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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – August 31, 2020

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Today in Russia: Belarus protests and the IT sector – at risk?; Kremlin weighs in on Belarus, downplays any Russian direct involvement; Mass deliveries of COVID-19 vaccine coming next month; Navalny poisoning: Why no protests?; FT says EU needs tougher Belarus response; Latvia joins Lithuania in banning Belorussian officials; Lukashenko says his country is “somewhat authoritarian” and maybe, just possibly, tied up in one-man rule; Big losses for Aeroflot first half of 2020

Belarus has been dominating global news headlines for weeks, as mass-protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko are met with barbarous security forces, mass arrests, and allegations of torture in prisons. The Bell went deeper in a report this weekend, looking at Belarus’ IT sector and how the country’s most promising industry went from apolitical to a front-line supporter and financier of the protest movement.

Belarus’ economy is generally stuck in the past, dominated by state-owned Soviet-era companies, and reliant on Russian energy subsidies. With one very big exception: Belarus’ booming IT sector. The Bell wrote that “The Belarusian IT sector is the only part of the economy to post any significant growth in recent years. This success — achieved despite Lukashenko’s moniker as the ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ — have been widely reported on around the world…” The “unanimous” opinion of those interviewed working in the country’s IT sector was that despite Alexander Lukashenko’s attempts to claim credit for the industry’s success, “the most Lukashenko has done for the sector was to leave it in peace (in contrast to the rest of the country’s command economy, which is de facto under his personal control).”

But what will come of Belarus’ most promising industry of the future? The IT sector was not political in the past, but that is no longer the case. The Bell continues,

For many years, there was no desire for political change among Belarus’ IT workers — but all that changed this month. For many Belarusians, not just in the IT industry, the pandemic was the last straw (Lukashenko dubbed the virus “corona-psychosis” and tried to ignore it). With the illness spreading rapidly, people found their own solutions and businesses began to organize themselves, creating mutual support groups, providing food for medics and printing masks on 3D printers.

Why the world should care: Belarus’ IT sector is unique: it’s the only part of the economy in which the country can take genuine pride. If Lukashenko cracks down hard to quash the protests and cling onto power, the country’s IT industry will surely fall apart — and that would be a catastrophic blow. 

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said [in Russian] that the situation in Belarus is under control, despite the fact that “certain actions are continuing” the authorities in Minsk have the situation under control. Despite President Vladimir Putin last week suggesting that Russia could involve itself in Belarus ongoing unrest, Peskov apparently laid that to rest for the time being, remarking:

The President emphasized in every possible way that this was an extreme situation, a situation when extremist elements would move to direct destabilization. Now we see that the state of affairs is under control, and therefore now there is no point in talking about it.

Russia will carry out mass-vaccinations next month of its controversial COVID-19 vaccine, according to Health Minister Mikhail Murashko [in Russian]. “Russia has registered the Sputnik V adenoviral vector-based vaccine and is touting it as the world’s first despite it not having undergone large-scale trials to prove its safety and effectiveness. Russia is one of several countries racing to develop a proven vaccine against the disease that has infected 25.4 million and killed more than 850,000 people worldwide.”

Opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s poisoning has shocked Russia and the world. But why haven’t there been any protests in response? “Despite the dramatic events, the reaction, in Russia and abroad, has been comatose: there are no mass protests demanding the truth about what happened, nor Western promises of more sanctions. Why not?” In Russia, “there has been little sign of public anger, save a few heated exchanges on social media,” and this may be because of cynicism – everyone, including Navalny, knew something like this could happen – combined with the difficulties of protest due to COVID_19 (Khabarovsk, of course, notwithstanding). Abroad, while Germany has provided assistance, sanctions are likely not forthcoming. “People in Russia might find it hard to believe, but European governments try not to interfere in Russian politics,” remarked Konstantin Sonin of the University of Chicago. He argues the West is more likely to target Russia for sanctions over foreign policy issues such as Crimea, preferring to stay out of domestic affairs.

Latvia has slapped entry bans [in Russian] on Alexander Lukashenko and 29 other Belorussian officials, following Lithuania’s lead on imposing entry bans.

Belarus’ strongman Alexander Lukashenko admitted that his country was “somewhat authoritarian,” and much of the government is tied to Lukashenko personally. He said the constitution should be amended and less dependent on the man himself: “Therefore, I believe that, despite the fact that we have a somewhat authoritarian system for organizing public life, the president nevertheless protects and protects the courts. But this is a personal aspect, and we need to make sure that the system works, which is not tied to individuals, including Lukashenko,” the beleaguered president declared [in Russian]. Lukashenko has previously stated that he will allow new elections, but only after the constitution is amended. It remains to be seen what the decades-long leader of the country really means by this, especially as his security forces continue to crack down and round up protesters contesting the fraudulent August 9 election.

Aeroflot posted a 53 billion ruble loss [in Russian] for the first half of 2020, compared to a 8.8 billion ruble profit over the same period last year. In the second quarter alone, the carrier posted a 35.8 billion ruble loss, as the pandemic slashed demand and grounded flights. Revenue from April to June fell by over 80 percent. Pobeda, the carrier’s low-cost carrier, did not fly at all during the second quarter, contributing to the losses. The group noted that cost-cutting, government support, and the reorientation of the fleet to freight traffic helped stem even bigger losses.

PHOTO: Belarus is a high-tech powerhouse, and it is one of the only sectors offering promising growth and is free of direct government control and interference. The protests threaten the entire industry’s future (BelarusFeed.com)