By John Helmer, Moscow
When it comes to influencing how Russians will vote, the Anglo-American Navalny operation isn’t a patch on the Russian sense of humour. No amount of money which the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Anglo-American info-warfare units can throw at Russians can compete, let alone overcome it.
But it is no joke that the President’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced this week that people who refuse to get vaccinated “pose a threat to others” and deserve to be punished. That’s almost two-thirds of the country, according to the latest Levada Centre poll.
What Peskov means is that popular resistance to vaccination is a threat to the pro-government vote for the national parliament on September 19.
On May 19, before the new wave of infections with the Indian, Delta or Delta Plus variant began to be reported, the independent Levada Centre in Moscow published a nationwide poll, conducted during the last week of April, showing the proportion of Russians saying they are not afraid of catching Covid-19 has been steadily dropping since last October.
Almost two-thirds of the population said they are resisting all measures of media influence and government pressure to accept the Sputnik V vaccine. Preaching to the unconverted isn’t working.
“62% of respondents,” Levada reported, “are not ready to be vaccinated with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. This figure remains unchanged since February 2021, but the number of vaccine supporters has declined slightly over the year. A quarter of respondents (26%) are willing to vaccinate, slightly less than in February (30%), with 10% of respondents saying they have already vaccinated. It appears that the number of supporters of vaccinations is decreasing primarily at the expense of those who have been vaccinated.”
Levada failed to ask its sample to say if they had tested positive for the virus or had their antibody level measured, or if they have recovered from symptomatic Covid-19. The official data suggest that 146 million tests have been carried out in Russia; 5.4 million positive cases have been recorded; there have been 4.9 million recoveries, 130,400 deaths.
In practice, most Russians do not believe what the official reports claim, nor what the state and commercial media, radio and television have been telling them on Covid-19, vaccines, everything. Russian distrust of all media was already high before the pandemic year began: comparing Russian distrust of media with American sentiment, it is clear Russians are less trusting, more skeptical. Comparing European country measures of trust in media, Russians are by far the most distrustful of their media; read more.
Unmeasured still is how much more distrusting of media Russians have become as an outcome of the official persuasion campaigns of the Kremlin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. For a report of the early official successes, read this from March 30, 2020, before the first wave commenced; and this from just after the peak of that wave — May 14, 2020.
The slang lyrics, the singing style in imitation of Vladimir Vysotsky, and the joking at the expense of Putin, Sobyanin and their band – Dmitry Medvedev (saxophone), Igor Sechin (second guitar), Valentina Matviyenko (maracas), Alexander Beglov (St Petersburg Governor, drums) — are all part of the popularity of the song clip for “Where are my antibodies?” (lead image) . But there can’t be any mistake – this is popular resistance.
Yesterday I had a dream like in a fairy tale,
Moscow has been vaccinated entirely.
Off with the gloves, off with the masks.
Everyone is walking barefaced.
The panacea runs through your veins,
And the pubs are crowded.
Lenin was vaccinated in the mausoleum.
Come on, dream, come back again.
Moscow, tell me, where are your antibodies?
After all, we poured money into the vaccination.
I’ll raffle a Lada Granta, come on!
Yes, not one, but five,
Just make the jab.
I’ll raffle for the vaccination
Loot, crap, Kuznetsky Most,
Curbs, tiles, a hut on the edge [of the village],
This damn mayoral post.
I’m tired of living always bent over.
Hey, Moscow, eat me!
Save me, Comrade Putin,
And let me go [back] to Tyumen.
Moscow, tell me, damn it,
What kind of business is this!
Moscow, where your antibodies merged.
Get your forearm ready,
It’s not a request, it’s an order.
We will defeat COVID again,
For the umpteenth time.
In this context, Peskov responded in defence of new measures by the city governments in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and also by federal ministries, to compel workers to accept vaccination or lose their pay and jobs; also to prohibit restaurants from accepting customers without vaccination confirmations in QR code. “The reality is that discrimination will inevitably occur,” Peskov told a Moscow newspaper yesterday. “’People without immunity, people without vaccination will not be able to work in all areas. It’s impossible. This will pose a threat to others.’ He added that people without immunity to the virus will fall into a less favourable position than people with antibodies to the virus. ‘This is the reality we live in. We will have to live in it for the foreseeable future,’ Peskov said.”
In the foreseeable future — that’s the twelve weeks between now and September 19, the scheduled date for national elections to the State Duma — the problem Kremlin officials can see in their polling of voter intention is that the proportion who say they are reluctant to vote or will refuse to turn out is between 40% and 50%. Allowing for traditional reticence on this point among Russian voters to reveal their intentions to pollsters, the size of the negative or protest vote may be as large as the two-thirds majority who say they refuse to be vaccinated.
If that is the case – and this is such a sensitive issue public polling companies like Levada aren’t likely to measure and report it – then the political paradox facing the Kremlin becomes clear. If Putin for the country, and Sobyanin for Moscow, press too hard on vaccination, the voter protest vote or non-vote will jump out of control. If they don’t press hard enough, the virus will go out of control.
In his first election rally of the season on June 19, Putin told a congress of the United Russia party that he is campaigning on getting past Covid-19, focusing on medical spending for everything else. “The most important task of healthcare today is not only to defeat a disease,” the president said, “but also to do everything so that a patient can return to an active and full life. Let us face it, the system of medical rehabilitation after surgery, injuries, cardiovascular and oncological diseases has to be improved. Today, this task is especially relevant, given that many of our citizens have faced serious complications after going down with COVID-19.”
“I am in constant contact with specialists. Just recently, during an award ceremony in the Kremlin, I spoke with them again. The consequences of the disease caused by the coronavirus are still being studied. This is not only damage to the lungs, but also vascular lesions, and specialists still have to figure out what this ultimately will lead to. Let me remind you once again that it is better to get vaccinated than to get sick. This is the opinion of the leading specialists in our country and in the world.”
Falling one week before the German parliamentary elections, Russia’s vote will be the first in Europe to test whether voters will agree with the ruling powers, or vote against them in protest. “This is a big unknown and a challenge which all parties face everywhere,” a veteran Moscow political observer comments. “The vaccine hesitancy in India disappeared overnight when the second wave hit. The Kremlin response has been to show more and more images from hospitals and top culture and sports figures are giving interviews. Many of those who spread anti-vaccination videos are retracting on TV. It’s not having much effect. But I expect that with the compulsion program in Moscow, and Sobyanin doing the heavy lifting, people will come around. Once the Indian variant or Delta Plus starts spreading, as it did like wildfire in India, people will vaccinate. Will they punish United Russia [the ruling party] and vote communist, I don’t think so. There is no alternative. The turnout will be low. But it won’t change anything.”