Russian Coronavirus Vaccine Maker Studying 3rd Booster Shot

The makers of Russia’s second approved coronavirus vaccine EpiVacCorona are studying third doses to boost recipients' immune response, a senior scientist said Wednesday.

Approved last fall and added to Russia’s mass immunization program last month, EpiVacCorona has come under scrutiny after a group of late-trial study participants claimed that it does not produce an immune response. Early-trial results published in a Russian medical journal this spring disputed that claim, saying that all adults involved in phase one and two trials had developed antibodies.

Alexander Ryzhikov, head of zoonotic infections at the Siberia-based Vektor Institute that developed EpiVacCorona and co-author of the early-trial study, said triple vaccination tests on animals have “confirmed increased and prolonged immunity.”

“First and second-phase clinical trials to introduce triple vaccination [of humans] with this vaccine are currently underway,” Ryzhikov said.

Speaking at an Instagram forum hosted by Russia’s consumer protection watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, which leads national Covid-19 containment efforts, Ryzhikov called third vaccine doses “natural.”

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C.Africa to Probe Claims of Abuse By Troops, Russian Forces

The Central African Republic described UN information about abuse by CAR troops and Russian forces as "denunciations," but promised to investigate them.

Government spokesman Ange Maxime Kazagui, in a statement late Monday, said President Faustin Archange Touadera had received a report from the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA.

In it, the mission detailed abuses committed between December 2020 and April 2021 "that seriously accuse national and bilateral forces," he said, referring to CAR troops and their Russian military supporters.

The allegations include "arbitrary/extrajudicial executions, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment (and) arbitrary arrest," his statement said.

UN experts in March had sounded the alarm about allegations of "major rights violations" by Russian forces sent to shore up the CAR's beleaguered armed forces.

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Coronavirus in Russia: The Latest News | May 5

Russia has confirmed 4,847,489 cases of coronavirus and 111,895 deaths, according to the national coronavirus information center. Russia’s total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is above 460,000.

May 5: What you need to know today

Russia on Wednesday confirmed 7,975 new coronavirus cases and 360 deaths.

April 30

— Turkey's Medicines and Medical Devices Agency gave emergency authorization to Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, the jab's developers confirmed Friday. 

— Russia has produced 17,000 doses of Cornivac-Cov vaccine, the world’s first coronavirus vaccine for pets, the RBC news website reported Friday, citing Rosselkhoznadzor press service. 

— The developer of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine said Thursday it would sue Brazil's health regulator Anvisa after it refused to import the jab.

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Russian Special Envoy Steven Seagal Gifts Sword to Venezuela's Maduro

Hollywood action star Steven Seagal, known for dropping in on tough guy leaders like Russia's Vladimir Putin, paid a visit to Venezuela's leftist president Nicolas Maduro to give him the gift of a samurai sword.

The hero of 80s and 90s hits including "Hard to Kill" and "Under Siege" appeared in state-run TV footage on Tuesday passing the katana to Maduro, who then sliced the blade through the air several times in an ornate office.

Seagal, dressed all in black and without a face mask, nodded approvingly but appeared to warn Maduro when the leader put his fingers close to the blade.

In the decades since the height of his Hollywood fame, Seagal has been a vocal supporter of Putin and once dropped in on Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte as the southeast Asian nation battled Islamic State group extremists.

Russia granted Seagal citizenship in 2016, which included Putin personally handing over a passport to the actor in a televised meeting.

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Russia Seeks to Ban Extremist-Linked Candidates Ahead of Navalny Ruling

Russian lawmakers have proposed banning people linked to terrorist or extremist organizations from running for office ahead of a landmark ruling to outlaw jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s political and activist groups.

The changes to Russia’s election law, submitted in the lower-house State Duma on Tuesday, come days ahead of a highly anticipated Moscow court decision to brand Navalny’s nationwide network of some 50 regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) — both peaceful political movements — as “extremist” organizations.

If passed, anyone in the extremist group’s hierarchy — including financial donors — who played any role in the organization one to three years prior to the court ruling would be banned from running for office.

Heads of outlawed organizations would not be allowed to run for the State Duma for five years while employees would face three-year bans, according to the draft bill.

“We’ve seen a lot of ‘laws against Navalny,’ but this is something new,” Navalny’s senior aide Leonid Volkov tweeted.

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Biden Says 'Hope and Expectation' for Putin Meeting in June

U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday he expects to hold a summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a June trip to Europe.

"That is my hope and expectation," Biden said.

Biden in April offered a meeting in a third country to discuss rising tensions over Russian sabre rattling around Ukraine, the treatment of jailed Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, and other flashpoints.

