Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who Germany says was poisoned by a weapons-grade Novichok nerve agent, is now out of a medically induced coma and is being weaned off mechanical ventilation, the Berlin hospital treating him said Monday.
“He is responding to verbal stimuli,” Charite hospital said in a statement, reporting that the 44-year-old’s condition “has improved”.
However, the hospital said it was too early to determine the long-term impact of the poisoning.
Navalny fell ill after boarding a plane in Siberia last month. He was initially treated in a local hospital before being flown to Berlin for treatment.
The German government said last week that toxicology tests have found “unequivocal evidence” that Novichok was used on Navalny, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Western counterparts to demand answers from Russia.
Earlier Monday, Merkel’s spokesman underlined that she would not rule out consequences on the multi-billion-euro Nord Stream 2 pipeline project if Moscow failed to thoroughly investigate the case.
The Kremlin has however denounced attempts to blame the poisoning on Russia as “absurd”.
Novichok is a military-grade poison that was developed by the Soviet government towards the end of the Cold War and can be deployed in an ultra-fine powder, liquid or vapour.
It was used against ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018, a poisoning that the West believes was ordered by the Kremlin.
Shopping malls and parks are set to reopen in Moscow on Monday as the Russian capital eases coronavirus restrictions despite having the world’s third-largest caseload.
The relaxation of the confinement orders in Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s outbreak with a population of more than 12 million, comes after President Vladimir Putin announced the epidemic had passed its peak in the country.
Under lockdown since March 30, residents of Europe’s most populous city were until now only allowed to leave their homes for brief trips to shop, walk dogs or travel to essential jobs with a permit.
While Muscovites welcomed the opportunity to return to parks and malls after weeks of being cooped up at home, many ridiculed the Moscow mayor’s “experiment” aimed at regulating people’s walks and exercise.
As a two-week test measure, Sergei Sobyanin said residents of Moscow will be allowed to take walks according to a staggered schedule based on their home address.
“Regular walks are allowed between 9am and 9pm but no more than three times a week — twice on weekdays and once on a weekend,” said Sobyanin on his blog, adding that a detailed schedule would be released separately.
People can jog or exercise between 5am and 9am but must wear masks, according to the new rules.
Sobyanin said he feared that without limits on walking, people would throng the streets in scenes reminiscent of May Day outpourings in Soviet times.
– ‘Sheer lunacy’ –
The new regulations unleashed a flood of mockery on social media, with political commentator Alexander Golts calling them “sheer lunacy”.
Critics quipped that life in Moscow was beginning to imitate dystopian fiction such as the novels of Aldous Huxley and Yevgeny Zamyatin.
Popular comedian Maxim Galkin, who has nearly eight million followers on Instagram, released a sketch in which Putin and Sobyanin discuss a “breathing schedule” for Moscow residents.
The five-minute parody has been viewed nearly six million times over the past few days.
When the restrictions are relaxed, dry-cleaners, laundry services, and repair workshops will be allowed to reopen, while restaurants, cafes and cinemas will remain closed for now.
Moscow authorities also said that no mass gatherings would be allowed during the city-wide quarantine that will remain in place until at least June 14.
On Thursday authorities sentenced prominent reporter and activist Ilya Azar to 15 days in jail for staging a lone protest in central Moscow.
Dozens of his supporters have also been briefly detained over the past few days.
Rights organisations including Amnesty International and the Council of Europe have warned Moscow against using the coronavirus lockdown as a pretext to muzzle activists.
Many critics have also questioned the move to lift the restrictions as Russia reported more than 9,000 new infections on Sunday.
With more than 405,000 confirmed infections and over 4,600 deaths, the country has the world’s third-largest caseload after the United States and Brazil.
Analysts say Putin is keen to open up the Russian economy and has recently ordered a World War II victory parade postponed by the contagion to be held on June 24.
The 67-year-old leader is also widely expected to announce a new date for a vote on constitutional reforms that could pave the way for him to potentially stay in power until 2036.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new prime minister promised “real changes” on Thursday as he was approved by lawmakers after the Kremlin announced sweeping reform plans.
Putin tapped Mikhail Mishustin for the role as part of a series of bombshell announcements on Wednesday, which sparked speculation that Russia’s longtime leader could be preparing his own political future.
