What followed was a horrific year for Russia, and perhaps Putin’s most challenging year yet.
When Covid-19 began spreading around the world, Russia briefly seemed to be on top. The country closed its borders with China, and Putin boasted that the virus was “under control”, thanks to what he called strong early measures to stop the spread of the disease.
But this approach was little more than hustle and bustle. Not long after the government announced a nationwide lockdown that began on March 28, it turned out that the country was in the grip of a major public health crisis.
The government had to postpone the referendum on constitutional changes.
Doubts have grown over how well the Kremlin has handled the pandemic and whether it is on par with the Russian public about the severity of the crisis.
Russia’s economic situation was also poor. The country was mired in a recession caused by the Coronavirus, exacerbated by low global prices for oil, which is one of the main exports.
These deep economic pressures threatened to derail the political program of the ruling United Russia party by exposing the deep weaknesses in the social pact that kept Putin in power for two decades.
Putin’s political toughness is often attributed to a simple bargain between himself and his countrymen: acceptance of limited political competition in exchange for stability and steady increases in the standard of living. Amid the pandemic, however, that bargain began to unravel.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, refused to step down, and his security forces brutally treat and detain thousands of Belarusians, leaving the Kremlin to face the uncomfortable scenario of citizens in a neighboring country and a close ally that refuses to play side by side with a fictitious democracy the Russian-style.
The Kremlin succeeded in holding a nationwide referendum that led to constitutional changes, aided by a nationwide campaign to obtain votes, a public holiday, and the mobilization of the country’s large state sector, which accounts for a large portion of the workforce.
Navalny was leading a campaign called “Smart Vote” – an effort to get votes for the local election candidates who had the best chances of defeating the United Russia candidates.
The Kremlin critic was eventually transferred to Berlin for treatment, after Russian doctors initially insisted that the opposition leader was too sick to make the trip.
The Kremlin has denied any attempt to harm Nafalni, and Russian state television has spun a bunch of conspiracy theories to explain the apparent assassination attempt.
But the Russian government was met with quick criticism from international leaders, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “There are very serious questions now that only the Russian government can answer.”
In fact, Navalny’s poisoning destroyed much of the goodwill that Russia had sought to build internationally amid the pandemic.
The Russian government has also thrown its weight behind efforts to develop a vaccine for the Coronavirus, a project that has become a matter of national prestige.
The outbreak of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region further test the Russian government’s crisis management skills in 2020.
While the short but severely bloody fighting ended with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, the ceasefire agreement also demonstrated the regional influence of Turkey. Russia is no longer the only indispensable power in the post-Soviet space.
The Kremlin flag is an imprecise one, but as 2020 draws to a close, one wonders if Putin will reconsider those clear plans to stay as president until 2036.
The bill in no way signifies the Russian president’s imminent departure from office – after all, Putin is a man who likes to keep his options open.
But to some observers, the bill was reminiscent of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s sudden handover of power to then prime minister Putin on New Year’s Eve, 1999. One of Putin’s first acts as president was to sign a degree that would grant Yeltsin immunity.
So the tense and difficult end of this year is likely to leave enthusiastic Russian observers watching for any new surprises in the new year from Putin.