A summit has not been confirmed but a Putin advisor, Yury Ushakov, has said planning is underway.

Biden is scheduled to attend a G7 summit in Britain in mid-June, followed by NATO and EU summits in Brussels, which would open the door to the logistics of a separate Putin meeting.

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Russian Astrologer, Yoga Teacher Charged for Promoting Popular Hindu Festival

A Russian astrologer and yoga instructor said she has been accused of illegal missionary work for organizing celebrations of a major Hindu festival.

Yekaterina Kalinkina, 47, faces a fine of 50,000 rubles ($650) for organizing and promoting events marking the festival of Maha Shivratri on social media in March, according to documents she posted Friday.

Maha Shivratri, also known as “the great night of Shiva” — the patron god of yoga, meditation and arts — is a widely recognized festival in Hinduism that celebrates “overcoming darkness and ignorance.”

The attached prosecution file notes that Kalinkina’s posts constitute illegal missionary work because she is not an authorized religious leader and “no religious association of the Hindu god Shiva is registered” in the central Russian republic of Udmurtia. 

Kalinkina said on social media that the administrative charges are “not fatal, but [they make] me think about the future.”

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Russia’s Last Stalin Avenue Removes Dictator’s Bust Days After Installation

A monument to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been dismantled days after local communists in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan erected it on Russia’s last remaining Stalin Avenue, media reported Monday.

The Communist Party chapter in the town of Dagestanskiye Ogni 2,000 kilometers south of Moscow ignited deep-seated divisions when its members placed Stalin’s bust next to a bus stop last Thursday. 

“It’s a historic day,” said an activist in a video shared by the local Ogni TV broadcaster’s Instagram account. 

Social media users, reflecting current disagreements over the dictator’s legacy in modern Russia, pointed to Stalin’s repressions, anti-religious policies and internal deportations of North Caucasus populations — but also noted his role in the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

On Monday, Ogni TV’s Instagram account showed footage of a truck crane removing the sculpture from its pedestal.

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Confined By the Pandemic, Russian Tourists Flock to Dagestan

CHOKH, Dagestan - Maxim Alyoshin sips sweet black tea from a thermos flask in this picturesque mountain village as he recalls the horror stories his father told him about fighting jihadist militants in the region in the 1990s as part of an elite Russian special forces regiment. 

“We always heard scary things about Dagestan, that we’d be kidnapped as slaves if we went,” said Alyoshin, a 32-year-old civil engineer who had traveled 2,000 kilometers south with his wife from their home in central Russia to spend two nights in Chokh.

“But since we’ve arrived, our impressions have been entirely positive.”

With coronavirus restrictions ruling out holidays to traditional destinations like Thailand and Turkey for a second year running, Russians are warming to the mountainous Caucasian region that, until recently, was widely seen as violent and backward.

A billboard reads "Dagestan against terrorism and extremism." Felix Light / MT

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Two theories. Why did the Russian authorities designate Meduza as a ‘foreign agent’?

Two theories. Why did the Russian authorities designate Meduza as a ‘foreign agent’?

As you may have learned from the crowdfunding banners now adorning this website, the Russian authorities designated Meduza as a “foreign agent” on April 23. Our new status in Russia has chased away advertisers and deprived us of revenue, endangering Meduza’s continued existence. We asked the Justice Ministry why it believes we are “foreign agents,” and officials sent a formal response (translated below) that explains almost nothing. Why did the Justice Ministry act now? Why did it target Meduza? And who ordered this? Meduza correspondents spoke to sources with knowledge of the Kremlin’s inner workings and found two plausible theories.

The Justice Ministry’s “explanation”

“In response to a request dated April 28, 2020, regarding the registration of a foreign mass media outlet performing the functions of a foreign agent, we provide the following notification: Based on documents received from authorized state agencies of the Russian Federation verifying that it has the features matching a foreign mass media outlet performing the functions of a foreign agent, as established by Russian Mass Media Law Number 2124-1, the legal entity registered in the Latvian Republic SIA ‘Medusa Project’ (registration number 40103797863, registered on June 10, 2014) was added to the [‘foreign agents’] registry on April 23, 2021. Russia’s Justice Ministry decided to include information on this legal entity in the registry was reached in accordance with the Russian Federation’s rules and regulations.”

