Can Putin weather COVID?

Can Putin weather COVID?

This is not the 2020 that Vladimir Putin had in mind.

As the year started, Russia's president was crafting plans for changes to the constitution that would permit him to stay in power for (at least) another 16 years. A rubber stamp public referendum was to be held in April. Then, in May, he was to welcome foreign leaders to Moscow for a grand celebration (parades, concerts, fireworks, and a reviewing stand atop Lenin's Mausoleum) marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union's triumph over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War.


Instead, the coronavirus crisis barged in and wrecked those nice, late-stage authoritarian plans.

Early in the pandemic, seeing unusually low numbers in Russia, Putin claimed that things were "under control." But even after he changed tack and declared a "national paid vacation" (that's Russian for "lockdown") in March, Russia now has the second highest number of confirmed cases in the world, after the United States. And the official stats are so at odds with what health workers are reporting that it looks like officials are covering up the true extent of the disease's spread.

The anniversary ceremony was cancelled, of course. And the referendum has been postponed indefinitely. Putin will have to think carefully about whether holding the vote in the middle of this crisis is really a good idea.

The economy is set to shrink by more than 5 percent, the largest contraction since the financial crisis of 2009. A collapsing oil price may force the Russian government to reach deep into its (sizable) cash reserves to bail out businesses, send pensions, and pay the salaries of state workers. (30% of Russian workers are paid, directly or indirectly, by the state.)

His approval rating, meanwhile, has now fallen to 59% — its lowest point since 2000, the first year of his presidency. By comparison, after his widely adored invasion of Ukraine in 2014, his rating shot up to the mid 80s. A botched pension reform last year already took some of the stuffing out of that number.

Putin has weathered crises before terrorist attacks in the early 2000s and the 2009 economic collapse come to mind. He has also shrewdly turned them to his advantage, as he did by stoking trouble in Ukraine.

Is his system built for this? Putin has shaped a deeply corrupt and uncertain system in which power flows from the top down — officials look mainly to please their bosses rather than their constituents. And he has carefully cultivated an almost cinematic image of himself as a man-of-action, defending Russia's interests, and making it "great again," you might say. Smart economic policies mean that the government always has a huge rainy day fund to keep the wheels spinning.

But managing a public health crisis requires more than just cash, yes-men, and photo-ops. It demands competent bureaucrats capable of making sound decisions on their own, a reliable flow of accurate information, and a responsive leadership. So far in this crisis, Putin has looked at best uninformed and at worst impotent. And it's hard for him to blame the usual suspects (the Americans) for this mess, try as he might.

If the death rates that people can see – as opposed to the ones reported in suspect numbers – continue to rise, Putin may have a much bigger problem on his hands than reshuffling his agenda for 2020.

And this just in…Ramzan Kadyrov, the eccentrically cruel warlord who runs Chechnya for Putin, has been flown to a hospital in Moscow after developing COVID-19 symptoms. If Kadyrov, who has been called "Putin's dragon," were to leave the scene, the brutal peace that he has imposed on Chechnya could come apart fast, with big consequences for Russia more broadly.

Building on its previous commitment, Walmart is investing an additional $350 billion in products made, grown and assembled in America - supporting more than 750,000 new jobs by 2030. This pledge will aim to avoid more than 100M metric tons of CO2 emissions, advance the growth of U.S. based suppliers, and provide opportunities for more than 9,000 entrepreneurs to become Walmart suppliers and sellers through Walmart's annual Open Call.

China's GDP grew a lower-than-expected 4.9 percent year-on-year in the third quarter of 2021, a whopping three percentage points less than in the previous period. It's a big deal for the world's second-largest economy, the only major one that expanded throughout the pandemic — and now at risk of missing its growth target of 6 percent for the entire year.

Normally, such a drastic slowdown would have put the ruling Communist Party in a tizzy. But this time, Xi Jinping knows this is the price he must pay for his big plans to curb rising inequality and boost the middle class at the expense of the CCP's traditional economic mantra: high growth above all else.

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Religious tension rising in Bangladesh: Clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh have surged over the past week, leaving at least four people dead. After an image was posted on Facebook showing the Quran at the feet of a statue at a Hindu temple, Muslims burned Hindu-owned homes and attacked their holy sites. Both sides have taken to the street in protest, with Hindus saying that they have been prevented from celebrating Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in the country. Such acts of sectarian violence are not uncommon in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country where Hindus account for nine percent of the population. Indeed, as Eurasia Group's Kevin Allison recently warned, unverified social media content stoking inter-ethnic conflict is a massive problem throughout South Asia, where for many people Facebook is synonymous with the internet.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Read Ian Bremmer's wide-ranging essay in Foreign Affairs that puts in perspective both the challenge, and the opportunity, that comes from the unprecedented power of Big Tech.

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here on the road, something we haven't done very much recently, but will increasingly as we try to move through COVID. And I want to talk to you about a new article that I just put out in Foreign Affairs that I'm calling "The Technopolar Moment." Not unipolar, not bipolar, not multipolar, technopolar. What the hell does technopolar mean?

It means that increasingly big technology companies are themselves geopolitical actors. So to understand the future of the world, you can't just look at the United States, Europe and China. You need to look at the big tech companies, too.

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China gets away with a lot these days in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. That's because over the past decade, its economy has experienced explosive growth, making it an indispensable trading partner for almost every country in the world. At the same time, China has been expanding its share of the global economy, and is now set to overtake the US as the world's biggest economic powerhouse in the near term. We take a look at China's annual growth rate and share of the global economy based on GDP over the past decade.

The European Union is, for better or worse, the most ambitious experiment in human history in institutionalized multinational cooperation. Its success depends on the willingness of its members to abide by its rules.

In recent years, the populist-nationalist governments of former Communist bloc members Hungary and Poland have flouted some of those rules in order to boost their own popularity with citizens suspicious of the EU's liberal values on issues like immigration and minority rights. In response, the EU has scolded these "illiberal" governments and threatened forceful action – so far without much effect.

The fight between EU institutions and Poland and Hungary has escalated.

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

What is the legacy of Colin Powell?

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell tragically died of complications of COVID-19. He was the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first Black National Security Advisor and the first Black Secretary of State. And he leaves a legacy of a long career, dedicated almost entirely to public service.

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Can this guy defeat Viktor Orban? Hungary's opposition movement of odd bedfellows has finally settled on the person they think has the best chance of defeating PM Viktor Orbán at the ballot box: Péter Márki-Zay, a politically conservative small-town mayor from southeastern Hungary, who beat out left-leaning European Parliament member Klara Dobrev in a weekend poll. Márki-Zay has a lot going for him: as a devout Catholic and father of seven it will be hard for the ultraconservative Orbán to paint him as a progressive threat, even as Márki-Zay reaches out to reassure left-leaning groups that he will protect LGBTQ rights. What's more, Márki-Zay has little political baggage: until recently he was a marketing executive. But can the relatively inexperienced Márki-Zay keep the various opposition factions happy? The stakes couldn't be higher: since taking power more than a decade ago, Orbán has deliberately made Hungary into an "illiberal" state, cracking down on the press, undermining the rule of law, and clashing with the EU. Bonus: if Márki-Zay stays in the news, you get to say "Hódmezővásárhely" the name of the city he currently runs.

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Colin Powell's legacy

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