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This Week in Russia: August 8, 2020

In addition to the Daily Russia News Blast published each weekday morning, starting next week we will be launching a weekly email newsletter covering the key events in Russia as well as across the CIS.

  • Beirut Blast. The devasting blast at Beirut’s main port which left hundreds of people dead, thousands injured, and over 300,000 people homeless has a Russia connection. In 2014, Lebanese authorities confiscated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate from a Moldovan ship called the Rhosus, owned by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian national and resident of Cyprus.
  • US Spamming Russians about election interference. The US State department has confirmed reports of Russians receiving text messages from the US government urging them to report information relating to US election interference, offering up to ten million dollars as a reward for information.
  • Leaks, leaks everywhere. A database of 1.1 million people who voted in last month’s constitutional referendum has been found on the darkweb, Kommersant wrote. The same week, the personal data of 1 million Russian motorists and their vehicle VIN, “vehicle passport numbers,” and phone numbers was also found online put up for sale, Kommersant reported.
  • Vaccine to be rolled out in October. Russia plans to launch a nationwide vaccination campaign by October using a vaccine the Defense Ministry says is ready for use. Teachers and doctors are set to be the first to receive the vaccinations.
  • More trouble for Nord Stream 2. Gazprom was given the maximum possible fine in Poland of $57 million for failing to cooperate with anti-monopoly proceedings in connection with the Nord Stream 2 project. This week US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also blasted Nord Stream 2 in testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he said, “We will do everything we can to make sure that that pipeline doesn’t threaten Europe.” Pompeo reiterated that sanctions and other measured against those companies involved in the project are in the works.
  • Russia meeting OPEC+ production obligations. Russia says its July energy production was in line with its obligations in the OPEC+ agreement. Reuters wrote, “The ministry added that its level of compliance with the deal in July was close that recorded in June, when it stood at 99%.
  • Zhirinovksy: Khabarovsk not getting its share of the limelight. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the right-wing “systemic opposition” Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), lamented to Meduza in an interview that “Khabarovsk has been boiling over for 23 days [in protest] and [they show] nothing! This neglect irritates people. They don’t like that they’re invisible. Khabarovsk simply doesn’t register. There’s Ukraine and there’s Belarus — they’re in the news constantly — but not Khabarovsk!” Zhirinovsky was referring to the ongoing mass protests in the far eastern city after the LDPR mayor Sergei Furgal was removed and arrested.
  • Coronavirus and the numbers. Russia’s already high coronavirus statistics have come under repeated scrutiny, especially over the way deaths attributed to COVID-19. Dagestan and the saga over its untrustworthy numbers back in April was highlighted by the Washington Post this week. The region was reporting two to three deaths per day: “That didn’t add up when a single village might hold five funerals in one afternoon.” Dagestan only admitted they numbers were “like only a sliver of reality” in May when the evidence became irrefutable. “If you go to dinner with 10 people in Dagestan now, probably seven would say they had coronavirus,” Ziyatdin Uvaisov, the head of Patient Monitor, a Dagestan-based nongovernmental aid organization told the Post.
  • Heatwave and Fires. Siberia is experiencing record temperatures this summer and it is leading to a devastating season of forest fires. Scientists were not surprised by fires in June, but the ferocity in July has caught many by surprise. In some instances, smoke plumes from the raging fires have been carried all the way to Alaska. The worst affected area is the remote Sakha Republic.
  • Divergent fortunes. In July, Sberbank reported 65.6 billion rubles of net profit. This is the best result over the past five months. Despite being 15 percent less than this period last year, the bank has withstood the ongoing crisis better than its competitors, partially on the back of the bank’s loan portfolio, the steady growth of which was caused by the expansion of preferential programs, both for businesses and individuals. VTB Bank, on the other hand, saw just 2.1 billion rubles in net profit, more than 14 times less than last year over the same period. Analysts attributed this to deteriorating corporate loans and the bank’s continuing need to add reserves to protect against these loans.
  • Elections. Will they be rigged? Belarus heads to the polls this Sunday in what is shaping up to be the most contentious vote under the long reign of Alexander Lukashenko. Most of his rivals have been either been jailed, and/or disqualified from running including Viktor Babariko, Valery Tsepkalo and Sergei Tikhanovsky. The most prominent contender now is the wife of Sergei Tikhanovsky, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has pledged that if she wins, she will pledge new elections within six months. Most assume the vote will be rigged, as reported in both Russian and Western outlets. Last year’s parliamentary elections included blatant ballot stuffing. The election may be a foregone conclusion, the extent of protests and what comes after the vote will be telling.
  • Russia and Belarus: Fraying ties. The relationship between Russia and Belarus is in freefall, with Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko accusing Russia of meddling in the country’s upcoming election, the central bank’s taking control of Gazprom-owned Belgazprombank’s board and raiding the headquarters, and detaining and disqualifying the bank’s former president Viktor Babariko from running for president. When Belarus announced that 33 Russian citizens believed to be mercenaries of the Kremlin-connected Wager Group had been detained in Minsk the relationship looked to be falling yet further. Yesterday, Putin and Lukashenko discussed the issue of the 33 Russians detained in Belarus. The Kremlin posted details of the discussion on its website and noted that “Confidence was expressed that the situation that had arisen would be resolved in the spirit of mutual understanding characteristic of cooperation between the two countries.”

PHOTO: Forest fires are raging across Siberia as the region suffers from a record heat wave this summer (Greenpeace International)