Theory #1: Russia added Meduza to its “foreign agent” list in retaliation for Latvia’s treatment of the Russian state media agency Sputnik

“What’s going on? Did they already block Meduza in response to Latvia blocking Russian sites? No? And why not?” asked Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on her Telegram channel on April 1, 2020. This invitation to retaliate against Meduza came a day after RT announced that its Russian-language website was no longer available in Latvia, due to censorship by the local authorities. Three weeks later, Russia’s Justice Ministry added Meduza to its registry of “foreign agents.” “Rays of approval to the Justice Ministry!” Simonyan cheered on social media, following reports about Meduza’s new status in Russia. Soon thereafter, the Sputnik Near Abroad Telegram channel reposted a text arguing that Meduza “got off relatively lightly.” (Sputnik Near Abroad belongs to the “Rossiya Segodnya” Russian state media group, whose various projects have been banned in Latvia, where local law enforcement have also opened criminal investigations against some staff members.)

On April 24, spokespeople for Russia’s Justice Ministry told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta that media outlets can be designated as “foreign agents” if they meet just three criteria: (1) the outlet’s publisher is registered in a foreign jurisdiction, (2) the outlet receives funding from abroad, and (3) the outlet distributes information in Russia (that is, information in Russian through the Internet). 

In effect, any foreign media outlet that releases content in Russian meets the Justice Ministry’s “foreign agent” criteria, but the authorities have been extremely selective about enforcement, so far. Before designating Meduza, Russia’s list of “foreign agent” news organizations was limited to the U.S.-government-funded outlets Voice of America and 11 media projects under the umbrella of Radio Liberty, as well as the Czech news agency Medium-Orient, which receives money from the Open Society Foundations, created by the billionaire George Soros. 

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North Korea: Keeping Its Powder Dry

What to Make of Recent North Korean Statements

Martha Raddatz and Jake Sullivan on “This Week.” Source: ABC News

There are signs that Washington and Pyongyang are in the early, cautious stages of a diplomatic dance. On April 30, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki revealed that the administration had completed its North Korea policy review. Pyongyang has so far remained silent on Psaki’s statement. However, on May 2, though they had doubtless read Psaki’s remarks, the North Koreans decided to hold off commenting on the review and instead issued a muted response critical of President Joseph Biden’s brief mention of the North in his April 28 address to Congress.

Three key points demonstrate an effort by the North to signal that it wasn’t going to ignore the president’s singling out the North as a “threat” in his first address to the Congress, but in a carefully calibrated way:

The reaction to the president’s remarks was in the name of Director General for American Affairs Kwon Jong Gun rather than in a statement at a more authoritative level. Confining the response to Kwon’s level gives Pyongyang room to respond differently and more authoritatively at a later time.Kwon’s comments did not include any personal attacks on the president or refer to him by name.The statement’s bottom line was a vaguely formulated threat wrapped in uncertain timing: “…we will be compelled to press for corresponding measures, and with time the U.S. will find itself in a very grave situation.” Moreover, the threat of DPRK action was braked by an important conditional—“if” the US still held to an outdated perspective, it would face a “worse and worse crisis beyond control.”

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s remarks on a May 2 Sunday morning talk show, coming on the heels of Kwon Jong Gun’s statement, could suggest to the North that Washington was in a similarly cautious mode, and was not going to be distracted by low-level criticism from Pyongyang. Moreover, Sullivan’s language describing a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” could strike Pyongyang as similar to language it was using in 2018 to illustrate its ideas and is likely a welcomed overture.

For now, though, North Korea appears to be waiting for a fuller public presentation of the policy review before responding. Meanwhile, what might have some people in Pyongyang sitting up in their chairs and contemplating the next move is the April 30 Washington Post article that cited a senior administration official as saying that the administration would “build on” the June 2018 Singapore agreement.

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Levada Center: Russians name Putin’s address and the Navalny protests as April 2021’s most memorable events

Levada Center: Russians name Putin’s address and the Navalny protests as April 2021’s most memorable events

According to survey results from the independent Levada Center, 17 percent of respondents named Vladimir Putin’s State of the Nation address as the most memorable event of April 2021. 

This was followed by news about jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny and the rallies in support of him (10 percent), the military escalation in eastern Ukraine and the Russian military exercises near the border (9 percent), and worsening relations with the United States and Europe (8 percent). Notably, 34 percent of respondents said that there were no memorable events last month.

The Levada Center conducted its survey from April 22 to 28, 2021, through in-person interviews with 1,614 respondents over the age of 18, from 137 towns and cities across 50 of Russia’s regions. 

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Russian LGBTQ activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova goes on hunger strike

Russian LGBTQ activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova goes on hunger strike

Over the weekend, artist and LGBTQ rights activist Yulia Tsvetkova, who is facing charges for the criminal distribution of pornography over drawings she posted on social media, announced a hunger strike.

