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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – July 21, 2020

Today in Russia: New governor appointed in Khabarovsk; Fugitive Wirecard executive reportedly in Russia with military intel protection; Kadyrov blacklisted by US; Gulag historian delivers closing statement as he faces 15 years in prison; Mayor forced to resign after he accuses government of COVID-19 coverup; Sberbank denied relief from state loan repayment; Putin signs decree for 10-year national goals; Health ministry questions Defense ministry claims that vaccine is ready

Mikhail Degtyarev of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) has been appointed as governor of Khabarovsk, replacing Sergei Furgal who is now in Lefortovo prison in Moscow facing charges of contract killings dating back to 2004, despite having been arrested in connection with these murders in 2004 and released due to lack of evidence [in Russian]. Khabarovsk has been rocked by the largest protests the city has ever seen in response to Furgal’s arrest and sacking. Degtyarev “has been an LDPR member since 2005. He was elected to the Russian State Duma in 2011, where, among other things, he served as chairman of the committee on physical education, sport, tourism, and youth affairs. He competed in Moscow’s mayoral elections in 2013 and 2018.”

Vedomosti noted [in Russian] that the 39-year old new governor from Samara will face major challenges in his new post. “The choice in favor of Degtyarev probably means that the Kremlin has decided to act in accordance with the logic of party representation and party responsibility for the problem area, political analyst Alexander Pozhalov believes: ‘The Kremlin decided not to quarrel with one of the largest parties of the systemic opposition on the eve of the difficult parliamentary elections for the federal center. but try to use the Liberal Democratic Party as a communicator with the dissatisfied population of the region.” Vedomosti also wrote that Degtyarev, despite being from the nominally opposition LDPR party is an apparatchik committed to towing the Kremlin line, and political analyst Pozhalov noted that the new appointee is likely to be viewed as a “Moscow appointment,” making his job much more difficult. Vedomosti quoted another analyst who noted that this is a challenge not only for the Kremlin, but also for the LDPR in their quest to “sell” the new appointment to Khabarovsk residents who are furious about the arrest of their popular governor, noting that voters there supported Furgal in particular, not the LDPR as a whole.

RBC wrote [in Russian] that a mysterious post appeared on Furgal’s Instagram account which read “These were intense, difficult and at the same time wonderful two years with you. What have we managed to do? Not as much as planned. They put things in order, started construction, created a base for the system to start working.” Furgal’s spokesperson could not explain the origins of the post, given that Furgal is currently imprisoned, suggesting perhaps his family wrote the post.

The German business daily Handelsblatt reported that Jan Marsalek, the former CEO of Wirecard, the German payment company which collapsed when over 2 billion euros were reported as missing, is reportedly in Russia under the protection of military intelligence. A joint investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider and Der Spiegel traced the movements of Marsalek and found that he had taken a private jet to Belarus, but may have been moved to Russia due to political tensions brewing between Russia and Belarus. Handelsblatt also reported that Marsalek transferred “significant sums” in Bitcoins to Russia from Dubai, where Wirecard operated. The joint investigation wrote that,

Bellingcat, in collaboration with its investigative partners Der Spiegel and the Insider, have now established the location to which Marsalek fled just hours after his sacking – the capital of the Belarus, Minsk. In addition, Russian immigration records and data kept by Russia’s FSB suggest that Russia’s security service had a long-standing interest in Marsalek, who used a number of different passports – including a third-country diplomatic passport – to visit Russia dozens of times in the last 15 years. At least on one occasion – in 2017 – Russia’s security services are likely to have had a lengthy interaction with Marsalek in Moscow.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, has been sanctioned by the United States. “The U.S. State Department placed Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov on its blacklist of human rights violators Monday for alleged torture, extrajudicial killings and other violations it said go back more than a decade. The department said Kadyrov, his spouse Medni Kadyrova, and his daughters Aishat Kadyrova and Karina Kadyrova, were designated under its Section 7031(c) sanctions, which bans them from traveling to the United States.”

