In a dramatic turn of events, four Russian governors resigned over 24 hours on April 2 and 3 -- in the Archangelsk region, the Republic of Komi, the Kamchatsky region and the Nenets Autonomous region.
These resignations coincided with or followed after President Vladimir Putin’s COVID-19 address to the nation on April 2.
Putin accepted all four resignations, and appointed temporary replacements, pending approval by the local parliaments. Meantime, the governors all claimed they left voluntarily for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus.
Those claims, and state news reports echoing them, were disputed by independent news outlets and other sources.
Russia’s handling of the pandemic and its statistics showing a relatively low number of infections and deaths are widely considered suspect. Critics say Putin has offered Russian aid to the U.S. and Italy to secure a propaganda victory.
The COVID-19 Chronology
Putin’s April 2 speech was his second national address on the subject. Both were pre-recorded from the Kremlin.
In his first address, delivered on March 25, Putin said Russia had contained the coronavirus thanks to “preemptive measures.” He promised a paid vacation for all workers from March 28 to April 5 and postponed a national referendum on changes to the Russian constitution, including those allowing him to serve as president for another 12 years. He said the financial burden and responsibility for the COVID-19 response belonged to local governments.
At the time of Putin’s first address, the number of officially reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-Cov-2, in Russia was in the hundreds. Still, some criticized Putin for not declaring a national emergency.
Others questioned the accuracy of the official coronavirus statistics.
But no resignations followed.
Then, on April 2, Putin declared that the nationwide vacation he had ordered gave authorities time to mobilize for the peak of the pandemic.
More relevant to the resignations, he said not all local governments had used this time with maximum efficiency.
Putin said he would delegate more authority to the governors given that each region has different needs and can decide what kind of restrictive measures are needed to curb the virus.
The four governors quit in a matter of hours. None mentioned coronavirus; instead, all similarly chalked it up to their failures to keep promises to their constituents and said they were resigning voluntarily.
State-owned media likewise then reported that the resignations had nothing to do with COVID-19 or with Putin’s coronavirus announcements.
Valery Raenko, the speaker of the Kamchatsky Krai parliament, told the Interfax news agency: “It can be said with certainty that Vladimir Ivanovich’s [Ilyukhin] decision has nothing to do with the coronavirus."
Conflicting Media Accounts
That claim is suspect.
The communist Svobodnaya Pressa and the RBC.ru business news agency, which is partially owned by the state gas giant Gasprom, reported that the resignations were connected with the governors’ handling the coronavirus response.
Rospotrebnadzor, a Russian government agency overseeing epidemiology and public health issues, had criticized the Kamchatsky regional governor, Vladimir Ilyukhin, on April 1 for inefficient response to the outbreak, RBC reported.
According to Svobodnaya Pressa, top lawmakers in the Putin’s Yedinaya Rossiya political party criticized all four governors for mishandling the coronavirus.
Public mistrust in Russia’s official COVID-19 statistics has been growing.
The independent news outlet Medusa.io asked why Russian health authorities published the same number of completed coronavirus tests for three consecutive days.
Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of Russia’s medical workers’ union, who accused the authorities of covering up the true coronavirus statistics, has reportedly been arrested twice and physically attacked for her activities.
According to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Russia reported a little over 4,000 people infected and 34 dead from COVID-19 by April 3.