Tuesday, March 24, 2020


The Russian government has been confident to the point of boastful in ensuring its citizens and the world that the coronavirus is virtually nonexistent within its borders. But the Russian people are skeptical, with good reason

By Ariel Bulshtein

Israel Hayom
March 22, 2020

Ever since coronavirus became an epidemic and spread beyond the borders of China, the state of the virus in Russia has remained a mystery. On one hand, official government figures are so optimistic they border on arrogance. According to reports, only a small number of people in Russia have contracted the virus (slightly over 100 in a country of 150 million?), whereas Russia has more testing kits than it needs.

"We are ready for worse scenarios," say Russian government officials and spokespeople for the state media, claiming that they have about 40,000 ventilators – a veiled comparison to European countries like Italy, where a shortage of that piece of medical equipment has doomed hundreds.

The Russian government's promises should have calmed the population, but the opposite is occurring: The more the official channels promise, the more ordinary Russians worry, and sometimes start panicking. Talk on Russian social media is markedly distrustful of the political system, and horror stories are spreading about thousands across Russia who contracted the virus in the past few months without getting appropriate medical treatment or even being diagnosed.

It's not certain that this has to do with the coronavirus, because every winter Russia sees relatively high mortality from seasonal flu, etc. But if we consider that the Russian authorities, and the Soviet authorities before it, have not proved outstandingly trustworthy, it's not surprising that every rumor gains traction, causing increased fear and a decrease in trust.

The periphery is crying out

Russia's neighbors in the west are also skeptical. Last week, the European Union's foreign service issued an unprecedented document accusing government-aligned Russian news outlets of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. This doesn't mean that Brussels has discovered anything new about how the Kremlin operates. But if accusations like this one were being voiced behind closed doors, now the EU has decided to air its suspicions publicly.

Why are the official numbers out of Russia worthy of doubt? First of all, we need to remember that Russia has a very long border with China (over 4,000 km or nearly 2,500 miles) and that crossings on both sides were very heavy and were not closed when the virus first spread beyond China. The Chinese have a notable presence in southeast Russia, but an astonishing number of Chinese tourists visit Russia's two main cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, something that has remained almost unchanged since the inception of the coronavirus. When airlines all over the world stopped service to China, Russia's Aeroflot continued to fly to Beijing, possibly for political reasons.

A senior Russian official who asked to remain anonymous told me that on every fast train between Moscow and St. Petersburg – a line that carries thousands of passengers – "more than half the passengers are Chinese tourists."

"There are more than 10 of these trains in each direction each day, so draw your own conclusions. We could, of course, assume that only healthy Chinese visited Russia, while the sick ones might have preferred Italy or France, but what are the chances that is correct?" the official asked.

Secondly, Russia was very late compared to other countries in taking steps to issue closure regulations. Only last week was a decision made to shut museums and issue a statement that Lenin's mausoleum would be closed "for repairs." But with all due respect to the resting place of the communist proletarian leader, many more people use Moscow's subway (up to 9 million per day) than visit his tomb, and the subway is operating as usual and is as crowded as you might expect of a major metropolis.

Third, we are hearing more reports about attempts by Russian officials to acquire equipment to treat the coronavirus. The fact that these reports are coming out of relatively wealthy areas in Russia, like St. Petersburg, raises the question: if there are equipment shortages in well-to-do areas, what is happening in the periphery, where medical care is poor even in normal times? Despite the suspicions, Russia is not changing its certain, boastful tone.

Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, has avoided giving any direct answers to journalists' questions about whether Putin himself had been tested for the virus. "The president's publicly available schedule is the best evidence of his health," Peskov declared in the manner that is so typical of Putin's Kremlin. However, all administrative workers who come into contact, direct or indirect, with the "command" are now regularly tested.

The conspiracy against the US

Despite the dangers, Russia's leaders see geopolitical opportunities in the pandemic, or at least opportunities for propaganda. They see events unfolding in Europe as proof of their ideological rivals' weakness -- the same rivals who preach at Russia to change its ways and apply sanctions against it.

The Kremlin's mouthpieces in the media haven't stopped repeating a message that aims to fault western democracies and the way they are handling the threat, which is portrayed as either too soft or too harsh. "Look at how everything in the West is collapsing," they say, not without some schadenfreude. "The democracies can't handle the challenge, so why bother to play with democracy?"

A few of the government propagandists go a step further and predict that the world will never return to what it was prior to coronavirus and that western society will learn the hard way that its principles of individual liberty should give way to Russia's traditional collectivism. Every drop on the New York and London stock exchanges are offered up as proof of this theory without any mention of how weaker economies – such as Russia's – could suffer even a worse blow from the pandemic.

One need only look at what is happening to oil prices, and the Russian ruble's continued slide against the dollar, to begin worrying about Russia's economy. Remember, President Putin has proposed constitutional changes that give him an exemption to the two-term limit. The vote on these amendments is scheduled for April 22, and we can assume that the authorities will try to send a message of "business as usual" to increase voter turnout.

Authoritarian China's success in stopping the virus, compared to the desperate situation in Europe, has sparked deep feelings of identification among the Russians. When a Chinese government representative accused the US of spreading the coronavirus, the accusation was immediately backed up by Russia. Franz Klintsevich, a member of Russia's Senate from the ruling party, claimed that the Americans created the virus to "wipe out geopolitical competitors." He didn't ask the Chinese for any proof of their claim, but predicted that the US would exploit its tools and geographic position to repair the American economy and rule the world without interference while other countries fell into "economic slavery." Conspiracy theories have always been in demand in the space between Kaliningrad and Vladivostok.

1 comment:

bob walsh said...

You can't believe the Russkies any more than the ChiComs.