The lower house State Duma voted overwhelmingly to approve Mishustin as premier, less than 24 hours after Russia’s political order was shaken by Putin’s announcement of constitutional reforms and the resignation of the government.
No MPs voted against his candidacy, although Communist lawmakers abstained.
Speaking before his approval, Mishustin called on parliament to work with him to urgently enact Putin’s programme.
“People should already now be feeling real changes for the better,” Mishustin said.
Longtime prime minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned along with the cabinet following the constitutional reform announcement.
Putin’s current term as president ends in 2024 and observers say the 67-year-old could be laying the groundwork to assume a new position or remain in a powerful behind-the-scenes role.
Mishustin said his priority would be to “increase citizens’ real incomes” but also said the government must “restore trust” with the business community and drive innovation, echoing the state-of-the-nation speech when Putin announced the reforms.
He assured lawmakers that Russia can afford salary hikes and social payouts announced by Putin, estimating they will cost about four trillion rubles ($65 billion) over the next four years.
His appointment was finalised with a Putin decree. A second decree appointed Medvedev as deputy head of Russia’s Security Council — an advisory body — a post that was created for him.
‘Stay number one’
In his state of the nation speech, Putin said he wanted more authority transferred to parliament from the president.
He also called for the power of the State Council to be expanded and enshrined in the constitution — adding to conjecture that Putin could take it over after 2024 to preserve power.
Outlining the proposals, which would be the first significant changes to the country’s constitution since it was adopted in 1993, Putin said there was a “demand for change” among Russians.
While his nominee Mishustin was speaking in parliament, Putin met his newly formed working group for amending the constitution.
Putin said the amendments “would have no effect on the foundations of the constitution” but would make authorities “more effective” and ensure Russia’s development.
He said Russia would remain a presidential republic following the reforms, but it would be the parliament, not the president who would be picking the government.
Independent political analyst Maria Lipman said the announcements indicated that Putin wanted to “stay on as number one in the country, without any competitors”.
She said he could be deliberately weakening the presidency before relinquishing the role.
Russia’s opposition also said the proposals indicate Putin’s desire to stay in power.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Twitter that Putin’s only goal was to “remain the sole leader for life”.
Medvedev, prime minister since 2012, posted a parting message on his VK social networking page on Thursday, saying Putin’s plans “demand a new approach” and thanking cabinet ministers for their work.
Hockey and pop music
Mishustin will have a week to propose a new government and ministers.
The former head of an investment group who trained as an engineer, Mishustin has a PhD in economics and has led Russia’s Federal Tax Service since 2010.
He shares Putin’s love for hockey and has played in matches with security services officials. Passionate about the digital economy, he has also composed music for pop songs, newspaper Vedomosti reported.
Navalny, who has alleged wide-scale corruption among Russia’s top politicians, on Thursday said Mishustin possesses a fortune inconsistent with his public service career and called on insiders to share information about his secrets.
Russia’s anti-doping tzar Yuri Ganus on Wednesday blasted the “irresponsible and destructive actions” of Moscow authorities he accuses of doctoring key data handed over to the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Ganus told delegates at WADA’s world conference in Katowice that the anti-doping agency RUSADA he heads had become “a hostage to the crisis” triggered by the falsified information.
In September, WADA ordered Russia to explain “inconsistencies” in some of the thousands of files and samples handed over from its Moscow anti-doping laboratory in January.
Among delegates listening to Ganus’s speech was Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov, who earlier had assured the conference that RUSADA and Russian authorities had met all of WADA’s demands.
The data transfer was a key condition for Russia’s reinstatement by WADA in 2018 after the country was banned from competing in several international competitions over state-sponsored doping between 2011 and 2015.
WADA’s compliance arm is set to conclude its review of this latest twist in the Russian doping scandal by the end of the month.
Ganus stressed that RUSADA “had nothing to do with the database and its transfer” and that it had been a victim of “forces outside RUSADA”. He urged WADA to apply “wisdom” when imposing any sanctions in order to protect the independence of anti-doping agencies.
To applause, Ganus concluded a rousing address by telling the conference: “No one should use us (RUSADA) for their personal interests…We will protect our independence.”
In an interview with AFP last month Ganus said he expected Russia to be banned from next year’s Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, blaming unnamed Russian officials for doctoring the data handed over to WADA.
