stream of scandal and scepticism about its efficacy and has been publicly accepted as a dud. Persuading people to be vaccinated is also not helped by reports of underhand practices, widely circulating on the internet, of doctors telling patients that they will be receiving Sputnik V, when in fact they are injected with the much maligned and ineffective EpiVacCorona.
Russian authorities have repeatedly squandered almost every chance to beat the pandemic. Their massive, bloated propaganda apparatus has failed to do the one job it was designed for: get the vaccination message out. Instead, the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of trust between the government and citizens. The Kremlin is now worried and has started to change tack. Having ruled out mandatory vaccinations, the authorities have turned to coercion and bribery.
In June, officials in several Russian regions, including Moscow, ruled that 60% of workers in “customer-facing” service sector roles must be fully vaccinated by mid-August. Although workers are in theory free to refuse the jab, their employers are allowed to suspend them without pay if they do so. This is, in effect, a “no jab-no job” policy. Moscow has also begun enforcing tough new rules, with unvaccinated people now required to provide evidence of a recent negative PCR test, or proof of recovery from coronavirus, if they want to dine indoors.
Inevitably, this has created a side effect: a thriving black market for fake vaccination certificates. Reports were circulating in Moscow this week that for about $100, criminals would ensure that vials containing a clients allocated vaccine doses are simply poured out, while they’re given fake certificates and are added to the official registry of vaccinated citizens, allowing them to access workplaces and restaurants. President Putin’s own vaccination has been shrouded in secrecy, having recently claimed that he was given the Sputnik V version but, unusually for him, declining be shown on TV having the vaccine. For someone who proudly rode bare-chested on horseback for TV audiences, this lack of visual evidence only increased suspicion and scepticism among the population.
Nevertheless, vaccination numbers do appear to be improving. As of Thursday, 20.89% of the population had received one dose, while 13.58% were fully vaccinated, according to the Russian website, Gogov, which gives the official coronavirus vaccination statistics. The Kremlin has conceded that it is now impossible to reach its 60% vaccination target by 1 September, and has now lowered it to 30%.
Amid these developments, which provoked a backlash from the public, Putin has largely remained silent, having made clear on previous occasions that he sees vaccination as a personal choice. He reiterated that view during the phone-in press conference: “I don’t support mandatory vaccinations, and continue to hold this view” he said. His continued reluctance to forcefully endorse unpopular vaccination policies is part of a pragmatic strategy aimed at distancing himself from controversial initiatives that could damage his image, and by proxy, lower the ratings of United Russia, the already deeply unpopular Kremlin-controlled ruling party vying for a strong result in parliamentary elections in September.
For Vladimir Putin, this is a genuine dilemma. His United Russia party is hoping to maintain its dominance in the 450-seat lower house of Parliament in the elections in just eight weeks. A strong showing and a supermajority would smooth the way for possible future legislative or constitutional changes depending on his political intentions in 2024. While Putin’s approval rating is still high, it has taken a hit in recent years, dragged down by a controversial pension reform and what many Russians view as stagnating wages, slipping living standards, and persistent high-level corruption. An equally pressing problem is apathy. The last parliamentary elections, held in 2016, had the lowest turnout in post-Soviet history, and analysts are predicting the turnout in the September vote will be even lower.
Voter apathy and coronavirus are a dangerous mix for Vladimir Putin. If they persist until September, it will be time to bring out the time-honoured method of winning Russian elections—vote rigging. But following the 2012 debacle, voters are now wary of such methods. Covid-19 is unquestionably creating a viral headache for the Kremlin.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.