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

Today in Russia: 300,000 cases – “Those meant to die will die”; Rosneft sues RBC over reports on Venezuela asset sale; Oil price rises; Russia “joins global borrowing boom”; A year in, Zelensky caught between EU and Russia; Failed prison uprising; Russian economy suffering from “double slump”, but still enjoys “triple surplus”; Unemployment jumps 30%; Domestic migration to increase due to COVID-19; Nord Stream 2 – exempted from EU rules?; Northern Sea Route.

Russia surpassed the unfortunate milestone of 300,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 308,705 with 2,972 deaths. Questions continue to linger over Russia’s suspiciously low death rate and the method in which the country is counting COVID-19 deaths. Alexander Myasnikov, the head of Russia’s coronavirus information service, said “Those meant to die will die. Everyone dies,” referring to deaths due to COVID-19. He also said “Of course you need to get a test to avoid infecting others, but you do understand it’s an illusion…We’ll run out of tests if everyone runs out to check after every sneeze.” Myasnikov found himself in the news for the wrong reasons earlier this month, when a journalist said that through his assistant, Myasnikov was demanding payment – 88,000 rubles ($1,200) – for an interview. Myasnikov pleaded ignorance about the allegations when questioned.

Rosneft sued RBC for its reporting about its sale of Venezuelan assets. RBC reported that a private security company called “RN-Okhrana-Ryazan” was used as an intermediary to transfer Rosneft’s Venezuelan assets to the Russian state-controlled oil company “Zarubezhneft.” RBC cited a report from Interfax [in Russian], a state-run news agency in its report. Rosneft said in a statement that RBC’s report “provoked a wave of disinformation in the print and electronic media” and that the source materials referenced – referring to Interfax – in RBC’s publication only referenced the Russian state taking ownership, not the private security firm. Rosneft under its powerful boss Igor Sechin has made a habit of suing news outlets, having won suits against Vedomosti and Novaya Gazeta and having sued RBC in the past.

Oil prices continue to creep up. Brent crude, the global benchmark, exceeded $36 for the first time since April 9, TASS wrote.

Russia has joined a “global borrowing boom.” Bloomberg reported thatRussia sold the most debt on record in its weekly bond auctions, benefiting from historically low borrowing costs to fund stimulus plans.” At its auction on Wednesday, the Finance Ministry put 112 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) of bonds due in October 2027 – the most ever for a single offering. Bids reached 149 billion rubles, a reflection of deeper interest cuts which, according to Bloomberg, increased demands for the bond offering.

Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelinsky marked his first year in office and he finds himself pressed between the EU and Russia. Foreign Policy wrote,Zelensky faces mounting pressures outside the country, where he must contend with a preoccupied West and a powerful Russia. If he cannot meet his campaign promises as well as offer a clear and committed Western-oriented reform agenda, Zelensky may lose the international partners Ukraine desperately needs to avoid falling back into Russia’s arms.Vedomosti wrote [in Russian] that “The President of Ukraine has achieved little in a year of power. But experts believe that he still has potential.”

A failed prison uprising in the Angarsk prison east of Moscow on April 10 has led families of those imprisoned to fear for their safety, France24 reported.

Russia’s economy is suffering from a “double slump” from low oil prices and the coronavirus. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “As infections grow, Russia finds a shortfall in oil revenue hurts its ability to offer the kind of emergency support provided in the West.”

However, amidst the gloom being reported about Russia’s economic prospects is a cause for optimism: Russia reported a “triple surplus”: “the trade balance, currency account and federal government are all reporting surpluses of $3.8bn, $1.8bn and 0.2% of GDP respectively,” BNE IntelliNews wrote.

Unemployment jumped 30 percent in Russia since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, deputy prime minister Tatiana Golikova said.

Domestic migration is set to increase as a result of the economic challenges presented by COVID-19, according to a projection by Moody’s and reported by RBC [in Russian]. RBC wrote, “Economically weak regions, such as Chuvashia, Bashkiria, Samara, Omsk and Nizhny Novgorod regions, are at risk of losing their populations due to the crisis.

Russian state-run news agency TASS reported that Nord Stream 2 was granted derogation rights by the German regulator to EU rules it has long been seeking. Curiously however, TASS’ reporting cannot be verified elsewhere, and last week it was reported that the German regulator “formally” rejected Nord Stream 2’s request for a waiver to EU rules. Today Europe’s second highest court “rejected a challenge by the operators of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines against European Union gas rules, saying it was up individual member states to enforce them.The court granted Nord Stream two months to appeal the decision.

Kommersant reported [in Russian] that Russia’s state commission for the Arctic is considering enlarging the Northern Sea Route to include everything from Murmansk, in Russia’s far northwest, to Sakhalin, an island abutting Japan’s Hokkaido. The idea was proposed by the Ministry for the Development of the Far East, and if approved, “it will make it possible to formally fulfill the order of the President of the Russian Federation to increase freight traffic along the Northern Sea Route to 80 million tons by 2024, but will lead to a conflict with international law and other problems.” In 2019, shipping through the Northern Sea Route increased by 56.7 percent over the previous year, but most traffic did not go through the entire route and was principally Russian energy and raw material exports, showing that the Arctic route still is not competitive with the Suez Canal as a transcontinental shipping route.

PHOTO: Ships pass through the Northern Sea Route (Charles Digges).