MOSCOW —Muscovites got a four-hour notice Sunday night on a sweeping quarantine that will keep them inside their homes unless they are walking a pet, taking out the trash or visiting the nearest grocery store. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s decree did not take effect until midnight, but the confusion was immediate.
Within an hour, prominent Russian lawmaker Andrei Klishas questioned the legality of Sobyanin’s order, arguing that only federal authorities could impose such restrictions. While some state media said there was not a curfew for the Moscow region, video of police announcing one from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. circulated on social media.
It capped a week of mixed messaging from Russian authorities on the coronavirus pandemic, as President Vladimir Putin has delegated enacting tough measures to others. He has been silent as Moscow has declared a stricter quarantine than most European cities, prompting one blogger for the popular Echo of Moscow independent radio station to wonder whether Sobyanin is now making the key decisions for Russia.
“It’s a natural separation of responsibilities for Putin, who is the czar and the father of the nation who can contribute only the good news,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, chairman of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
For a country spanning two continents ravaged by the pandemic, Russia has a relatively low number of confirmed cases: 1,836. But the number of new cases per day has been steadily increasing, with Monday’s 302 new diagnoses setting another high.
In a televised speech Wednesday, Putin addressed the country’s coronavirus response for the first time, postponing a vote on constitutional amendments and declaring paid time off this week for the whole country. But Putin stopped short of mandatory commercial closures or stay-at-home orders, prompting many Russians to book travel to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
That led to a series of clarifications from various officials, but not Putin. Sobyanin ordered all parks, restaurants, spas and other nonessential businesses closed for the week — a restriction that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin then extended to the entire country — while presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russians should work or study remotely rather than treat the week like a holiday.
A day after Putin’s address, Peskov also declared, “We have no epidemic” in Russia, undermining Sobyanin’s tough talk. The Kremlin then said Monday that Sobyanin consulted with Putin before announcing a quarantine for Moscow.
“I think the problem is that within the Kremlin, in a way, they have gotten so used to the idea that in some ways they can define the narrative and the narrative will shape reality,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “Of course, this is a different way around. This is actually a reality that has to shape the narrative.”