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The Real Russia. Today. Measuring COVID-19 in ashes and Internet searches, pondering peacekeepers in Karabakh, and America’s bad news for the Russian energy sector

Source: Meduza

Friday, October 30, 2020 (Happy Halloween, everyone!) 🎃

  • Inside the courtroom for the reading of the last verdict in a controversial Russian extremism case
  • Crematorium records suggest that COVID-19 deaths in St. Petersburg were twice was officials reported
  • Photo: Police disperse protesters as demonstrations continue outside French Embassy in Moscow
  • Opinion and analysis: Ovchinnikov on digital epidemiology, Nikulin on Turkish encroachment, Golts on Moscow’s peacekeeping apprehensions, Ignatov on Yerevan’s desperation, and Mitrova on the U.S. energy behemoth
  • News briefs: Navalny returns to the ECHR, Moscow rallies for Gulag babies, and the regions are running out of air

Feature stories

⚖️ ‘They met at McDonald’s’

On October 29, a Moscow district court sentenced 33-year-old courier Pavel Rebrovsky — the last defendant in the “Novoe Velichie” (New Greatness) extremism case — to six years in prison. This was Rebrovsky’s second trial in this case: in April 2019, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after he pleaded guilty in the hopes of being sentenced to probation. Six months later, Rebrovsky retracted his confession. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova reported from the courtroom. 

⚱️ Ashes to ashes

Amid suspicion and concern that Russian state officials are under-reporting the true extent of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists and health experts have sought out various means to track COVID-19’s spread and damage. In St. Petersburg, reporters for the website Fontanka have discovered that crematorium archives suggest a massive glut of deaths this summer that went missing from the city’s official statistics.

☪️ Macron vs. Muhammad

Pavel Golovkin / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Protests continued outside of the French Embassy in Moscow for a second day, with demonstrators rallying against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Demonstrators burned a photo of French President Emmanuel Macron. While Thursday’s rally progressed peacefully, police officers on Friday dispersed the demonstrators and there were reports of arrests. The French Embassy’s spokespeople told TASS that the diplomatic mission has appealed to the Russian authorities to strengthen security measures at all of its representative locations across Russia.

Opinion and analysis

🔍 Charting the pandemic in Russia with digital epidemiology 

In an op-ed for VTimes, Boris Ovchinnikov (one of the founders of the “Data Insight” e-commerce research agency) argues that the frequency of Internet searches for the word obonyanie (“sense of smell”) serves as a useful metric for gauging the spread of COVID-19 across Russia. Tracking the public’s interest in smell (the temporary loss of which is a common symptom of COVID-19), says Ovchinnikov, captures the pandemic in Russia regardless of testing and the reliability of officially reported cases.

Ovchinnikov says search results for obonyanie, broken down by region, likely show how the coronavirus has moved and surged in different areas of Russia. He relied on Yandex data, not Google data, for his research because the latter offers only relative values that make it impossible to cross-reference different time periods and localities.

🕊️ The Turks are coming!

In a Facebook post, Gorod Moskva political analyst Andrey Nikulin argues that the Ankara-promoted “two on two” negotiations between Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, and Russia would be a counterproductive nightmare and a blow to Moscow’s position in the region. The Kremlin should protect its role as an impartial arbiter in the South Caucasus, says Nikulin, or it risks undermining its relationship with Baku. Additionally, the talks Turkey is proposing would inevitably address demilitarizing and returning to Azerbaijan the buffer territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, which would exacerbate Russia’s ties with Armenia, giving the Pashinyan administration an excuse to blame Moscow for its military defeat.

Nikulin says the Kremlin should do what it can to involve the U.S. and France in the Karabakh negotiations, in order to spread the blame from Yerevan and Baku that Russia is currently shouldering alone. Involving the West would also increase the pressure on Turkish President Erdogan, who’s been the conflict’s “main external beneficiary.” 

🛡️ The rocky road to Russian peacekeeping

In an op-ed for The Insider, military analyst Alexander Golts reviews Russia’s recent history with peacekeeping and argues that there are significant obstacles to stationing foreign troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. Without clear evidence of genocide, it will be impossible to mount a “peace enforcement” mission, where foreign armies impose a settlement against the wishes of either Armenia or Azerbaijan. That means the two sides will need to reach a compromise and agree on a dividing line that peacekeepers can patrol.

