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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – October 19, 2020

Today in Russia: New COVID-19 record hit, nearly 16k new daily positives; Belarus protests march on despite police threat to open fire; Russia and Saudi Arabia continue oil diplomacy; Yandex-Tinkoff Bank deal ends in tears; EU sanctions on Russian officials for Navalny poisoning; Russia’s options range from “bad to worse” in Nagorno-Karabakh; Russian string-pulling in Kyrgyzstan – positive influence?

Russia hit a new daily record for COVID-19 cases, with 15,982 new cases [in Russian] over the past 24 hours. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin still maintains [in Russian] that a full return to the lockdowns of the springtime are “impossible.”

Tens of thousands again took the streets yesterday in Minsk despite threats by police to open fire on protesters. Over 200 people were detained and police used military trucks and water cannons but “largely refrained from using riot control equipment on Sunday,” although rubber bullets were fired at demonstrators.

Russia and Saudi Arabia are continuing their oil diplomacy, and the two “held a second, and unusual, phone call this week to discuss the OPEC+ agreement after officials from the group warned on Friday of the potential for a weaker oil market in 2021,” Bloomberg reported. It was the second call between Vladimir Putin and Mohammad bin Salman in a week and comes just days before several OPEC+ ministers will discuss the implementation of production cuts during a meeting of the so-called Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee.

“The European Union and the United Kingdom announced the imposition of sanctions against several Russian officials Thursday, citing their use of chemical weapons against Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of the Kremlin.”

On Friday, Tinkoff Bank announced that its $5.5 billion acquisition by Yandex was cancelled, sending Yandex shares tumbling. The bank’s founder Oleg Tinkoff said in a letter to employees leaked to The Bell that he was not happy with the deal, in particular that it was a “sale” rather than a “merger,” and insisted that his bank will neither be sold to Yandex or mobile operator MTS. Yandex had a very different explanation for the collapse in talks, with its general director telling The Bell that Yandex executives “constantly went to meet Oleg [Tinkoff]” to discuss his new demands, and were therefore not surprised when Tinkoff called off the deal. Late last month, Russian internet giant Yandex announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire Tinkoff Bank, an online financial institution that would allow Yandex to challenge Sberbank, the state-owned banking giant which itself is trying to rebrand itself as both a bank and a tech giant. It sent Yandex shares soaring to their highest levels ever. It seems the tech giant will need to keep looking for a financial partner to challenge Sberbank in what is shaping up to be a battle of internet titans.

On October 14, President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s position on the conflict has remained unchanged since the 1990s, but Whichever way you look at it, the menu of Russia’s options ranges from bad to worse.”

The Moscow Times spoke to numerous analysts regarding Russia’s role in Kyrgyzstan’s political unrest:

Analysts interviewed by The Moscow Times said they believe any new Kyrgyz political regime will be inherently pro-Russian and look to Moscow for conflict resolution. 

“Today, Russia is making efforts to stabilize the situation with the pro-Russian Kyrgyz leaders popular among the people,” said Baktybek Beshimov, a former Kyrgyz lawmaker who is now a professor at Northeastern University’s Global Studies and International Relations program.

Kyrgyzstan’s former president claimed to have had multiple phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the crisis, while Japarov stressed Russia’s role as Bishkek’s strategic partner during his ascent to power.

What analysts disagree on is whether Russia is playing a constructive role in the ex-Soviet country, where it deploys an airbase and relies on a large pool of labor migrants.

PHOTO: Protesters in Minsk again took to the streets on Sunday despite police threats to open fire on demonstrators (Natalia Fedosenko / TASS).