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From their dacha in Luzhki, near Moscow, Gennady Matveiev and his wife, Galina, watch President Vladimir Putin's TV address on May 9, the 75th anniversary of Russia's victory over Nazi Germany. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the parades and services at local monuments the Matveievs usually attend each year. It has also been a political nightmare for Mr. Putin, whose poll numbers have dropped.

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Dagestan, a mountainous region in the south of Russia, has a centuries-long history of rebelling against rules set in faraway Moscow. This time, the revolt came in the form of the region’s Health Minister telling the truth about the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Officially, 29 people in Dagestan have died as a result of the pandemic, a figure in line with the rest of Russia – which, despite having more than 325,000 COVID-19 cases, the second-highest number of any country, has recorded a fatality rate of just below 1 per cent. That compares with a fatality rate of 6 per cent in the United States and 7.5 per cent in Canada.

Health Minister Dzhamaludin Gadzhiibragimov said that, at least in his region, the numbers have been systematically deflated, with the real number more than 20 times higher.

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That revelation has thrown into question the real death toll across Russia from an outbreak that is rapidly turning into a political nightmare for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin had been planning on a triumphant spring, with an April referendum that could have extended his reign by another 12 years followed by a massive military parade in May in Red Square. Instead, both have been postponed, and the Kremlin is now grappling with growing discontent that threatens to turn into unrest.

The Levada Centre, an independent pollster based in Moscow, found Mr. Putin’s approval rating at 59 per cent in April – a drop of 10 points since February and an even steeper dive from a year ago, when it stood at 82 per cent. Though still high by Western standards, it represents the lowest level of support for Mr. Putin since he first became President on Jan. 1, 2000.

Mr. Putin – who normally creates the impression that he makes all the important decisions in Russia – has seemed strangely absent during the COVID-19 crisis, allowing regional governors to dominate the newscasts by making announcements about the measures to be taken to fight the pandemic.

Most vexing, in the eyes of many Russians, has been the Kremlin’s refusal to bail out companies that have been hit hard by the lockdown ordered on March 28 to help slow the spread of the disease. While many European governments have introduced furlough schemes that in some cases cover as much as 80 per cent of employees’ salaries during the lockdown, an aid package introduced in April by the Kremlin pays only the equivalent of the minimum wage, with the money accessible only to select companies.

Though Russia’s lockdown means street protests are impossible at the moment, Alexey Navalny, the country’s most prominent opposition figure, said “rage” was brewing in Russian society over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

“Right now the degree of protest activity among citizens is probably one of the highest in recent times,” he told the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in a video interview from his Moscow home this week. “Such rage is brewing now among those that earlier were not visible in protest activity or direct politics. These are doctors, representatives of small business and ordinary people that are now without an income.”

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In St. Petersburg, a woman walks past the local health department office, where a makeshift memorial shows front-line workers who died of COVID-19.

Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

Mr. Putin has often seemed disinterested in the details of Russia’s response to the pandemic – distractedly fiddling with his pen during video meetings with the country’s governors – even as the illness has struck his inner circle. His personal spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Kremlin ally, are both being treated in hospital for COVID-19. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin returned to work Tuesday after his own three-week bout with the disease.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said support for Mr. Putin’s rule had been eroding before the pandemic. Discontent began rising two years ago when the Kremlin introduced unpopular pension reforms that pushed back the retirement age. “Now the situation is degrading faster,” she said.

With an eye to addressing the souring mood, Russia began a phased reopening of its economy this week, lifting some restrictions in 27 of the sprawling country’s 85 regions, even though it continues to record almost 10,000 new cases per day.

Major outbreaks have been recorded in Russia’s prisons and military, as well as at the massive Olimpiada gold mine in Siberia, where some 900 of 6,000 miners – who live in cramped, on-site conditions – tested positive for the coronavirus this month. Soldiers have been deployed to the region to construct a temporary hospital, even as the mine continues to operate.