The best-case scenario, in his view, was very limited participation “by certain athletes, by invitation”, as happened at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
A rescue operation in the Russian Far East found the body of one pilot and rescued another after two fighter jets collided over the Sea of Japan during a training flight on Friday, Russian media reported.
Russian news agencies quoted the ministry as saying that the body of one pilot was found “without any sign of life.”
The Russian Su-34 bombers touched in mid-air and fell into the sea near the Strait of Tartary, which separates Russia’s Sakhalin island from the mainland, according to the country’s Investigative Committee.
The committee also said it had opened a criminal investigation into the case.
The accident took place during a scheduled training exercise 35 kilometres (22 miles) from the shore in Russia’s Far East, Russian news agencies reported citing the defence ministry.
According to Russian media, the pilots were able to eject from their jets.
Russia’s television channel Zvezda, run by the defence ministry, earlier reported that one of the pilots was evacuated by air to the city of Khabarovsk.
It cited a ministry source as saying that the pilot’s health was “satisfactory”.
The number of missing pilots has not been confirmed. Russian media initially reported that two pilots had been rescued, but later cited authorities as saying that only one pilot had been found.
According to Zvezda, an ongoing rescue operation continued in severe weather conditions on Friday involving six ships, three helicopters and three planes.
Russia on Thursday detained a Belarusian model who claimed she had evidence of Russian efforts to help Donald Trump win office, witnesses told AFP.
Anastasia Vashukevich, known by her pen-name Nastya Rybka, was held for questioning at a Moscow airport on Thursday evening after she was deported from Thailand as part of a group convicted of participating in a “sex training course,” other passengers on the flight told AFP.
Russian authorities detained her and several others including Alex Kirillov, a self-styled Russian seduction guru, witnesses said.
Plain-clothes officials led away four of the group including Vashukevich and Kirillov, a woman who gave her name as Kristina told AFP after emerging at Sheremetyevo airport arrivals.
Describing herself as Kirillov’s wife, Kristina said she heard the group shouting and asking for an explanation of “why they were being detained” and saying they were suspected of recruiting for prostitution, a crime punishable by up to six years in jail.
A law enforcement source told TASS state news agency that four including Vashukevich and Kirillov were detained at the airport over recruiting for prostitution.
Vashukevich was held with several others in a police raid last February in the sleazy seaside resort of Pattaya.
Between salacious and bizarre
In a case that veered between salacious and bizarre, Vashukevich said she had travelled to Thailand after becoming embroiled in a political scandal with Russian aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska — a one-time associate of Trump’s disgraced former campaign director Paul Manafort.
She then set tongues wagging by promising to reveal “missing puzzle pieces” regarding claims the Kremlin aided Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory.
But the material never surfaced and critics dismissed the claims as a publicity stunt.
In the risque Pattaya seminar led by Kirillov, some participants wore shirts that said “sex animator” — though one person at the time described it as more of a romance and relationship course.
Vashukevich pleaded guilty alongside seven others to multiple charges, including solicitation and illegal assembly at a Pattaya court on Tuesday, which ordered the group be deported.
Kirillov, who has served as a quasi-spokesman for the mostly Russian group, told reporters as they arrived at court Tuesday that he believed they were set up.
“I think somebody ordered (our arrest)… for money,” he said.
Vashukevich looked somber as she entered the courthouse and did not respond to questions from the media.
The book about seducing oligarchs
On Thursday afternoon, Vashukevich and the majority of the convicted were put on an Aeroflot flight for Moscow, bringing to an end the Thai side of a baffling case.
Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said the last of the group would leave the country later that evening.
They were also blacklisted from returning to Thailand.
It was unclear what would happen to them on arrival in Moscow but as a Belarusian citizen, Vashukevich was expected to transit to Belarus.
Vashukevich, who has more than 120,000 followers on Instagram and penned a book about seducing oligarchs, already faces legal problems in Russia.
Deripaska won an invasion of privacy lawsuit against her and Kirillov in July after a video apparently filmed by the model showed the tycoon vacationing with an influential Russian deputy prime minister at the time.
“I don’t think she wants to get out in Moscow,” a Russian friend in Thailand who helped with the case told AFP on Thursday.
