Weekly 5 April 2021

The Sputnik paradox

Hello! This week our top story is about the low take-up of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine despite it being widely available. We also look at the latest crisis caused by state regulation of food prices, why a famous Russian television presenter had to leave neighboring Georgia in a hurry, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s announcement that he is going on hunger strike

How Russia ended up with an effective vaccine no-one wants

Russia remains the only major state where vaccinations are widely available and easy to access. Despite this, the country is not among the top 40 nations in terms of a vaccinated population. Above all, this is because a lack of faith in the authorities means Russia is finding it extremely hard to persuade the younger generation to get injected.

  • Sputnik V was first made publicly available December 8, 2020. During the first month of distribution, medics and teachers were supposed to be prioritized. In reality, though, from day one, anybody who asked for a vaccine could get one. Today, there are no longer even any formal restrictions. Moscow is the only major city in the world where you can get a shot without queues or appointments: there are vaccination points operating in almost every big shopping mall.
  • Even though Sputnik V was the world’s first authorized vaccine and Russia was among the first countries to start a vaccination program, it lags behind when it comes to vaccination rates. As of April 1, Russia ranked just 50th in terms of proportion of vaccinated people. Only 3.07 percent of the population has received both doses of vaccine — little over half the level in the European Union (5.06 percent), which has been seriously criticized for its sluggish progress.
  • But if Europe’s problem is vaccine supply, in Russia it’s a lack of enthusiasm. A global survey by Gallup in January found Russia was in the top five (out of 47) countries for vaccine skeptics. Just 30 percent of Russians said they would get the jab. Only in North Macedonia, Bosnia and Bulgaria were fewer people interested. A similar survey by independent pollster Levada Center in March found no change – still, only about 30 percent of Russians were willing to take the jab.
  • This is all obvious on the ground. The author of this text received two doses of Sputnik V at a popular shopping mall in March. The first time, he was the only person at a vaccination point with a waiting room for 40 people. The second time, he was one of two patients.
  • Typically, the older generation is more susceptible to anti-vax conspiracy theories, but in Russia it is younger people who are more skeptical (according to the Levada Center, 75 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 63 percent of 25-39-year-olds are unwilling to get the vaccine). These are the same age groups that have the least trust in the authorities.

Why the world should care

The residents of most countries would envy Russians their access to a vaccine. Despite political tub-thumping and a rush for regulatory approval, Sputnik V has proved its effectiveness and there are no indications of serious side-effects. Yet, a widespread lack of faith in the government suggests Russia will face a long wait before it can achieve any kind of herd immunity.

 

State regulation causes deficit problems for food retailers

A government cap on retail prices for key foodstuffs — imposed last year on the orders of President Vladimir Putin — generated its first crisis this week. Retailers complained they were not receiving sufficient quantities of sugar because producers were waiting on promised government subsidies before making sales. If these sort of Soviet-style interventions in the market continue, similar sorts of deficit crises will become ever more common, and could lead to empty store shelves.

  • Sources at Russia’s largest retail chains said sugar producers stopped making sales in the last 10 days of March. The Bell confirmed these stories with representatives of two of Russia’s top five retailers. The retailers said they have just two-week’s sugar supply left in their depots.
  • Along with sunflower oil, sugar was one of the products price capped in December. Putin ordered the measure after prices in Russia began to rise in response to global increases. Putin accused agribusinesses of trying to earn inflated profits and demanded the government step in. 
  • As a result, the government forced producers and retailers to sign up to price caps. For sugar, they fixed the wholesale price at 36 rubles per kilogram and the retail price at 46 rubles per kilogram. That’s roughly 28 percent below market rates. Sugar producers have estimated that the price freeze will cost them 10 billion rubles ($140 million) per year.
  • In mid-March, the government promised to offset these losses to the tune of five rubles per kilogram of sugar (reducing losses by about a half). But in order to access this money, sugar producers must change their relationship with retailers. We’re still waiting for the details of how the subsidy scheme will work, but as soon as the plan was announced producers stopped selling to avoid unsubsidized losses.
  • Publicly, retailers and producers blamed each other for the crisis. Behind closed doors, however, they pointed the finger at the government. “They did all this for the sake of 30 rubles (40 cents) per person each month,” one senior manager at a leading sugar producer complained to The Bell, referring to the projected savings for consumers as a result of the price caps.
  • Businesses are urging the state to avoid wrecking the market with regulation, and instead offer food stamps for the poor. Politically, though, this would not be popular. Instead, this week brought confirmation that the price caps are here to stay: the restrictions on the cost of sugar were extended until June — and on sunflower oil until September.

Why the world should care

Russia is far from being the ‘next Venezuela’, and the current problems will likely be resolved quickly. But this story illustrates the ‘domino effect’ of moving to non-market regulation. To avoid shortages, the government is obliged to come up with new measure after new measure. However, these new measures bring problems of their own – and each new round of difficulties becomes more byzantine. In the end, it’s conceivable that empty shelves could, one day, become a reality.

