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June 24, 2021

Europe

RUSSIA: Government grapples with resurgent pandemic ahead of September election

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 4 mins)
  • The resurging pandemic will lead to new restrictions and mandatory vaccinations in multiple regions.
  • The aggressive vaccination push will boost the country’s sluggish immunization campaign but could further lower support for the ruling United Russia party ahead of the September election.
  • To sustain public support, the government is expected to extend aid to families, promote new investments into public infrastructure, and attempt to mitigate price increases of consumer staples.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases increased by around 24% week-on- week – reaching the highest point since February – and the death rate is swiftly approaching peak levels observed this past winter. The epidemiological situation is deteriorating across the country, although the Moscow region and St. Petersburg are the key hotspots, together accounting for more than half of all new cases. The resurgence of the pandemic in Russia can be linked to a slow vaccination campaign (only 11% of population is fully vaccinated to date), the spread of the Delta variant, and poor public adherence to sanitary measures explained in part by recent polls that show 55% of the population is not afraid of contracting the virus.

Considering the sharp uptick in case numbers and deaths, most regions in Russia will continue to tighten restrictions in the coming weeks. While Buryatia (eastern Siberia) has already introduced a two-week lockdown, major cities are unlikely to follow suit due to public fatigue with tough measures as well as economic and political considerations ahead of the September State Duma elections. Instead, targeted restrictions on the unvaccinated and those without antibodies are more likely.

As expected, several Russian cities/regions already have announced mandatory inoculation for various groups, primarily targeting those working in state-owned companies/institutions and the services industry. If employees/entrepreneurs fail to get vaccinated by a certain deadline (varies by region), they could be suspended from work and face other restrictions. Such a tough approach appears to be effective for now, with the vaccination rate nearly doubling over the past week according to Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova. However, even with a compulsory vaccination program in place, it will be an uphill battle for Russia to achieve herd immunity in 2021. The need for booster vaccinations is now being addressed, since as the head of the Gamaleya Institute – the developer of Sputnik V – claims that the Russian vaccine provides sufficient protection against the Delta variant only for around six months.

From a political standpoint, the resurgent pandemic appears to have caught federal authorities by surprise, forcing inconvenient backtracking in their rhetoric and policies. Despite many calling compulsory vaccinations “impractical”, “impossible” and a “gross violation of the law” just a month ago, the Kremlin and other senior state officials are now tacitly supporting it. Similarly, previous concerns of discrimination against unvaccinated residents are now brushed aside as “inevitable”. President Vladimir Putin will attempt to address public concerns on these issues during his traditional Q&A show scheduled for 30 June. However, such heavy-handed management of the pandemic is likely to further compromise public support for the ruling United Russia party.

On the economic front, and ahead of the September State Duma elections, the government is expected to continue supporting those sectors most affected by the pandemic as well as families with children. It also will work to actively manage price increases in food, fuel, and other commodities, which are sensitive issues for the majority of voters. At the United Russia congress last week, Putin also proposed significant investments targeting the modernization of transport infrastructure, water treatment facilities, and healthcare facilities, among others. Despite an increase in pre-election spending, statements by finance minister Anton Siluanov as well as the Kremlin’s economic aide Maxim Oreshkin during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum held earlier this month suggested that Russia will maintain rather conservative economic and monetary policies in the medium term due to surging inflation.

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