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The Week In Russia: The Dangerous Summer  

A patient infected with COVID-19 is attended to in the intensive care unit of the Mariinsky Hospital in St. Petersburg last month.
A patient infected with COVID-19 is attended to in the intensive care unit of the Mariinsky Hospital in St. Petersburg last month.

As September elections approach, COVID-19 takes a mounting toll and wildfires burn across huge swaths of the country, devouring forests, blanketing cities in smoke and diminishing public trust in the authorities. The Kremlin crackdown on dissenters, civil society, and independent media continues.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

COVID Crisis

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold over a year ago, it swiftly emerged as an unusual test for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government: A starkly real problem whose effects would be relatively resistant to propaganda.

At first, Putin appeared to hope that COVID-19 would bypass Russia.

That did not happen, and the coronavirus cast a shadow on what was supposed to have been a glorious spring of 2020 for Putin, with May 9 celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat following an April vote giving him the right to seek the presidency again -- twice -- after his current term expires in 2024.

Due to COVID, the ceremonies were toned down, and the vote was postponed until a weeklong period ending on July 1, 2020. At that point, Putin may have been confident that the coronavirus crisis -- which he had said in March 2020 was “under control” -- would recede well before the September 2021 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which will set the stage for 2024.

Instead, COVID is raging again a month before the September 17-19 balloting, and Putin’s government is struggling to vaccinate a population that deeply distrusts the authorities. And even as the official numbers break records on an almost daily basis, they are in question perhaps more than ever before.

After reaching 799 four times in the last month, the official daily number of deaths exceeded 800 for the first time on August 12, hitting 808.

But scientists, statisticians, and others say the real numbers may be much higher.

“Data on COVID-19 cases and death figures…have repeatedly been exposed as grossly underreported,” political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra wrote in an article published by the Center for European Policy Analysis, a U.S.-based think tank, on August 11.

What The Blazes?

There are also questions about the official information that has been disseminated about another big problem plaguing Russia this summer: wildfires.

Forest fires are an annual phenomenon in the expanses of Siberia and the Russian Far East, as they are in the western United States and in other parts of the world. This year, though, they are said to be the worst in Russia in about a decade -- and bigger than the rest of the world’s wildfires combined.

Experts lay the blame for the extent of the blazes on a combination of factors -- including a warming climate, a disastrous drought, excessive logging, and misguided forest management -- and residents point the finger at local and regional officials they say have failed to properly tackle the problem.

In the vast, hard-hit Yakutia region, villages have been evacuated and smoke has blanketed the capital. As far away as Krasnoyarsk, a city of more than 1 million people some 2,200 kilometers to the southwest, acrid smog has filled the air -- and officials warn that may happen in Moscow before the wildfire season is over.

Putin and his government may be having trouble controlling COVID-19 and the wildfires, but they appear determined to control the political situation to whatever extent they can as the Duma elections approach -- and presumably once they have passed, as well, and the 2024 presidential vote looms larger.

The crackdown on opposition politicians, civil society, and independent media that intensified upon Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny’s return to Russia in January, following treatment for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB), has shown no signs of flagging.

The latest opposition figure to be barred from seeking a seat in the Duma is Lev Shlosberg, a politician from the liberal party Yabloko and a longtime member of the regional legislature in Pskov Oblast, northwest of Moscow.

Also in Pskov, a court on August 12 convicted a former coordinator of Open Russia, a rights group linked to exiled Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of drug trafficking, along with her husband, and sentenced them to 10 1/2 and 11 years un prison, respectively.

Liya Milushkina and Artyom Milushkin, who tore a bench apart in the defendant’s cage in the courtroom after hearing his sentence, contend that narcotics were planted on them and that the charges were fabricated to persecute them for their political activity.

Behind Bars

Navalny himself was prevented from challenging Putin for the presidency in 2018, and his allies in June were prohibited en masse from running in elections, when his organizations were deemed extremist by the state and Putin signed a law barring people with ties to extremist organizations from seeking public office.

Navalny was arrested at the airport upon his return to Russia on January 17 and is now serving a 2 1/2-year prison term imposed as the result of a parole violation finding that he contends is absurd: Namely, that he did not formally report his whereabouts to Russian authorities when he was released from the hospital in Berlin.

Now, Navalny faces the potential prospect of three more years in prison after that.

On August 11, the Investigative Committee -- a top law enforcement body whose chief is a close Putin ally -- announced that he has been charged with creating an organization that infringes on the rights and personal safety of citizens -- another accusation that Navalny and his supporters say is inane.

Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who spent 10 years in Russian prisons on what he contended were fabricated financial crimes before he was pardoned by Putin and immediately flown out of the country in 2013, suggested there was a method to the state’s “madness.”

“I remember the extremely unpleasant realization of the fact that you are behind bars 'until further special notice,'" Khodorkovsky, who was tried and convicted twice in what he and other Kremlin critics said amounted to double jeopardy, wrote on Twitter on August 11.

“Courage to Aleksei,” he added.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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