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Two women watching Vladimir Putin speech on laptop
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Belousov

Russia eases coronavirus lockdown at height of outbreak

Juri Rescheto Moscow
May 13, 2020

Observers were surprised at President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a gradual relaxation of coronavirus protection measures. Juri Rescheto reports from Moscow.


Russia loosens lockdown

The people of Moscow are looking forward to good weather — if only they weren't hampered by the contact restrictions that are even harder to stick to under these circumstances. But what the authorities call "the regime of increased readiness" has been extended in the capital until the end of May.

That means that the longest exit restrictions in all of Russia apply in the capital. People in Moscow was the first city to be slapped with stay-at-home orders and are probably the last to be allowed out again because the city has consistently held the country's negative record for new infections. Every day, people are shocked by the COVID-19 reports from the hospitals passed on by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin's coronavirus staff.

Governors decide

The states in the Russian Federation decide on whether or not to ease the protective measures, just like regional governors decide on how long and to what extent measures are being enforced. President Vladimir Putin has been keen to stress the point, underlining the importance of federalism in Russian domestic policy.

The "regime of non-working days," as the state of affairs in Russia has officially been called for the last six weeks, ended on Tuesday. The situation allows the gradual abolition of all restrictions, Putin said in his recent speech to the nation. This applies to all sectors of the economy, he said, adding that all businesses should be able to function again: heavy industry, construction, agriculture, transport and energy. People older than 65 and those in risk groups must, however, continue to stay at home, Putin said. Nationwide, people must wear face masks in public.

Many citizens were surprised about the eased regulations because Russia, with more than 10,000 new cases per day, now ranks first in the worldwide statistics of new infections and second in the absolute number of infected people. Why then, many wondered, these relaxations? And why now and not a few weeks ago, when the official infection figures were much lower?

Abbas Gallyamov says Putin is trying to avoid falling behind Western states. "European countries have already begun to end the lockdowns," the Russian political scientist told DW. "They have obviously solved the problem, and things are going back to normal."

Vladimir Putin addressing the nation
Putin has been accused of playing catch-up with the West despite high infection ratesImage: picture-alliance/AP/A. Nikolsky

"Putin understands that he will lose in the eyes of Russian public if Russia does not catch up," he says, adding that the restrictions were harder on Russians than Europeans because the standard of living in Russia is lower and most Russians have no savings.

Read more: Activists call for amnesty as COVID-19 spreads in Russian jails

The political scientist criticized the Russian president for endangering the lives of citizens in order to ramp up his popularity ratings. "He wants the Russians to believe that they are no worse off than people in the West. After all, the state media had previously portrayed the situation in the West as catastrophic," he says.

There were reports of dramatic circumstances in Spain and "dead bodies lying around in the US," he says. "Putin has maneuvered himself into a trap with his propaganda", says Gallyamov. "Now he is forced to ignore reality and statistics."

"One can only hope that the eased lockdown will not trigger a steep rise in illnesses and deaths."

Restrictions on economy remain

From an economic point of view, nothing is changing, at least not in densely populated areas, says Sergei Zhavoronkov from the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy. Putin has shifted the responsibility to the governors, who would rather tighten the rules than ease them, he told DW.

"The only change that would really interest people would be the opening of non-food businesses, which are also important for survival," he says, adding that unfortunately, that is not part of the Russian government's plan. As before, only grocery stores and pharmacies are open. A small car-repair shop contributes less to the spread of the virus than a huge supermarket, Zhavoronkov argues. He says he fears "disastrous consequences" for Russia's economy.

There have also been positive reactions to Putin's speech to the nation. It is a turning point in the fight against the virus, according to Sergei Netyosov, a virologist at Novosibirsk State University who welcomes mandatory face masks. "I believe that the mandatory wearing of protective masks is far more effective than some other forms of protection," he says. Referring to the closed universities, he warned that students are now holed up in their dormitories, and in even closer contact than before.

Netyosov considers the relaxation to be premature. "Russia is currently at the height of the pandemic and not at the end of it," he says. "We can't relax the restrictions in this situation." He says hospitals are on the verge of overcrowding.

What effect the most recent changes will have on infection figures will only become clear over the coming days and weeks — and also how they will affect the Russian president's popularity ratings.

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