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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Jan 4, 2019

TODAY IN RUSSIA: Magnitogorsk search ends with death toll at 39. Former US Marine charged with espionage. Tycoons wary of Kremlin’s annual dinner. Ruble at a 3-year-low. Navalny supporter detained. 

The Emergency Situations Ministry says the search of the collapsed apartment block in Magnitogorsk has officially ended, leaving a death toll of 39, including 6 children. RFE/RL spoke to residents of the building. The authorities are still considering the causes of the collapse, although had initially stated that it was due to a gas explosion. Speculation remains ongoing after local media shared footage of a local minibus on fire, accompanied by sounds of explosives or gunshots, just hours before the incident. Paul Whelan, the former US Marine detained in Moscow has been charged with espionage, and could face up to 20 years in prison when he goes to trial at the end of next month. Whelan was revealed to be a dual citizen of the US and UK. A Russian news agency reported that he had been caught “red-handed”. 

The FT shares details of the Kremlin’s annual event for Russia’s richest tycoons which is “non-negotiable” with regard to attendance, despite many wishing to distance themselves from being seen as having any ties to President Vladimir Putin for fear of sanctions and/or public investment demands. Russia’s ruble has begun the year at its lowest levels against the dollar in almost three years.  Alexei Kudrin, the head of the Audit Chamber, says that real incomes increased just barely in 2018, Russia’s fifth consecutive year of falling real disposable personal income. Authorities have charged a supporter of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with hooliganism after allegedly being involved in the erection of a Putin effigy in Perm. 

The Japanese Prime Minister says he will push for a WW2-era peace treaty with Russia when he meets with Putin this month, seeking to overcome tensions created by decades of a territorial row over the Kuril Islands. Five years after the initial request, France has extradited former Moscow finance minister Alexei Kuznetsov, suspected of embezzling $200 million. 

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin takes to the ice as he joins a friendly of the Night Hockey League on Moscow’s Red Square on December 29, 2018. (Valery Sharufulin/TASS)