Golts says Yerevan and Baku should eventually realize that they can’t achieve their goals by military means, but it will take time before the two sides have exhausted enough of their resources and resolve to accept this.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, is still haunted by the USSR’s peacekeeping failures in the region during the early 1990s, when troops intervened in the conflict without a clear mandate and found themselves embroiled in the bloodshed. In its periphery, since the fall of Communism, Moscow has relied mostly on bilateral agreements for any peacekeeping, like in South Ossetia and Transnistria, though Russian peacekeeping enjoyed relatively greater legitimacy in Abkhazia and Tajikistan, thanks to mandates approved by the Commonwealth of Independent States. 

Any agreements sanctioned by the UN will be difficult, says Golts, until Armenia recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial gains or Baku decides to withdraw its troops from some of the areas it now occupies. Golts says the likeliest outcome will be talks between Russia and Turkey, modeled on their recent settlement reached in Idlib, to determine a dividing line between Azerbaijani and Armenian/Karabakh forces, which Russian and Turkish forces will then patrol. 

🛡️ Baku still has too little to gain from peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh

In a statement released by the Center for Current Policy, deputy director Oleg Ignatov says Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s newfound interest in international peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh is driven by Azerbaijan’s military advances on the ground and Yerevan’s desperation for Russian intervention.

UN peacekeepers are impossible without either Baku’s support or clear evidence of genocide; the OSCE Minsk Group has only signaled interest in observers; and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, by its own charter, requires a UN Security Council mandate to deploy its 3,600-soldier peacekeeping forces outside the borders of its member states.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are both members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which previously sent Russian peacekeepers to Abkhazia (under a bilateral agreement), but Ignatov warns that Baku will not accept any peacekeepers so long as it’s winning back territory in the Karabakh region with Turkey’s support. 

🛢️ Whether it’s Biden or Trump, Russia’s energy sector is in trouble

In an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center, Skolkovo Energy Center director Tatiana Mitrova reviews how Russian-American energy relations have gone from bad to worse over the past decade, and argues that the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election promise to inflict even more damage on the Russian economy’s ability to sustain itself by selling oil and gas. In recent years, U.S. oil and gas production has surpassed Russia’s thanks to the shale boom and Donald Trump’s interventions. Moscow also faces major political obstacles in the form of sanctions against its energy assets — sanctions that will remain in place, whoever wins the White House.

Whether it’s Trump or Biden in 2020, Mitrova says Russia’s fuel and energy industry will suffer. Trump would continue his support for American oil and gas, weakening regulations to make the industry more competitive internationally, expanding its mining capacity, and pressuring Europe to buy less from Russia. Joe Biden’s greener platform might lead some Russian policymakers to believe his presidency would offer Moscow some respite, but the longer-term consequences of putting America on a path to carbon neutrality, Mitrova says, would shift the global car industry, redirect major investments, and tip the world economy in a direction that ultimately reduces demand for fossil fuels and hurts Russia’s energy sector.

Mitrova concludes on an especially pessimistic note, pointing out that Russia could insulate itself against these inevitabilities by diversifying its own economy, but “such decisions aren’t being considered on Russia’s domestic agenda,” she says.

Other news in brief

  • ⚖️ Navalny’s right to life. Acting through his attorney, the opposition figure has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against the Russian authorities’ refusal to treat his poisoning as a crime.
  • ⚖️ The kids are alright. Moscow City Duma members and municipal councils from around the capital are calling on Russia’s State Duma to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling that promises compensation to people born in the Gulag system or in exile for housing lost during the Soviet repressions.
  • 🏥 Take a deep breath. A quarter of Russia’s regions are experiencing problems with medical oxygen, according to federal officials. More than a dozen COVID-19 patients in Rostov-on-Don recently died due to lack of medical oxygen.
👑 This day in history: 115 years ago today, on October 30, 1905, Tsar Nicholas II issued the “October Manifesto,” granting the Russian peoples basic civil liberties and the right to form a parliament.

Yours, Meduza

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