Kremlin critic Boris Vishnevsky: “Putin’s incapacitation during the COVID-19 crisis will backfire on him”

  • 2020-05-28
  • Linas Jegelevicius

Boris Vishnevsky, a deputy of Russia’s second-city St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly and perhaps the city’s most prominent oppositionist, believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not last until 2024, let alone 2036, which he is guaranteed by the constitutional amendments, postponed for the Russians’ approval for later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The expert of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, who authored or co-authored more than 50 federal laws and laws of Saint Petersburg and amendments to them, kindly agreed to take The Baltic Times questions.

How do you believe Russia and your Saint Petersburg is coping with the coronavirus pandemic? Like US President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin did not put the country in a lockdown and was shunning the word throughout.

The situation is complicated and has not yet plateaued. The brunt of the pandemic has hit Moscow, though. The epidemiologists say Saint Petersburg will catch up with the capital city in one or two weeks from now (the interview was conducted in mid-April – L. J.) The uncertainty and worse prospects ahead keep everyone on edge. Our Russian health system is clearly not ready for the pandemic. What some of my fellow councillors and I have been doing over the last couple of weeks is collecting money donations for our medics to buy face masks and other protective gear. Although Russia is in a virtual lockdown, the authorities have not, however, declared an emergency.  All the world, including Russia, has been caught off guard by the virus off. I personally believe that Russia should have followed the West and put the country under quarantine immediately.

Some say that such “bad boys” as Putin or the Chinese president can take advantage of the pandemic to push through their murky political agenda. Is that something that worries you?

No, it does not. And I do not see it happening in either country mentioned by you. For Putin, the strengthening of his powers through the constitutional amendments has been the No1 issue on his table before the hit of coronavirus. And he got all he wanted. The Russian vote for the constitutional amendments is just a formality.

 With Russia gripped by the virus, Putin is quite helpless – the state he has been striving to strengthen is virtually inefficient in handling the illness.  The whole country sees how the president and the authorities, fail to pass quick, consistent and efficient decisions in reigning it in. In other words, the ‚vertical of power‘, meaning the top-down command structure established by Putin during his presidency, is not working at all.

To go back to your question, yes, some may rightly think that NATO has been weakened as a result of the health crisis, but, again, the pandemic has struck everybody. What is going on is unprecedented and humanity, faced with a major challenge like this, needs to figure out quickly how to survive.  All the other issues, like oil prices, military prevalence and military ambitions just do not stand up against the urgency of the coronavirus. The only thing that Putin must be very anxious about now are new record lows of his job approval ratings. Unlike the leaders of the United States or Great Britain, he has effectively told his compatriots to hang in and endure the horrible time and the consequences on their own. Our people will not forget it ever. Only insignificant funds have been allotted from the state coffers to handle the crisis.

As Russia is nearing the much-at-stake-for-Putin election of Duma (Russian legislature – L.J.) in late 2021, do you believe Putin has a plan for it? His party “United Russia” seems to stand no chance in the election.

In fact, it has simply vanished during the health crisis... I sincerely wonder how its leader, Dmitry Medvedev who was demoted from the post of Prime Minister and given a secondary post on the Security Council of the Russian Federation, a consultative body of the Russian President, is feeling now? To my observation, over the last month, he popped out of nowhere just once – by the way, on social media at night – and called everyone on showing patience and endurance during the pandemic. The party leader has long been a topic for poking fun for very many Russians.

Some believe that Putin will be setting up a bunch of “Putin-friendly” parties before the election, the so-called satellites of “United Russia”. There are also speculations that in advance of those elections, the United Russia party will merge with the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), a pro-Putin party founded in 2011.

I cannot exclude all of that. It all sounds plausible to me, in fact. We could see some new faces along the way to the election, but the gist will remain the same and the people like puppets will be revolving around Putin.

Did the Kremlin’s decision to “annul” all of Putin’s previous presidential terms, thus enabling him to seek a new presidential term within the “amended” Constitution, surprise you?

No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I foresaw it happening on the first day when Putin introduced the constitutional reform in the Duma, drafted under his auspices.  I wrote about what to expect next, i.e. the annulment of his terms, in my blog swiftly afterwards. I did not have to be a fortune teller in predicting this.  In annulling high-ranking officials’ terms, Russia, unfortunately, has a bad record – it nullified its governors’ terms exactly 20 years ago, allowing them to govern another two terms, although that was against the law. So, history is just repeating itself.  Sadly.

Does that mean that Putin will hold a grip on power as long as he wishes? Do you foresee a situation where the Russian people, fed up with Putin and his political tricks, will revolt, hitting the streets in myriads?

To answer your first question – no, it does not. A really bad economy coupled with the public’s annoyance over the splurging of public money and frustration over the posh lifestyles of our leaders could wipe away Putin even before 2024. As I said before, Putin shows total incapacitation during the coronavirus crisis and the impotence will get more visible for everyone.

To answer your second question – I cannot rule it out either. But this depends on the public’s approval of Putin, the loyalty of the military and law enforcement to him et cetera. I cannot exclude that, with the election in 2021 lost, the Kremlin will massively falsify the vote results or even resort to physical methods to clamp down on the unrests that will inevitably ensue.  Either way, Putin will not cede his power easily, without giving a fight, the fight of his life and a fight for his life.

Do you see Russia without Putin?

Of course. Russia has lived without him for most of its history. It is wrong to think that Russia and Putin are one thing, like conjoined twins. On the contrary, I think that, with Putin out of the Kremlin, Russia will receive a big boost – for the better.

You said a few years ago that the Russian opposition is fractured and does not speak in a single voice.  Has your perception changed?

Does Lithuania, where you are coming from, have a single opposition? I suppose not. Only authority is one, not opposition forces. Factually, in Russia, there is only one true opposition party, the one I am representing, YABLOKO, the programme I’ve contributed to. All the rest favour Putin and his politics. Only that way they can stay afloat.

I’ve recently spoken to Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, supported mostly by former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He claimed that all of the Russian revolutions have flared up all of a sudden. Do you agree with this?

We’re long-time friends with Vladimir. I saw him a couple of months ago in Saint Petersburg. He spends most of his time abroad now because concern for his safety. Revolutions tend to start differently. Not necessarily with a sparkle. More often, big preparatory work has to be done. Frankly, I do not know what kind of scenarios fit Russia best. It is very hard to say…

What is the most combustible material able to make all Russians hit the streets? The pension reform, although loathed, did not set fire. The constitutional changes are likely to be muddled through without much resistance too, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic being in the focus. Is the coronavirus explosive politically?

I feel like wisecracking here – only a ban on alcohol sales can get Russians on the streets. But even with that in effect, only men will go out clamouring for their right to drink. Frankly, I was a little disappointed that the pension reform, which uncoincidentally was passed during the peak of the World Cup held in Russia in 2018, did not trigger a major firestorm in Russia. Traditionally, only residents of megapolises, like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, are more politically active and react in Russia. Pro-Kremlin candidates suffered losses in Moscow Duma (Council) elections in 2019, which was preceded by a series of protests against the Kremlin’s refusal to allow candidates allied with opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the ballot. In an attempt to curb any resistance, the Russian authorities have lately passed a set of some very stringent laws aiming at participants of protests unsanctioned by the officials. Many people now fear for their lives and livelihoods, thence the large apathy to what is going on. I reckon when our people will start starving, they will likely start feeling then that they have nothing to lose. Only then things can get out of control for Putin.