Russia’s health service has also been hit hard. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said this month that about 2,000 medics in the capital have been infected. And there have been large outbreaks among health care workers in other cities too. Officially, 70 medics across the country have died from the disease. Russian health care workers say the real number is much higher, and there have been reports of mass resignations, as well as several suspected suicides.

In a sign of his detachment, Mr. Putin promised in April to top up the paltry salaries of health care staff with monthly bonuses ranging from US$340 for orderlies to US$1,100 for doctors. But little of that money appears to have been paid out, leaving doctors and nurses to post bitter photos of their paycheques – with bonuses of between US$2 and US$120 – on social media.

Medical workers in Armavir record a video appeal to Mr. Putin on May 16, urging him to pay the bonuses he promised them. It was one of dozens of similar gestures that weekend.

Grigory Kramchanin via AP/The Associated Press

The only topic that seems to interest Mr. Putin is the push to return things to normal as soon as possible. “Over the past weeks, all our efforts have been aimed first and foremost at pushing back against the coronavirus epidemic,” he said in a televised videoconference with scientists and officials last week. “The situation is changing now, and this gives us an opportunity to once again focus on our current and long-term agenda.”

The uncertainty that hangs over the statistics makes it difficult to know whether or not Russia is indeed pushing through the peak of its outbreak.

Mr. Gadzhiibragimov told a local journalist this week that the real number of coronavirus deaths in Dagestan was 657. While Russian officials have said the low mortality rate nationwide is the result of early and aggressive testing, Mr. Gadzhiibragimov said just the opposite: Dagestan’s official coronavirus figures are inaccurate due to the low level of testing in the region.

Since Dagestani hospitals didn’t have the ability to test many of the patients they were treating, Mr. Gadzhiibragimov said many deaths had simply been attributed to pneumonia, an illness that has many of the same symptoms as COVID-19 – and in fact is a complication of the new disease.

“Basically, the same [treatment] is used for both,” he said in a YouTube interview with Dagestani journalist Ruslan Kurbanov. “But because we do not have lab test confirmation, the statistics are being compiled in that way.”

He also said more than 13,000 people in Dagestan had contracted COVID-19 – about 10,000 more than the official number.

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Mr. Putin speaks with officials from Dagestan in a May 18 videoconference from his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow.

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP/The Associated Press

The Health Minister’s decision to go public was interpreted as a cry for help for Dagestan’s health care system, which he said had seen 40 medical staff die with COVID-19-like symptoms.

The chief mufti of the largely Muslim region told Mr. Putin via videoconference this week that Dagestan was facing a “catastrophe.” Mr. Putin replied that the pandemic had been “especially difficult” in Dagestan and promised the region would receive more help.

But there is evidence that the underreporting of pandemic deaths is a nationwide issue. In Moscow, which recorded just 642 COVID-19 fatalities in April, official statistics show an unexplained leap of more than 1,700 in the overall number of recorded deaths, compared with the average of the previous five years. Meduza, an independent media outlet, reported Friday that more than a third of 509 Russian doctors who answered questions on an app called “Doctor’s Handbook” said they had been pressured to adjust coronavirus statistics.

Mr. Sobyanin said Wednesday that the death rate in the capital would be “significantly” higher in May than in April. Moscow reported 150 deaths Friday – a single-day record.

Vladislav Inozemtsev, a Russia specialist at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the real death toll nationwide is likely two or three times higher than has been reported.

“They have very bad testing for coronavirus. You can be admitted to hospital and it takes a week or 10 days for the test to come back. If you die in this time, you will be diagnosed as having died from pneumonia or something else,” Mr. Inozemtsev said in a telephone interview. “Even if they know for sure that it’s coronavirus, the officials produce absolutely false numbers to impress higher officials – as was the case in Dagestan, I would say.”

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Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases

Per million people, rolling seven-day average

100

80

U.S

Russia

60

Britain

40

Canada

20

Italy

0

Dec. 31

Feb. 10

March 21

May 21

2019

2020

Daily confirmed COVID-19 deaths

Per million people, rolling seven-day average

14

12

10

8

6

Britain

U.S.

