In my work on Russia’s immigration policy, I argue that policymakers sometimes frame issues as crises in order to solve unrelated problems or to mobilize certain ideas. Other work on Russia reveals that crisis response can produce benefits such as electoral gains, but it doesn’t always achieve intended aims and may lead to perpetual crisis cycles.
In the process of collecting data on Russia’s response to covid-19 for the CoronaNet Research Project — an initiative tracking government responses worldwide — I observed three broad similarities with the United States that have little to do with authoritarian personalities or the politics of President Trump and Vladimir Putin.
1. Russia relies on local decision-making
Russia is a federal system that divides power between the government in Moscow and more than 80 regions. Some regional leaders are competent and relatively independent from the Kremlin. Others are not. In response to the covid-19 crisis, local leaders have initiated raids on Chinese citizens, created digital pass systems and even closed borders between regions. These types of policies make international headlines because they fit into the ready-made box of authoritarianism.
More mundane local policies are less newsworthy. In Moscow, the city government established a coronavirus task force, built hospitals, increased production of masks and was the first in the country to institute a citywide stay-at-home order. Other regions followed suit. These policies are the domain of mayors and governors.
2. National-level policies depend on many government leaders
While Russia lacks U.S.-style checks and balances, many policy areas depend on the input of numerous decision-makers. A task force established in January has led the covid-19 crisis response. Under the direction of Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova and chief state sanitary doctor Anna Popova, the task force oversaw the development of a test kit, created procedures for isolation and quarantine, posted daily updates on the coronavirus situation, and drafted myriad authoritative recommendations for border closings, travel restrictions and the use of public spaces.
By the time Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin took direct control of the task force in mid-March, the policy course had already been set. Putin began taking a more active role by the end of March, but his decisions relied on the advice and expertise of policymakers in the task force. My prior research suggests that government policymakers often lobby policies up to Putin, rather than the other way around — policies aren’t always unilaterally dictated downward. What we see in Russia in the current crisis seems to follow this pattern. Like in the United States, policymaking involves many levels of government bureaucracy and official input.
3. Russia is reporting incomplete figures
In every country, the coronavirus crisis has laid bare the limitations of even the best and most transparent data to reduce uncertainty in real time. Experts and pundits alike have suggested Russia’s coronavirus data is incomplete or even manipulated. Similar debates about statistics in the United States have centered around case identification and death counts.
These debates reaffirm the essential role of numbers in modern politics. Russia’s data capacity is tremendous, powered by meticulous number-crunching bureaucrats. But the focus of this data isn’t always relevant to the problem at hand.
Russian government reports are replete with figures of the number of people examined by mobile medical brigades, coronavirus hotline calls, people on sick leave, border temperature checks, regulatory documents issued, etc. As in the United States, when government officials report on numerical minutiae such as the quantities of protective gear delivered to prisons, the goal is to show that the government is doing something — even if the figures have little connection to concrete results. While the reporting of numbers is crucial for transparency, numbers on their own don’t produce accountability.
Are Russia and the U.S. really comparable?
Experts have criticized the Russian and U.S. responses to covid-19. Some point to structural problems such as unequal access to health care in the United States and inadequate medical infrastructure in Russia. Others focus on Putin’s hands-off approach or Trump’s inconsistency as major problems.
It may be popular to compare Putin and Trump’s leadership styles — and highlight their cozy relationship. But as the covid-19 crisis shows, it’s not possible to simply sort “good” or “bad” policy into democratic or authoritarian categories.
But comparing Russia with the United States is useful in another way. As political scientist Joel Migdal observed, “States … may be subject to coming apart at the seams simply because there are so many seams.” The more mundane details of governance, such as task force meetings, infrastructure funding and data collection happen far below the level of the president with career policymakers and bureaucrats. This work may be the everyday glue that holds together the seams of authoritarian and democratic systems alike.
Caress Schenk is associate professor of political science at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, a member of the PONARS network, a contributor to the CoronaNet Research Project and author of “Why Control Immigration?: Strategic Uses of Migration Management in Russia” (University of Toronto Press, 2018). The views expressed here are solely the author’s and do not reflect those of Nazarbayev University or affiliated bodies.