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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – September 29, 2020

Today in Russia: Putin declares ‘truly allied’ relations with Belarus; COVID-19 cases skyrocketing, but renewed lockdown is unlikely; Armenia-Azerbaijan fighting; What Russia doesn’t get about Germany; Furgal trial; Why Rosneft has failed to get off EU sanctions list and probably shot itself in the foot

Russia appears to have fully made up its mind on its position vis-a-vis Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. Vladimir Putin declared [in Russian] that Belarus finds itself under “unprecedented external pressure” since the country’s controversial election last month, and added, “I would like to repeat once again: relations between Russia and Belarus are not subject to either time or conjuncture, they have a solid foundation, after all, our states are united by strong cultural and spiritual ties rooted in centuries, extensive kinship and family ties, a common common history.”

Russia thought it had the pandemic under reasonable control, but it has returned in the last week with a vengeance. Moscow alone reported 2,300 new cases, and Russia reported over 8,232 [in Russian] new cases nationally for the second day in a row.

Despite skyrocketing cases, Kommersant wrote that Russian authorities do not plan to return to the strict lockdowns imposed in the Spring, barring the most negative scenario “for example, if 10 thousand cases per day are detected in large cities, sources in the federal government and the Moscow mayor’s office told Kommersant.” Sources told the newspaper that the authorities fear a backlash in the next Duma elections if lockdowns were to take place again. Authorities in Moscow did announce a two-week break from school, however, in an effort to contain rising cases.

The renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh risks turning into a more internationalized conflict. Sergei Markedonov, professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, wrote that the current flare-up was not out of the blue, given that skirmishes took place in July, and “[t]he “Karabakh pendulum”—when military escalation swings back to rounds of negotiations—seems to have become stuck this time. Unlike the four-day war in April 2016, when the pendulum returned to the field of diplomacy on the fifth day, that didn’t happen this summer.” Turkey has made clear its support for Azerbaijan, and Iran has called for an end to fighting but made clear its backing for the Azeris as well. The New York Times noted that Russia has a mutual defense agreement with Armenia that could take effect if the fighting were to spread to Armenia proper, and Armenia has reported some shelling on its territory,” however Moscow has always been averse to picking sides given its close relationship with Azerbaijan as well.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov spoke with Kommersant FM about the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Peskov highlighted Russia’s status as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group and its status as a potential mediator for the conflict, emphasizing that “it’s now very important to stop the hostilities.” Peskov added that “Russia has always taken an equally balanced position, and it’s precisely this position that gives Russia the opportunity to use its influence or use its traditionally good relations with both countries — with both Azerbaijan and with Armenia — to resolve this conflict.

Sabine Fischer, Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) wrote that Moscow has long misunderstood Germany. She argues that Navalny’s poisoning was less of the “turning point” that many have declared it to be, but rather a continuation of an existing trend: “Rather than a turning point, Merkel´s statement was yet another link in a chain of events that have been undermining German trust and willingness to accommodate Russia’s positions and increasingly destructive policies. The astonishment currently being expressed in Russia speaks to a lack of understanding of how Russia is seen in Germany, and how this perception has changed over the years.”

Meduza wrote of the ongoing trial of jailed ex-Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal. The evidence against Furgal is mostly not (yet) public, and protests continue in the far-eastern city over what many Khabarovsk residents view as a political trial and arrest of their popular governor. “On September 10, a Moscow court moved Nikolai Mistryukov to house arrest. A key witness in the case against former Khabarovsk Governor Sergey Furgal, Mistryukov has reportedly agreed to a plea bargain with investigators. The case has been ongoing for more than a year, but officials have yet to reveal what evidence they have against Furgal, who was arrested this summer and booted from office on charges of orchestrating multiple contract killings roughly 15 years ago.

VTimes, a new online outlet founded by ex-Vedomosti journalists, wrote about Rosneft’s inability to get off the EU’s sanctioned entity list since being added in 2014, and note that Rosneft’s “judicial activism” may, in fact, have made the problem even worse. In October 2014, Rosneft registered a complaint at the EU Court of Justice. Unlike other sanctioned Russian companies, however, they also took their case to the High Court of England and Wales. However, as the UK was an EU-member at the time,

In filing a claim with the High Court, Rosneft’s lawyers did not take into account that when a court of an EU member state is faced with any issue of application or interpretation of European law, it is not competent to resolve the dispute on the merits. The court of the EU member state is obliged to transfer such cases together with the materials to the EU Court. Cases on the interpretation of EU acts are given priority: other chambers of the EU Court of Justice suspend the movement of other proceedings between the same persons, on the same subject and on the same grounds. They are considered by the Grand Chamber of 15 judges.

The findings and legal positions of the Grand Chamber are final, non-appealable and binding on all chambers of the EU Court of Justice in subsequent cases.

As a result, the High Court threw the case back to the ECJ, and “The Grand Chamber of the EU Court of Justice accepted the request and initiated proceedings in case C-72/15, in which Rosneft was granted third party status. Proceedings on other “sectoral” cases of Sberbank, VTB, Gazprom Neft, Almaz-Antey and others were suspended pending the Grand Chamber’s ruling in case C-72/15.” In 2017, the court recognized that the sanctions against Rosneft were lawful, and “recognized the powers of the EU Council as even broader than those provided for by the sectoral sanctions acts against Rosneft and other Russian oil companies with state participation.”

Because of this, VTimes writes, Rosneft’s judicial activism created a prejudice against not only the oil giant, but against other Russian state-owned companies fighting their sanctions designations in the European Union.

PHOTO: Russian president Vladimir Putin has declared Russia’s support for Belarus in the face of “unprecedented external pressure” (Kremlin.ru)