4

Italy

Canada

2

Russia

0

Dec. 31

Feb. 10

March 21

May 21

2019

2020

Note: Limited testing and challenges in the attribution of the

cause of death means that the number of confirmed deaths

may not be an accurate count of the true number of deaths

from COVID-19.

john sopinski/the globe and mail; Source:

our world in data (data via European CDC,

last updated May 21)

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases

Per million people, rolling seven-day average

100

80

U.S

Russia

60

Britain

40

Canada

20

Italy

0

Dec. 31

Feb. 10

March 21

May 21

2019

2020

Daily confirmed COVID-19 deaths

Per million people, rolling seven-day average

14

12

10

8

6

Britain

U.S.

4

Italy

Canada

2

Russia

0

Dec. 31

Feb. 10

March 21

May 21

2019

2020

Note: Limited testing and challenges in the attribution of the cause of death

means that the number of confirmed deaths may not be an accurate count

of the true number of deaths from COVID-19.

john sopinski/the globe and mail; Source: our world

in data (data via European CDC, last updated May 21)

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases

Per million people, rolling seven-day average

100

80

U.S

Russia

60

Britain

40

Canada

20

Italy

0

Dec. 31

Feb. 10

March 21

May 21

2019

2020

Daily confirmed COVID-19 deaths

Per million people, rolling seven-day average

14

12

10

8

6

Britain

U.S.

4

Italy

Canada

2

Russia

0

Dec. 31

Feb. 10

March 21

May 21

2019

2020

Note: Limited testing and challenges in the attribution of the cause of death means that the number of

confirmed deaths may not be an accurate count of the true number of deaths from COVID-19.

john sopinski/the globe and mail; Source: our world in data

(data via European CDC, last updated May 21)

The doubt enveloping Russia’s real COVID-19 death toll is only one of the reasons why Mr. Putin’s popularity is plummeting. More concerning to many Russians has been the lack of government intervention as the country’s economy, hit hard by both the pandemic and collapsing oil prices, slides into what looks likely to become a punishing recession.

The US$4-billion stimulus package the Kremlin announced in April is dwarfed not only by the US$2-trillion in coronavirus relief working its way through the system in the U.S. but also by a US$550-billion rescue package proposed for the European Union, as well as a US$260-billion package that’s being rolled out in India, a country with a per capita GDP just one-fifth of Russia’s and which has seen a much smaller coronavirus outbreak. (Canada’s federal economic support package is worth $107-billion, or about US$77-billion.)

Russia’s inaction is particularly striking given that the Kremlin sits on a sovereign wealth fund, accumulated when oil prices were higher, that was worth US$157.2-billion at the end of March.

Analysts say the Kremlin’s reluctance to spend that cash is tied up in Mr. Putin’s political aims. Earlier this year, he unveiled proposed constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in office for another 12 years after the end of his current term in 2024, and much of the reserve money is believed to be earmarked for legacy projects.

“Putin wants to save the National Wealth Fund for later, but in the short term he also wants to prevent social discontent that would affect his [popularity] rating,” said Nabi Abdullayev, a Moscow-based political analyst with the Control Risks consultancy. “The pressure is not so much on the system but on Putin’s strategic thinking.”

The coronavirus has already turned some of Mr. Putin’s plans on end. The pandemic has forced the postponement of both an April 22 referendum to approve the constitutional changes and a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9. The Kremlin had ambitions to lure Western leaders to the latter event, hoping the celebration of Second World War co-operation would pave the way to a lifting of some of the sanctions that Canada, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed on Russia since its 2014 seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

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Even as coronavirus case numbers continue to rise in the country, the Kremlin is looking for new dates to hold the referendum and the military parade. The expectation is that the referendum will be held as soon as possible – perhaps in June or July – before the full scale of the postpandemic economic crisis sets in.

“He has to hold the referendum. He cannot cancel it, and the faster he holds it, the better the result will be, so the Presidential Administration will organize it as fast as possible,” said Ms. Stanovaya. “The Kremlin is really afraid that they will face some protests in the autumn. Nobody knows how this will go.”

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

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