Yuri Dmitriyev, a historian of Stalin’s gulags, delivered a closing statement in his trial where he faces fifteen years imprisonment. He is accused of sexually assaulting his foster daughter, but the case is widely viewed as politicized. Meduza wrote,

The case began back in December 2016, when police responded to an anonymous tip and raided Dmitriev’s home, discovering nude photographs on his computer of his then 11-year-old foster daughter. After one incriminating report, a second forensic study of the photos found no signs of pornography, and three expert review boards cleared Dmitriev of any symptoms indicating deviant sexual behavior. In April 2018, he was acquitted, but the region’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling after two months and returned the case to prosecutors, who promptly brought new charges

Dmitriyev delivered an impassioned closing statement in which he decried how today’s “patriotism” in Russia has led to a push to ignore wrongdoings of the past:

People today like to talk about patriotism and I’m sorry but patriotism never really enters the conversation. Who’s a patriot? A patriot is someone who loves their homeland. For some reason, the only thing we like to take pride in these days is military feats. I’m sorry but a homeland is a mother. Sometimes mom gets sick and sometimes mom struggles with something. But do we stop loving her when that happens? No. I don’t know if it’s for better or worse, but my path is to return from oblivion those people who perished because of our state. They were unjustly accused, shot, and buried in the woods like stray animals. There’s nothing indicating that people are buried here. The Lord gave me this cross to bear, maybe, but the Lord also gave me this knowledge. I have managed, not often but sometimes, to find the locations of mass human tragedies. I match them to names and I try to make room for memory in this space because memory is what makes a person a person.

Rinat Akhmetchin, the mayor of the arctic city of Norilsk – where the disastrous fuel spill took place earlier this month – was forced to resign after he accused the regional authorities of massively understating COVID-19 figures. “Akhmetchin last week sent a letter to regional officials accusing the regional health ministry of ‘concealing real information about the numbers of those ill from federal agencies,’ Siberian news site Tayga.Info reported.” He also said that hospitals in his city lacked staff and patients were forced to wait for hours. Akhmetchin’s resignation came after regional officials blamed him instead for shortcomings during the pandemic.

Sberbank has been denied relief from repaying a 150 billion loan from the state. Vedomosti wrote [in Russian] that in 2008, the bank received 10-year loans from the central bank for 500 billion rubles. In May 2010, the bank returned 200 billion rubles, but during the 2014 economic crisis took another 200 billion loan. After that, Sberbank extended the loan received for 50 years with a further extension. “This year, the Central Bank, being the main shareholder of Sberbank, transferred 50% of the bank’s shares to the state for 2.1 trillion rubles. Together with them, the state received the rights of claim for subordinated loans from the state bank for a total of 150 billion rubles.”

President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree [in Russian] laying out the goals of the nation for the next ten years. The vaguely stated goals are: “(1) preservation of the population, (2) health and well-being of people; (3) opportunities for self-realization and development of talents; (4) comfortable and safe living environment; (5) decent, efficient work and successful entrepreneurship; digital transformation.” The government has already unveiled measures for the final goal in the form of tax incentives for technology companies that base themselves in Russia, as we wrote in yesterday’s Daily News Blast.

Russia’s Ministry of Health has questioned claims [in Russian] by the Ministry of Defense that its COVID-19 vaccine is ready. The First Deputy Defense Minister Ruslan Tsalikov declared, “The final assessments of the test results have already been made by our specialists and scientists of the National Research Center. At the time of discharge, without exception, all volunteers, having received immunity from the coronavirus, felt fine. Thus, the first domestic vaccine against the new coronavirus infection is ready.” The Health Ministry retorted that the vaccine is in its second phase of clinical trials and the question of state approval of the vaccine will be decided once all phases of trials are complete.

PHOTO: Mikhail Degtyarev (left), the newly appointed governor of Khabarovsk region (Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS).