Coronavirus crisis tests Putin's grip on power in Russia

  • Published
The deserted AnderSon Cafe
Image caption,
The deserted AnderSon Cafe - belonging to a chain shut by the lockdown

They're still baking at the Factory of Happiness.

Staff in face masks sprinkle nuts and berries on to buns and pipe chocolate into pastries, but only a handful are left working the production line and their creations are for takeaway only now.

The coronavirus lockdown has forced the firm to close its chain of family-friendly cafes, leaving the business struggling to stay afloat. But its owner says the state isn't holding out any lifelines.

So when Anastasia Tatulova came face-to-face with Russia's president, she didn't hold back.

"I'll try to beg for your help without crying, but this really is a tragedy," she told Vladimir Putin last month, informing him that "half-measures" of support would not work.

Image caption,
Anastasia Tatulova urged President Putin to rescue stricken businesses

As Covid-19 restrictions began kicking in and companies shed staff, Ms Tatulova found herself in the front row at a meeting between entrepreneurs and the president. Her passionate 12-minute takedown was shown live on state television.

"At that moment, I just needed him to hear me," the businesswoman explained recently, saying she was barely sleeping now - constantly conjuring up new ways to survive.

"I thought he understood. But there've been no results, and the government's measures are not enough. We just have to manage, ourselves."

Image source, Reuters

With the International Monetary Fund predicting the worst global recession since the 1930s Great Depression, Russia's economy is clearly not immune.

Neither are its politicians, including President Putin. He has crafted an image for himself over his long rule as the leader who lifted Russia out of the post-Soviet chaos to bring order and prosperity.

Mr Putin had planned to play on that trademark "stability" this week by winning a nationwide vote to alter the constitution and clear his way to stay in power for another two terms. But the ballot was reluctantly postponed, judged too dangerous at the height of a pandemic.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
President Putin at his dacha (holiday home) near Moscow - he addressed Orthodox Christians at Easter in a TV address

Now, some sense problems ahead for the president. "The paternalistic Russian state… can't implement their promises. They can't help people, can't help business," argued Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank.

The bulk of state help and handouts is being directed at big business: more employees, more critical for Russia's economy - and less critical of its president.

It has left others feeling abandoned.

"I can't predict a catastrophe for this regime [but] it's a serious challenge to Putin," Mr Kolesnikov suggested, pointing out that the Kremlin has no obvious new rallying cry to distract people from their difficulties. "The pandemic works more efficiently, compared to the political opposition and protesters."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Putin has had to get used to video conferencing

There are already some signs of that frustration spreading to Russia's regions, like the virus itself.

On Monday, hundreds of people in the southern city of Vladikavkaz came out to rally against the lockdown. The regional government is offering just 3,000 roubles (£32; $40) additional payment to those who lose their jobs.

There has also been a scattering of virtual protests using online map applications, where people clustering outside government buildings post messages "demanding" more help.

"It feels like a big failure of government right now," Nastya Mikhailova told the BBC from Novosibirsk in Siberia.

The 29-year-old just lost her job in events management and only has savings for a couple of weeks. It is thought coronavirus will wipe out some eight million jobs in Russia, before it's done.

"I don't feel they are really thinking how to make people happy; we are only worried," Nastya said.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Coronavirus medics at a Moscow hospital: Russia's epidemic has not yet peaked

President Putin has ordered an increase in the unemployment benefit, but only to subsistence level.

As for wage support for companies, Russia is offering to cover some 12,000 roubles a month - a far smaller share than many governments in Europe. It only applies if a firm retains 90% of its staff, which for many smaller companies is impossible.

Struggling to pay his own team, the owner of a chain of fitness clubs in Yekaterinburg vented his annoyance, in an online letter to staff.

Alexei Romanov accused Vladimir Putin of being "fixated" on his constitutional reform project rather than the coronavirus crisis. He described Russia's political class as "totally lost".

"The government measures are nowhere near enough, they won't save us," the businessman told the BBC. "I think they're showing incompetence... We can only rely on ourselves."

The Kremlin's spokesman shrugged off a question about the potential political impact of any discontent, saying he disagreed with the very concept.

Vladimir Putin, he stressed, was "working every day to take measures to minimise the negative impact" of the pandemic.

How long that might last is unclear. At one of Anastasia Tatulova's cafes, the tables are still set with salt and pepper and there are giant stuffed bears propped up in some of the seats.

Image caption,
The cafe's stuffed toys are a reminder of happier times

But the doors are firmly shut, with a peak to the epidemic still not in sight. Whatever happens, Ms Tatulova will have no further say in how businesses cope: she was removed from a government advisory group following her unscripted exchange with the president.

"They probably worried what I'd say next," she told us, smiling. "I don't think I said anything offensive, though. It's only what everyone there wanted to tell him."