In a Facebook post published on the activist’s behalf by her mother, Anna Khodyreva, Tsvetkova said her main demand is for the authorities speed up the consideration of her case, which has been drawn out for nearly two years.

“The case was sent repeatedly for ‘further investigation’ and (very dubious) evidence was shoved into it again and again. They weren’t able to confirm the indictment. They weren’t able to appoint a court. Now the hearings are held once a month. Two years of investigation. Two years of a life stolen. For reposts [on social media] And these two years won’t even be counted towards the term [of the sentence], because I am under the mildest measure of restraint.” 

Tsvetkova called on the state “be a man” and open the proceedings against her, and give her the opportunity to defend herself by all legal methods, including via a public defender.

The criminal investigation into Yulia Tsvetkova, who is from the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, was opened in November 2019. She was kept under house arrest until March 2020, at which point she was released on a written undertaking not to leave. State investigators charged her with the criminal distribution of pornography in June 2020.

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Journalist cited while reporting on Brooklyn Center protest

Independent journalist Naasir Akailvi, who reports on social media as the Neighborhood Reporter, said he was detained and cited while reporting on a protest in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 13, 2021.

Demonstrations had been held for several days outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department in response to the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop on April 11. Wright’s death occurred as a former police officer in nearby Minneapolis was on trial in the death of George Floyd, rekindling a wave of protests against racial injustice and police brutality that had started nearly a year earlier.

Akailvi told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that late on the night of April 13 he was reporting as police pushed protesters away from the police station up Humboldt Avenue. He told the Tracker that he believed police had issued dispersal orders earlier in the night, but he hadn’t considered leaving because of them. There was a curfew in effect starting at 10 p.m., according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune; it exempt members of the media.

Shortly before 11 p.m., Akailvi said, police had started to form a crowd-control technique called a “kettle,” which blocks people from leaving, in a gas station.

At one point, Akailvi said, he noticed that police were using batons to smash a car’s windows, and he moved closer to film the scene. Within seconds, he said, he felt someone grab him from behind. He said he was taken down to the ground and his wrists were constrained with zip ties.

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Russian North sees sharp decline in population. Only military towns grow

Russian North sees sharp decline in population. Only military towns grow

The forces that protect the Kola Peninsula and the wide-stretched Russian Arctic coast have over the past decade become a top priority of country’s armed forces, and big investments are being made in regional towns, bases and military infrastructure.

That is reflected in the demographic situation in the Kola Peninsula. New data from the Russian statistics service Rosstat show that the military towns are the clear population winners in the region.

While the total population of the Murmansk region in the course of 2020 dropped by more than 1,1 percent from 741,511 on 1st of January 2020 to 732,864 a year later, the military towns experienced solid growth.

The demographic increase was biggest in Severomorsk, the headquarters city of the Northern Fleet. In the course of the year, the local population increased by more than 1,250 people.

A total of 65,080 people now live in the closed military municipality of Severomorsk, the data from Rosstat show.

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Sechin’s special forces. Journalists spent years under FSB surveillance after gaining access to ‘private’ Instagram pics

Sechin’s special forces. Journalists spent years under FSB surveillance after gaining access to ‘private’ Instagram pics

For years, the Russian FSB had investigative journalist Roman Anin and his former colleagues from the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta under surveillance. This began in 2016, after Anin authored a report for the newspaper about a multi-million dollar yacht allegedly belonging to Olga Rozhkova — who was married to Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin at the time. A month ago, FSB agents raided Anin’s apartment in connection with this case. Though he is considered a witness thus far, Anin is convinced that the authorities want to make him a suspect in the investigation. In a new report published by Novaya Gazeta and iStories — the investigative outlet where Roman Anin is now editor-in-chief — the journalist breaks down the case materials, revealing which investigators have been handling the case and how the investigation is connected to Sechin and the FSB.

Doin’ it for the gram

In July 2016, Novaya Gazeta published a report authored by Roman Anin titled, “The Secret of Princess Olga.” It claimed that Olga Rozhkova — the then-wife of Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin — was the owner of the St. Princess Olga, a yacht worth nearly $100 million. As evidence, the article presented photos from Rozkhkova’s private Instagram account. 

In response, Igor Sechin filed a lawsuit against Anin and Novaya Gazeta. The Rosneft head won the claim, and in December 2016 the newspaper published a retraction of the article. But apparently, even before that, in September 2016, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case over the disclosure of information about a person’s private life at Olga Rozhkova’s request. Roman Anin knew nothing about it until his apartment was searched in April 2021. 