Both Washington and Moscow publicly shrugged off Vashukevich’s story, which the US State Department described as “bizarre”.
Kremlin-connected Deripaska and Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign manager, did business together in the mid-2000s.
Manafort has since been convicted in the US of financial crimes related to political work he did in Ukraine before the 2016 election as well as witness tampering.
The EU is to slap sanctions on two suspected Russian agents accused of carrying out a deadly nerve agent attack in the British city of Salisbury, officials told AFP Thursday.
Foreign ministers from the bloc will formally sign off on restrictive measures against nine individuals and one entity at a meeting on Monday, as part of the EU’s new sanctions regime aimed at punishing those who use chemical weapons in breach of international treaties.
Several diplomatic sources confirmed to AFP that the nine will include the two men blamed for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city in March last year using the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok.
The two men, who claimed to be tourists but have been identified by the Bellingcat investigative group as decorated agents for Russia’s GRU military intelligence called Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, were hit with sanctions by the US in December.
The EU is to sanction two more Russians as well, along with five Syrians, in the first listings made under the new mechanism, which was introduced in October following the Skripal attack.
“It will be the first time there is a listing related to violations of international obligations under the OPCW and that will involve listing nine persons and one entity,” a senior EU official said, adding “they are obviously very naughty people”.
The Salisbury attack, the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II, caused an international outcry and prompted a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by Western nations.
The Skripals survived the attack but a woman died in June after her partner picked up a discarded perfume bottle that British investigators believe was used to carry the Novichok.
Moscow denies involvement in the poisoning and has offered numerous and varied alternative explanations and counter-accusations.
The number of dead from a New Year’s Eve gas explosion in a Russian apartment block jumped to 38 on Thursday as rescuers recovered more bodies from the rubble of the partially collapsed building.
Russian news agencies quoted the emergencies ministry as saying a 38th body had been recovered, leaving only three people unaccounted for.
Rescuers have been braving temperatures as low as minus 27 degrees Celsius (minus 16 degrees Fahrenheit) to search through mangled concrete and metal at the site in the Ural mountains city of Magnitogorsk.
Six people including two children have been rescued at the site, but no survivors have been found since Tuesday when a 10-month-old boy was retrieved in what officials described as a “New Year’s miracle”.
The explosion tore through the 10-storey building in the industrial city nearly 1,700 kilometres (1,050 miles) east of Moscow in the early hours of Monday.
The Soviet-era block was home to about 1,100 people and the explosion destroyed 35 apartments, leaving dozens homeless.
The emergencies ministry said work was continuing at the site on Thursday, with nearly 900 people involved in rescue and recovery efforts.
A bridge had been built to reach higher areas and one of the building’s walls was taken down as it was threatening to collapse on rescue workers.
Financial help for victims
On Thursday, residents of other parts of the building were to be allowed to enter their apartments, in half-hour stretches, to recover some belongings, the ministry said.
All the survivors were in a stable condition, said the office of Chelyabinsk regional governor Boris Dubrovsky, who visited several of them in hospital on Thursday.
The health ministry also said that Vanya, the baby boy rescued on Tuesday, was recovering in hospital.
His condition was “stable, with some improvement”, Russian news agencies quoted the ministry as saying.
The boy was found in his cradle after rescuers heard him crying from under the rubble. He was brought to his mother, who had survived the blast and then flown to Moscow for treatment.
Dubrovsky’s office said the governor had approved new financial assistance to the victims, including payments of one million rubles ($14,500, 12,700 euros) to the families of those killed and 400,000 rubles for those injured.
Families who lost their apartments would receive payments of up 500,000 rubles, as well as being provided with new homes.
Financial assistance was also to be provided to help pay for funerals, the first six of which were to be held on Friday, the governor’s office said.
The explosion, which officials have said was likely caused by a gas leak, happened as most of the building’s residents were asleep.
Witnesses described a “wave of fire” and said the blast was strong enough to shatter windows in nearby buildings.
Investigators have launched a probe, but have said there is no reason to suspect foul play.
Gas explosions are relatively common in Russia, where much of the infrastructure dates back to the Soviet era and safety requirements are often ignored.
Located in the mineral-rich southern Urals, Magnitogorsk, with a population of more than 400,000, is home to one of Russia’s largest steel producers.