RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – September 9, 2020

Today in Russia: Maria Kolesnikova jailed in Belarus, unknown people try to enter Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s home; Lukashenko’s “intercepted call” about Navalny gets more ridiculous; What will come of NordStream 2?; Poland floats NordStream 2 alternative; Navalny offices in Novosibirsk under attack; Where is Navalny poisioning taking Russia?; Russia hikes taxes on profits heading to Cyprus; Peskov: Putin cancels Q+A session this year, but his December address may include some questions; Khabarovsk regional official loses job after pro-Furgal video

Maria Kolesnikova, one of the last opposition leaders to be free and still inside Belarus, was jailed on charges of “inciting actions intended to harm the national security of the Republic of Belarus.” Kolesnikova had previously ripped up her passport while insisting that she will not go into exile. Nobel laureate and the last free leading member of the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council Svetlana Alexievich said that unknown people tried to enter her home. On Wednesday, masked men detained lawyer Maxim Znak, making Alexievich the final free member.

Last week, Belarus’ strongman Alexader Lukashenko tried to do his friends in the Kremlin a favor by releasing what he claimed was a recorded phone conversation between Berlin and Warsaw about Navalny. It was widely mocked and given little credence beyond Russian pro-government media. Now, Lukashenko says the call wasn’t between Warsaw and Berlin; in fact the Americans were involved! According to Lukashenko, the full recording of the conversation was given to the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov. Lukashenko elaborated,

We have a copy, but no original. A real copy of this voice. English, everything is as it should be. Experts say that neither the Germans nor the Poles are talking, but the Americans are unambiguously speaking, because the Americans are so specific there.

The poisoning of Alexei Navalny has put Russia on a collision course with the West. As we noted in our weekly briefing on Friday, the NordStream 2 pipeline could be collateral damage as German Bundestag members and the general public turn against both Russia and the project. Moscow Times wrote, “German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not rule out consequences for the project if Russia fails to thoroughly investigate the incident, her spokesperson said Monday, raising speculation of a possible reversal of Berlin’s long-standing support for Nord Stream 2, which was supposed to come online by the end of 2019.”

Poland floated the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline as an alternative [in Russian] to NordStream 2 for Germany. The Baltic Pipe will carry gas from the North Sea to Poland via Denmark. Poland’s government press spokesman said he told the Germans that the pipeline could be useful for Germany as well, noting “Poland is open to also use the infrastructure that it is building itself for its energy security.”

Alexei Navalny’s offices in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk came under attack [in Russian], his team on the ground there announced. The office serves as the headquarters for the “Novosibirsk 2020” opposition’s campaign. The spotlight is increasingly on Novosibirsk, where both the Communist Party and “Novosibirsk 2020” – led by Navalny’s Novosibirsk representative Sergei Boiko – are fighting an unusually competitive challenge to United Russia’s rule in local elections scheduled for September 13. Unknown masked men threw an unknown chemical substance into the campaign headquarters, where “the room, filled with dozens of people on September 8, was quickly filled with a sharp, acidic smell. The room was cleared immediately, but two people felt sick and an ambulance was called, Yelena Noskovets, a member of Navalny’s team in the city.”

Alexander Baunov wrote that Navalny’s poisoning – whether or not it was ordered by the Kremlin – represents a “degradation of authoritarianism” in Russia, noting that a series of crises – from Khabarovsk to Belarus – may require the state to intervene directly rather than rely on “surrogates.” He added,

Enter Navalny’s poisoning. Whoever stands behind the attack, its logic could have been that having an enemy in the rear is too dangerous when a battle with foreign foes — one with the West over the fate of Belarus—is likely imminent. Whether or not President Vladimir Putin personally made or signed off on the decision, the episode highlights the degradation of authoritarianism in Russia in demonstrating that the regime, or some part or parts of it, considers it necessary to go beyond the usual tools of state propaganda, electoral fraud, political technology, and targeted, non-lethal repression.

Russia is on a “high-profile drive against Russian companies” stashing profits in low-tax jurisdictions overseas. With a new agreement signed yesterday, “Most Russia-based firms will now have to pay a 15% tax on dividend payments they send from Russia to Cyprus — up from previous rates of 5% or 10%.” We have covered the back-and-forth between Cyprus and Russia on August 10 and August 19. Russia threatened to rip up the entire taxation agreement between the countries if Cyprus did not agree to tax hikes.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Vladimir Putin will skip his annual question and answer session, which has been a hallmark of his rule for years. Peskov insisted that the president “has already been conducting the Direct Line the past few months,” and that “It would be unnecessary to carry out the Direct Line in its traditional format this year,” also citing the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. However, Peskov added [in Russian] that there may be some questions answered in Putin’s December address: “With Putin’s annual press conference in December, we’ll certainly try to add some elements of the direct line to allow the president to get feedback from citizens in different regions.”

Andrey Petrov, an official in the Khabarovsk regional government, published a statement on YouTube urging citizens to abandon protests in favor of the regions’ deposed governor and instead give Moscow an ultimatum: “either the capital returns Furgal to Khabarovsk for trial, forgives the region’s debts, and allocates an additional 100 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) in ‘punitive damages,’ or Khabarovsk declares the creation of the Khabarovsk Democratic Republic within the Russian Federation. ‘Sit there and manage whomever you want, if you’re not going to listen to the people,‘” Petrov declared. The YouTube video soon cost him his job. He was fired and told his video was an example of “extremism” and even a “criminally punishable act.”

PHOTO: Belorussian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was among the last opposition leaders to be free and inside the country before her jailing this week (Tut.by/AP).