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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – August 20, 2020

Today in Russia: Navalny spokeswoman says he is poisoned and in critical condition in hospital; EU rejects Belarus election result; Russia furious about “foreign meddling” in Belarus, but even state media seems confused about the official line on Belarus – maybe there isn’t one?; Kiev denies reports that it had hand in Russian mercenaries being in Minsk; In 2020, oil and gas less than a third of state revenues; Khabarovsk update; FSB says Ukrainian intelligence tried to kidnap Donbass militia leader from Russia; Quarantine punishment for activists

Alexei Navalny is hospitalized in critical condition after what appears to have been a poisoning. He is unconscious and connected to a ventilator, and reports indicate he is currently in a coma [in Russian]. He was travelling by plane from the city of Tomsk back to Moscow when his plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmish wrote on Twitter [in Russian]. Yarmish told [in Russian] Echo of Moscow radio, “He said he was not feeling well, he asked me for a napkin – he had perspiration. I asked him to talk to him because he wants to concentrate on the sound of his voice. I talked to him, after which a cart with water drove up to us. I asked if the water would help him, he said no, and most likely he needs to move away. I went to the toilet and after that I lost consciousness.” The chief doctor of Omsk No 1 hospital where Navalny is receiving treatment also confirmed that he is in critical condition.

The European Union is rejecting the Belarus election results. “European Council chief Charles Michel said the EU would soon levy sanctions against a ‘substantial number’ of people responsible for vote rigging and the violent suppression of protests in the ex-Soviet country.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel also remarked that the EU was rejecting the results of an election which was “neither free nor fair.” The EU also notedshocking and unacceptable” violence in response to mass protests since the August 9 vote.

The Kremlin and Foreign Ministry are furious about “foreign meddling” in Belarus. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova highlighted Lithuania’s decision to place entry bans on Alexander Lukashenko and several of his officials, declaring “Bravo! Now Minsk gets bulletproof evidence of Western interference in Belarusian domestic affairs.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said [in Russian] foreign interference was “unacceptable” in Belarus, and Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov conceded that the conditions of the election in Belarus “were not ideal,” but fumed [in Russian] that “No one is making a secret of the fact that this [events in Belarus] is about geopolitics, the fight for the post-Soviet space.” Notably, Kremlin spokesman Peskov also added that while Belarus and Russia have a collective security arrangement, “there’s currently no such need” to send military assistance to Belarus.

While Russian officials blast European countries for alleged foreign interference in Belarus, mass media and state officials can’t seem to decide what the official Kremlin line is regarding events in Belarus – maybe because there isn’t one. As we noted in our weekly Russia briefing last Friday, events in Belarus are dividing Russian public opinion. In the days after the election, Russian state media and officials made unsurprising statements of support for Lukashenko, as we noted on August 10. But Meduza wrote that even the Kremlin appears to be “of two minds” regarding events next door in Minsk:

Generally speaking, the major media outlets in Russia (whether controlled directly or indirectly by the state) report important domestic and international political events as dictated by the Kremlin. This same code of conduct applies to public remarks by members of Russia’s Parliament. In recent reports by national news agencies, several high-profile Russian politicians have openly criticized Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and talked about the falsification of his re-election. It’s a mixed bag on television, where the national networks have reached no consensus on how to cover the events in Belarus: some channels call the protesters “bandits,” while others air footage of large crowds and broadcast comments from demonstrators. Sources tell Meduza that the Kremlin has yet to issue its usual instructions to elected officials and the mass media when it comes to talking about the situation in Belarus, and Russia’s leadership appears to be reluctant to support Lukashenko, for now.

So far in 2020, oil and gas revenues have made up just 29.3 percent of the federal budget, a 13.9 percent decline from the same period last year, Kommersant wrote [in Russian].

Protests have continued unabated [in Russian] in Khabarovsk, despite much of Russia’s – and the world’s – attention turned toward Belarus. The transport minister who worked under now deposed governor Sergei Furgal has been arrested [in Russian], as has the Khabarovsk organizer for Alexei Navalny [in Russian], the anti-corruption opposition figure who is currently unconscious in an Omsk hospital after being poisoned. The Financial Times also reported this week on a Kremlin directive to media outlets to report negatively on now-deposed and jailed governor Furgal. The document obtained by the FT also instructed media to “continue information activities to discredit active participants of the unauthorised protests, including social media pages actively supporting such events (stories exposing such activists).”

Kiev denied any involvement in the sending of Russian mercenaries to Belarus. “The Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, has dismissed media reports claiming that Kyiv lured suspected Russian mercenaries to Belarus as part of an intelligence operation. In an interview with the Ukrainian outlet LB.ua, he referred to the story as disinformation.” Yermak added,

It’s obvious that the version [making claims] about the participation of the Ukrainian special services in the appearance of Russian mercenary-fighters in Belarus on the eve of the elections appeared in Russian media, not in Ukraine, and, in particular, in the Russian [newspaper] Komsomolskaya Pravda on August 6. This looks like a well thought out and planned disinformation campaign

Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU also denied any involvement in the arrest of the Wagner Group mercenaries. “The SBU also underscored that ‘a Russian publication that came out more than a week ago’ was the original source of the fake reports.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) prevented the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) from kidnapping and removing from Russia one of the leaders of the Donbass militia, according to the FSB’s press service and reported by RBC [in Russian]. “As a result of the special operation, an illegal action by the Ukrainian special services on the abduction of a citizen of the Russian Federation on the territory of Russia and the forcible transfer to Ukraine of a citizen of the Russian Federation was discovered and suppressed,” the message says.

COVID-19 is proving convenient for some authorities in Russia. RBC reported [in Russian]that human rights groups are decrying the use of quarantine as a punishment for activists since the measure was added to the Administrative Code on April 1 as a response to the pandemic. The restrictions imposed by the coronavirus often become ‘a pretext for the detention and prosecution of civil and political activists who pose no threat to anyone other than the authorities,’ while activists are fined under ‘quarantine’ articles for more substantial amounts than ordinary people,” according to a report by human rights group Agora. The report alleges that quarantine has been used as punishment for protesters in Khabarovsk [in Russian] and in earlier demonstrations in the North-Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz [in Russian].

PHOTO: Alexei Navalny is currently in a coma in a hospital in Omsk after being poisoned (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters)