RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – November 17, 2020

Today in Russia: Mutating coronavirus found in Siberia; US passes Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act; Daily record of COVID-19 deaths; Freeze-dried virus; “Sitting out is not an option:” Russian bank chiefs on dealing with COVID-19; Moldova’s first female president; Navalny sues Peskov

A mutated version of the coronavirus was found in Siberia. Anna Popova, the head of Rospotrebnadzor said, “We’re seeing certain changes in the proteins, and these changes detected in Siberia allow us to assume that this region is forming its own version [of coronavirus] with certain mutations.” Popova said that thus far, this mutated strain does not appear to more more dangerous or more contagious, however. The mutation was discovered as Russia’s regions face the brunt of a deadly second wave rocking Russia and much of the world as winter sets in.

The United States Senate passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act – named after whisteblower Grigory Rodchenkov who brought to public attention the 2016 Russian doping scandal. The law permits US officials to seek prosecution for doping conspirators in international competition events involving American athletes – whether or not there is a US nexus to the conspirators or the competition in question. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law, which imposes up to a $1 million fine and a prison sentence of up to 10 years on violators.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has criticized the legislation for its extraterritorial nature and the possible duplication of laws in numerous jurisdictions, TASS noted. Kommersant wrote [in Russian] of the “notorious” law that it will give extra protections to whisteblowers such as Rodchenkov – who is currently living in hiding in the United States after exposing the scandal and admitting his own guilt – and also noted that “the greatest resonance” was that it allows “American authorities to prosecute violators not only in the United States, but virtually all over the world.”

Russia reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths [in Russian] on Tuesday, chalking up 442 deaths and bringing the total reported death toll in the country to 33, 931. On Monday, 303 deaths were reported. On Tuesday Russia also reported 22,410 new cases. The remote Siberian republic of Buryatia – which has been hit very hard in the second wave – became the first region to impose another lockdown [in Russian], shutting all restaurants, malls, and other areas for gathering for two weeks.

Russia will freeze-dry its Sputnik V vaccine by the spring in an effort to avoid the logistical hurdles of transporting the vaccine at ultra-low temperatures, Reuters reported. In its current form, the Russian vaccine must be stored at -18 degrees Celsius or below, which has proven challenging given the remoteness and vast distances of many Russian regions. Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) which is backing and marketing the Sputnik V vaccine, said that from February, “a large proportion of doses, if not a majority” will be in freeze-dried form, adding that “We have conducted trials that confirm that the immune response to the lyophilised form is the same as to the standard form of the vaccine.”

RBC spoke to [in Russian] business leaders and bank CEOs about their year dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The general consensus was that “there are no options to sit out” and wait for the pandemic to recede. Here are some highlights:

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said that his ministry was prepared for a drop in oil prices before the pandemic, but the pandemic led to a severe straight. Therefore, “you must always keep the powder dry, as they say, and have a steam locomotive on the side [at the ready.”

Andrey Kostin, President of VTB Bank said that the pandemic will “contribute to the further digitalization” of his industry, while the second insight is to give more credence to risk assessments and be prepared for the worst.

German Gref, President of Sberbank added that Sberbank has weathered the storm better than other banks [however, given Sberbank’s large presence in non-banking, tech sectors it is a different beast to other state-owned banks]. Gref said that non-banking assets performed well during the pandemic: “Excellent growth was demonstrated by non-banking products and services of the Sber ecosystem – services for life, for solving everyday problems that everyone faces…So the main result is that our ecosystem strategy withstood the test of the crisis and turned out to be in great demand, although, of course, we did not plan to implement it in such circumstances.”

Moldova elected its first female president on Sunday, with Maia Sandu beating the pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon. Sandu campaigned on a pro-EU, anti-corruption message and hails from the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS). Dodon has declared that there was an “unprecedented number of violations” including attempts to prevent voters in the contentious region of Transnistria – a pro-Russia and Russian-speaking stronghold. Nevertheless, Dodon has congratulated Sandu on her victory. Sandu is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was an advisor to the World Bank’s Executive Director in Washington, DC before returning to Moldova in 2012 to become Education Minister. In this role, Sandu made the study of Russian optional in schools from 2014. Moldova’s primary language is Romanian, but Russian speakers make up a considerable minority, especially in the capital, Chisinau, where Russian is widely spoken and nearly universally understood.

Poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny filed a lawsuit [in Russian] against Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov in an effort to force Peskov to admit that his statement that “CIA specialists are working with the patient [Navalny] as Navalny was recovering in a private hospital in Berlin was false. Navalny has asked that a refutation also be published on the Kremlin’s official website.

PHOTO: Russia is facing near-daily new death and case records as COVID-19 continues to rage and the consumer watchdog said a mutated strain of the virus was discovered in Siberia (Yegor Aleyev/TASS).