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Observers were quick to read the fine print: The constitutional overhaul would reset the clock on presidential term limits, potentially extending Putin’s hold on power until 2036. A referendum was set for April, and Putin seemed to be coasting toward a presidency-for-life.

What followed instead was an annus horribilis for Russia, and perhaps Putin’s most challenging year to date.

As Covid-19 started to spread around the globe, Russia briefly appeared to be on the front foot. The country sealed its border with China, and Putin boasted that the virus was “under control,” thanks to what he described as robust early measures to halt the spread of the disease.

But that approach was little more than bluster and spin. Not long after the government announced a nationwide lockdown that began on March 28, it became clear the country was in the grip of a major public health crisis.

In April, Moscow recorded a death rate about 20% higher than the 10-year average, while authorities in the capital indirectly acknowledged that they were undercounting Covid-19 deaths.

The government was forced to postpone the referendum on constitutional changes.

Doubts grew about how well the Kremlin was handling the pandemic and whether it was leveling with the Russian public about the severity of the crisis.

Such suspicions only grew as Russian doctors and medical personnel turned to social media to raise the alarm about underfunded hospitals and a death toll they said was higher than officially acknowledged. Reports of frontline healthcare workers falling from windows and fires from faulty Russian-made ventilators further eroded public trust.

Russia’s economic situation was also dire. The country was mired in a coronavirus-induced recession, compounded by plummeting global prices for oil, a key export.

By the middle of the year, the World Bank was projecting that Russia’s 2020 GDP growth would shrink by 6%, an 11-year low, accompanied by a spike in unemployment and rising poverty levels.

Such profound economic stress threatened to derail the ruling United Russia party’s political program by exposing deep weaknesses in the social compact that has kept Putin in power for two decades.

Reports of ventilators catching fire at an intensive care unit at the St. George Hospital in St. Petersburg in May added to doubts over how the Kremlin was handling the pandemic.

Putin’s political durability is often attributed to a simple bargain between him and his citizens: Accept limited political competition in exchange for stability and steady increases in the standard of living. But amid the pandemic, that deal has begun to unravel.

In July, protests erupted in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, where thousands took to the streets in extremely unusual street protests in support of the region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, who had been arrested and charged with orchestrating the murders of two businessmen in 2004 and 2005. Furgal denied involvement in the murders. His supporters saw the case as a politically motivated prosecution of a regional opponent of United Russia.
Perhaps equally worrying for the Kremlin, street protests swept neighboring Belarus in August, after the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, often described as Europe’s last dictator, claimed victory in an election observers said was marred by widespread fraud.

Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, refused to step aside and his security forces brutalized and detained thousands of Belarusians, leaving the Kremlin faced with the uncomfortable scenario of citizens in a neighboring and closely allied country refusing to play along with Russian-style sham democracy.

The Kremlin did manage to hold the nationwide referendum that secured constitutional changes, with the help of a nationwide get-out-the-vote campaign, a state holiday and the mobilization of the country’s large state sector, which accounts for a large part of the workforce.

But Putin’s system of managed democracy faced a new moment of crisis later in August, when opposition leader Alexey Navalny became critically unwell on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow.

Navalny had been leading a campaign called “smart voting” — an effort to get out the vote for the candidates in local elections who had the best chances of defeating United Russia candidates.

CNN-Bellingcat investigation identifies Russian specialists who trailed Putin's nemesis Alexey Navalny before he was poisoned

The Kremlin critic was eventually flown to Berlin for treatment, after Russian doctors initially insisted the opposition leader was too gravely ill to make the journey.

The German government later revealed that tests proved he had been poisoned with a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.

The Kremlin denied any attempt to harm Navalny, and Russian state television has spun a range of conspiracy theories to explain away the apparent assassination attempt.

But the Russian government drew swift criticism from international leaders, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying: “There are very serious questions now which only the Russian government can and must answer.”

In mid-December, a CNN-Bellingcat investigation uncovered evidence that Russia’s Federal Security Service (the FSB) formed an elite team specializing in nerve agents that trailed Navalny for years.
During his marathon annual press conference, Putin’s comments on the Navalny reports were as much a boast as they were a denial. “Who needs him anyway? If [Russian agents] wanted to, they would’ve probably finished it,” Putin said.

Navalny’s poisoning, in effect, demolished much of the goodwill that Russia had sought to build internationally amid the pandemic.

In early April, the Russian government scored a PR coup by sending ventilators and protective equipment to New York to help hospitals on the front line of the crisis.
It was symbolism over substance: The ventilators were the same model that caught fire in Russian hospitals, and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency said they were never used.

The Russian government also threw its weight behind efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine, a project that became a matter of national prestige.

In August, Putin announced to much fanfare that Russia’s domestically developed vaccine — called Sputnik V, a name inspired by the Cold War space race — had been approved for public use, even though it had not been through Phase 3 trials. That rush to be first drew international skepticism, as did the Kremlin’s subsequent acknowledgment that Putin himself would not receive the jab.
That’s not surprising: Information about Putin’s health is a closely guarded secret, and the presidential administration has taken extraordinary measures to protect the head of state from coronavirus, including the installation of a special “disinfectant tunnel” for visitors to his residence outside of Moscow and in the Kremlin.

The outbreak of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region further tested the Russian government’s crisis-management skills in 2020.

While the brief but intensely bloody fighting ended with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, the ceasefire deal also showcased the regional clout of Turkey. Russia is no longer the only indispensable power in the post-Soviet space.

Putin, Bolsonaro and AMLO finally congratulate Biden on US election victory

Kremlinology is an inexact science, but as 2020 draws to a close, one wonders if Putin is reconsidering those apparent plans to stay on as president until 2036.

After all, Russian lawmakers drew up a possible escape plan for the Kremlin leader, approving legislation that would give former presidents lifelong immunity from criminal prosecution.

The bill by no means implies the Russian president’s imminent departure from office — after all, Putin is a man who likes to keep his options open.

But for some observers, the bill was reminiscent of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s surprise handover of power to then-Prime Minister Putin on New Year’s Eve, 1999. One of Putin’s first acts as president was the signing of a degree granting Yeltsin immunity.

The end of this convulsive and difficult year, then, is likely to leave keen Russia-observers watching for any fresh New Year surprises from Putin.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)

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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers


Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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