State investigators consider the fact that Anin’s article included photos from Olga Rozhkova’s private Instagram account, which had approximately 400 followers, a violation of the law. 

Not everyone has what it takes Roman Anin, whose home and newsroom were raided by federal agents last week, explains the challenges of investigative journalism in Russia today
Not everyone has what it takes Roman Anin, whose home and newsroom were raided by federal agents last week, explains the challenges of investigative journalism in Russia today

True detectives

The first investigator handling Anin’s case was Konstantin Rodionchik, who became well-known in 2020 when a defendant in the controversial “New Greatness” extremism case, Ruslan Kostylenkov, accused state investigators of torturing him to extract a confession (Kostylenkov claimed that he was forced to sign a confession that another investigator “practically dictated” to Rodionchik). During the three months that Rodionchik investigated Anin’s case, he instructed the FSB to “monitor and record” the journalist’s “telephone and other conversations.”

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Journalists Worldwide Urge Russia to Stop Persecuting Independent Media

Hundreds of journalists from scores of countries have called on Russia to end its persecution of independent media, according to an open letter published on the Russian student-run news outlet DOXA’s website Monday.

The World Press Freedom Day statement came a month after authorities filed a criminal case against DOXA’s editorial team for allegedly “inciting minors to participate in illegal activities.” Also in April, security agents raided the home of Roman Anin, editor-in-chief of the iStories (Important Stories) investigative outlet, and labeled one of Russia’s most-read news sites, Meduza, a “foreign agent.”

“Russia’s independent media are under serious threat,” 235 journalists representing 63 countries said.

The signatories representing North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa decried the intimidation of independent media “through legal restrictions, changes in ownership, fines and criminal cases” since Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the presidency two decades ago.

“This policy has led to the fact that the Russian media landscape is now dominated by outlets controlled by the state or Vladimir Putin’s long-time friends,” they said.

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EU Summons Russian Ambassador Over Retaliatory Sanctions

The European Union summoned the Russian ambassador on Monday after Moscow put eight EU nationals, including top Brussels officials, on a blacklist in retaliation for sanctions by the bloc. 

Moscow's envoy was to meet senior officials from the European Commission and the EU's diplomatic service later in the afternoon, EU spokesman Peter Stano said.

"These counter sanctions are obviously very politically motivated and lack any legal justification," Stano said.

"We will convey to him strong condemnation and rejection of this decision."

On Friday, Russia barred entry to eight officials from the EU — European Parliament president David Sassoli and commission vice-president Vera Jourova were among them — in response to sanctions from the bloc over abuses, including the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. 

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Putin Enacts Fines for Sharing Unlabeled ‘Foreign Agent’ Media Reports

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law fines for publishing information and reports from “foreign agent” media without identifying the outlet’s status amid what observers call tightening restrictions on dissent ahead of key elections.

Under to the new law that Putin signed Friday, media organizations can be fined up to 50,000 rubles ($650) for distributing a report without indicating that the distributed material was produced by a “foreign agent.”

Individual journalists face fines of up to 2,500 rubles ($33) and officials up to 5,000 rubles ($66) for the same violations.

The penalties were introduced 10 days after Russia declared Meduza, one of the country’s most-read independent news outlets, a “foreign agent.” Its chief editor Ivan Kolpakov has said the designation will allow Russian authorities to block Meduza and imprison its journalists for reporting errors as well as press felony charges against him.

Meduza, which began publishing out of Latvia in 2014 after its then-chief editor was driven out of Russia, is among 19 news outlets currently labeled “foreign agents.”

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Russian Billionaires, Rosneft Sue Over Book on Putin’s Rise – FT

Three Russian tycoons and the Rosneft oil giant have filed libel and data protection lawsuits in Britain against the publisher of journalist Catherine Belton’s acclaimed 2020 book “Putin’s People,” the Financial Times has reported.

The billionaires — Mikhail Fridman, his longtime business partner Peter Aven and real estate tycoon Shalva Chigirinsky — and Rosneft filed the flurry of suits in March and April, around the one-year deadline for libel actions in British law, FT reported Saturday. 

HarperCollins defended “Putin’s People,” which centers on the rise of President Vladimir Putin and his relationship with wealthy oligarchs, as “authoritative, important and conscientiously sourced work.”

“We will robustly defend this acclaimed and groundbreaking book and the right to report on matters of considerable public interest,” FT quoted the publisher as saying.

Fridman’s spokesperson told FT that neither the banking, retail and telecoms tycoon nor Alfa Bank Group head Aven had prior knowledge of the other lawsuits and that they did not coordinate legal strategy with the other plaintiffs.

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