 

Russian TV presenter chased out of Georgia

One of Russia’s best-known TV personalities, Vladimir Pozner, flew to Georgia on Wednesday to celebrate his 87th birthday. But the festivities ended in an international incident as the party was crashed by protesters from Georgia’s opposition and Pozner and his guests fled back to Moscow.

What happened?

Pozner reportedly flew to Gerorgian capital Tbilisi with several dozen friends on a private charter (direct flights between Russia and Georgia ceased in 2019 due to a diplomatic spat). When Pozner and his guests went for dinner at one of Tbilisi’s fashionable hotels, opposition politicians and activists gathered outside, pelting the hotel with raw eggs, banging and whistling. They even managed to briefly turn off the power, and daubed ‘Get out of Georgia!’ on the sidewalk. In the end, Pozner and his guests had to return to the airport under police guard and fly back to Russia.

What’s the issue?

The protestors said Pozner should not be allowed into Georgia because he was a ‘Kremlin propagandist’ who supports the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. They cited, for example, a 2017 interview with a Georgian TV station in which Pozner claimed he has witnessed how relations between Georgians and Abkhaz are irreconcilably bad. “Georgians said the Abkhaz had barely made it out of the trees, that they were an inferior breed. I remember that very clearly,” he said. These sorts of comments touch on a very sore point for many Georgians, who are bitterly critical of Russian support for Abkhaz separatism.

Adding fuel to the fire, Pozner and his companions were in breach of coronavirus restrictions (in particular, Tbilisi’s 9 pm curfew). The hotel where the birthday dinner took places has been fined 10,000 Lari ($2,920) and Georgian police said Pozner and his party were also fined. Of course, many ordinary people also break the rules, but they rarely do it so blatantly. 

Who is Vladimir Pozner?

Pozner has worked on Russian television for many years, starting in the Soviet period. Today, he is best known for an interview show broadcast on state-owned Channel 1. His cultured style is far removed from the slavish propaganda of his notorious colleagues like Vladimir Solovyov or Dmitry Kiselyov. Pozner was born in France to a French mother and a ‘White’ emigrant from Russia. He grew up in France, Germany and the United States, arriving in the Soviet Union when he was a student.

He began his media career in the 1960s and was something of a spokesperson for the Soviets. A regular guest commentator in Western media, he would try to explain and justify the behavior of the Soviet authorities: for example, the deployment of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. In the late 1980s, he hosted ‘teleconferences’ with U.S. audiences, leading some of his Russian colleagues to denounce him for his anti-Soviet attitudes. In the 2010s, Pozner was co-presenter of a show on independent Russian network Dozhd but didn’t last long: his bosses at Channel 1 told him to choose one employer.

Pozner has never been an outright propagandist, nor an outright liberal. He has spoken out against the propaganda of the Orthodox Church and Russia’s 2014 law banning  ‘promoting homosexuality’. But, at the same time, he has backed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approachfor gay mena nd women. And when asked about Russia’s constitutional amendments last year that allow Putin to remain president until 2036, Pozner responded he did not like being asked to vote on all the amendments at the same time (saying nothing specifically about Putin). It’s unsursprising, therefore, that Pozner sees no contradiction in supporting Abkhaz independence while regularly celebrating his birthday in Tbilisi.

As a result of his views, some regard Pozner as a symbol of conservative common sense, while others see him as a shrewd opportunist, skilled at serving two masters and telling people what they want to hear.

Reaction

Pozner himself has not commented on the events and told journalists that the people who orchestrated the demonstrations are not worthy of attention. However, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov waded into the controversy and said Russia “strongly condemns the aggressive actions of extreme nationalists”. The Georgian Prime Minister also criticized the protesters.

Peskov added that Georgia is a dangerous destination for Russians, but it’s hard to agree with this: Georgia is one of the most popular spots for Russian tourists and there is absolutely no evidence of widespread anti-Russian sentiment.

Why the world should care

Taken in isolation, this isn’t a big deal. But it shows how public opinion is changing in different parts of the former Soviet Union. If, in Russia, it remains possible to serve two masters, in neighboring countries this is less and less viable. Increasingly, you have to make a choice.

 

IN BRIEF

Navalny on hunger strike

Following a deterioration in his health, opposition leader Alexei Navalny announced Wednesday that he will go on hunger strike until he is seen by a non-prison doctor. The Kremlin and the Federal Prison Service have insisted that everything is fine despite reports from Navalny’s lawyers that his health is suffering. They say Navalny is the victim of deliberate sleep deprivation and risks losing a leg. 

Instead of a doctor, Navalny had a visit this week from Maria Butina, who served a jail sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of spying for Russia. Today, Butina is an RT reporter and a member of the Public Chamber. Apart from her, nobody from the outside world has been in contact with Navalny since he began his sentence. “He looks perfectly OK, not at all like someone who is being denied sleep – and I can judge this thanks to my own experience in a U.S. prison,” Butina told viewers after her visit to the penal colony. The Alliance of Doctors trade union is threatening to stage a rally outside the prison walls in the coming weeks if one of its members is not allowed in to see Navalny.