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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – August 4, 2020

Today in Russia: Novosibirsk as electoral testing ground; Clear cutting forests around Baikal to modernize railway?; Montenegro opens to Russian tourists; Database of referendum voters appears on darknet; New Great Game in Central Asia post-COVID?; Dagestan recount and Russia’s COVID numbers; Lowest number of COVID cases since April; Polish PM blasts Nord Stream 2; Former US Amb. John Tefft on the succession process in Russia

Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is acting as something of an electoral testing ground. Two opposition parties are challenging United Russia’s grip over the city. One is the Communist Party (KPRF), a part of the “systemic opposition” – “recognized by the Russian government and permitted to hold elected seats across the country.” The KPRF controls City Hall, with Mayor Anatoly Lokot hailing from the Communist Party. “Meanwhile, a non-systemic opposition coalition called Novosibirsk 2020 is mounting a challenge without state recognition. Its leader, Sergey Boyko, is the head of Alexey Navalny’s local headquarters. Both groups have accused each other of working secretly with their dominant rival United Russia, led by Governor Andrey Travnikov.”

President Vladmir Putin signed new legislation [in Russian] that permits clear-cut logging as part of a renovation project of the Trans-Siberian and Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) railway lines. Environmentalists fear that the project will lead to extensive environmental damage as the legislation allows for clear-cutting of forests. “Passed on July 28 by Russia’s State Duma, the law allows clearcut logging in the construction and restoration of infrastructure in the Baikal–Amur Mainline and the Trans–Siberian Railway”  and will remain in effect until 2024.

Montenegro, a hugely popular destination for Russian tourists, will open to Russian citizens [in Russian] without restrictions. Montenegro’s Coordination Council “noted that the decision on these two countries was made based on the epidemiological situation, as well as the needs of the tourism industry in Montenegro. The coordinating council said that in the near future they intend to consider the liberalization of the rules of entry into the country for citizens of a number of Balkan countries.” Azerbaijan has also been added to the list of permitted nationalities allowed to visit Montenegro.

A database of those who voted in last month’s constitutional referendum has been found on the darkweb. Kommersant wrote, “Hackers made use of leaked passport data of participants in electronic voting on amendments to the Constitution. On certain [online] forums, a database of 1.1 million numbers is sold for $ 1.5 per each and is in demand, as it allows one to enrich existing collections of personal data. Experts in the field of information security see a dangerous trend in what is happening: “stripped-down” databases are poorly protected and often leak.

Foreign Policy wrote about a brewing “New Great Game” in Central Asia post-pandemic between China, Russia, and the United States and of a golden opportunity for the US to thwart the gains China has made in recent years in the region. In addition, the competition between China Russia and the US gives more choice to Central Asian governments hobbled by the raging pandemic and economic downturn:

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Central Asian nations—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan—are facing a particularly challenging test of their governments, health care systems, and fledgling economies, which are heavily dependent on commodity exports to global economic engines such as China. Unlike many other developing countries left isolated by the pandemic, they have a choice of great-power backers, as China, Russia, and the United States compete to offer aid. After recently rolling out its Central Asia strategy, the United States’ resolve to play against other great powers in a new Great Game faces its first major test in COVID-19. Although the United States may never wield as much influence in Central Asia as immediate neighbors such as Russia and China, engaging the region is necessary if it seeks to avoid ceding power and influence to China, especially in the wake of COVID-19. And to engage, the United States must offer alternatives to China and Russia that help Central Asian governments defeat COVID-19, resist domination, maintain stability, and continue reforms.

Back in April, Dagestan’s COVID-19 numbers simply didn’t add up. The region was reporting two to three deaths per day. “That didn’t add up when a single village might hold five funerals in one afternoon,” the Washington Post wrote. Dagestan only admitted they numbers were “like only a sliver of reality” in May when the evidence became irrefutable. “If you go to dinner with 10 people in Dagestan now, probably seven would say they had coronavirus,” Ziyatdin Uvaisov, the head of Patient Monitor, a Dagestan-based nongovernmental aid organization told the Post. The Dagestan scenario continues to dog the Russian authorities as questions continue over Russia’s suspiciously low death rate – one fifth of that of the US per capita – despite having the world’s fourth highest reported number of COVID-19 cases.

Russia has reported the lowest daily increase [in Russian] of COVID-19 cases since April, with 5159 new cases.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki blasted Nord Stream 2 [in Russian]. He said Poland is not inherently anti-Russia, but it is vehemently opposed to the pipeline project and has been highly critical of Germany for its participation. “I don’t think we have tough anti-Russian rhetoric in Poland. However, there are some issues that we do not like, such as Nord Stream 2.” As far as Morawiecki is concerned, revenues from Nord Stream 2 will simply will go into Russia’s arms and its aggressive regional posture. “That is why Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 poses such a threat to our region. That is why we criticize Germany,” he added.

The Former US Ambassador to Russia, John Tefft wrote a RAND Corporation report about the “factors that will influence succession” in a post-Putin Russia. Tefft wrote,

He [Putin] can now run for reelection two additional times and can stay in power until 2036 if he wishes. There are several other methods through which Putin can keep control of power while still trying to preserve his legacy. Russian elite rivalries, the security services, economic policy, public satisfaction levels, and other factors will all affect the selection of Putin’s successor. Whatever Putin decides, U.S. officials should prepare for the upcoming succession by sending clear signals on policy redlines and closely studying elite attitudes.

PHOTO: Lake Baikal seen from Severobaikalsk, a remote town on the northern end of the lake. The town is an important stop on the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) railway. Vladimir Putin has signed legislation that will renovate the BAM and Trans-Siberian railways, but environmentalists fear that clear-cutting will lead to environmental damage to Lake Baikal and other natural resources in the region (Photo by your humble Russia News Blast author, July 2013).