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The Russian activists who will lead anti-graft crusade without Navalny



As Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was sent to jail this week following his high-profile detention at a Moscow airport, supporters such as Lyubov Sobol were enduring their own battles with the security forces.

After she and other activists called on Russians to take to the streets this weekend in support of Mr Navalny, security officials demanded such “illegal” calls be scrubbed from the internet under the threat of arrest, and police turned up outside their homes.

“They file as many criminal cases against us as they can, search us all the time, and drag us in for questioning to make our work harder and frighten us,” Ms Sobol, 33, one of Mr Navalny’s top aides, told the Financial Times on Wednesday after her seventh interrogation in a month.

The following day she too was detained as part of pre-emptive measures ahead of the protests planned in dozens of cities across Russia that are expected to be met with a heavy police response.

“If you want to be a politician in Russia, you have to be prepared for this,” Ms Sobol said before she was taken.

Mr Navalny has for years been the public face of the Russian opposition movement — a lightning rod for grassroots protests and a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin. On Monday he was jailed for a month in an impromptu court heart in a police station after returning from Germany, where he had been recovering from being poisoned last summer with the nerve agent novichok.

Less well known are the cadre of activists who support him and who also live with the threat of harassments and arrest. They will now be called upon to continue the work of Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as he faces the threat of a further three-and-a-half years in prison, followed by up to 10 in a separate case.

Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station following the court ruling that ordered him jailed for 30 days © AFP via Getty Images

Mr Navalny’s detention will not be his first lengthy absence. Before his poisoning — which the Kremlin alternately denies happened or blames on western intelligence agencies — he was jailed more than a dozen times for protesting against Mr Putin, nearly blinded with a chemical substance by a pro-Putin activist, and spent a year under house arrest on the suspended fraud charges used as the pretext to detain him this week.

The day after Mr Navalny’s arrest, his team published a two-hour video investigation alleging that oligarchs spent billions on a lavish palace for Mr Putin on the Black Sea coast. By Friday, it had racked up more than 53m views on YouTube.

Maria Pevchikh, 33, a London School of Economics graduate who runs the foundation’s investigative unit that researched the video, said Mr Navalny ordered her team to dig into the palace while he was still in intensive care in Berlin and helped ferret out leads as he recovered.

Maria Pevchikh runs the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigative unit that researched the video alleging that oligarchs spent billions on a lavish palace for President Vladimir Putin © Anti-Corruption Foundation

As he prepared for his return to Russia, Mr Navalny gave instructions on how to run the foundation should he be arrested, according to Ms Pevchikh, and prepared a list of oligarchs and officials he wants the US and EU to place under sanctions.

“We’ve been preparing for this for seven years. They could kill him, and have already tried to. But are we ready? Yes,” said Ms Pevchikh.

Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, this week told reporters that claims Mr Putin feared Mr Navalny were “absolute nonsense”. He later added that “Putin has no such palace” as the one featured in the documentary and said the president “had nothing whatsoever to do with [Navalny’s] arrest”.

But staff at Mr Navalny’s foundation say the Kremlin’s actions suggest otherwise. Last week, police arrested one of its cameramen on charges of “inciting extremism” in two tweets that could see him jailed for five years.

Bailiffs seized Mr Navalny’s apartment last year after a court ordered him to pay Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected caterer, more than $1m in defamation costs. Ms Sobol and others face similar lawsuits.

The crowd-funded foundation is labelled a “foreign agent” in Russia — a term Moscow can apply to any organisation it accuses of receiving overseas support — and faces separate money laundering charges after police raided Mr Navalny’s offices in 45 cities in 2019.

Leonid Volkov, who runs Mr Navalny’s regional network, fled Russia after the raids and now manages offices as far away as Vladivostok from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

“Alexei and I weighed up the risks and decided that at this moment it was better for the cause for me to work abroad. The loss to our work would be great and there wouldn’t be much political benefit,” Mr Volkov said.

Leonid Volkov, left, with Alexei Navalny in Germany © Leonid Volkov/AP

Vladimir Ashurkov, the foundation’s executive director, sought political asylum in the UK in 2014 after facing unrelated money laundering charges.

Ms Pevchikh, who lives in London but regularly visited Russia, has no immediate plans to return after state media claimed she was a western spy who had poisoned Mr Navalny.

For now, Mr Navalny’s allies are focusing on defying police bans to hold rallies in his support on Saturday.

“You can’t be afraid all the time,” said Ksenia Fadeeva, head of the foundation in Tomsk, the city where Mr Navalny was poisoned in August. “This is our country . . . we must fight against what’s happening and not be afraid. It certainly makes us more angry and determined.”

Ms Fadeeva was elected to the city’s council a month later, defeating a candidate from Mr Putin’s United Russia party to become one of the few members of the Navalny team to hold elected office.

Mr Navalny wants to repeat those successes through “smart voting” in parliamentary elections due to be held later this year, where Ms Sobol is leading the foundation’s slate of candidates.

Ms Pevchikh, meanwhile, is already preparing her next corruption exposé. “We’re cancelling all our other plans for the next 30 days or the next three-and-a-half years. It depends on how long they jail him for,” she said.

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Emerging Markets

NYSE to suspend trading of China’s Cnooc next month




The New York Stock Exchange is to start delisting proceedings against China National Offshore Oil Corporation to comply with an executive order from Donald Trump that bans Americans from investing in companies with ties to the Chinese military.

The NYSE on Friday said it would suspend trading in Cnooc’s American depository shares on March 9, after determining that the company was “no longer suitable for listing” following the order that the former US president signed in November.

The order banned investing in several dozen Chinese groups that were last year put on a Pentagon blacklist of companies that are accused of working with the People’s Liberation Army and threatening US security. Trump set a January 28 deadline for the ban to take effect, but President Joe Biden pushed the deadline back to May 27.

The NYSE move comes as Biden evaluates a number of assertive actions that Trump took against China during his last year in office. The commerce department last year put Cnooc on a separate blacklist — called the “entity list” — that makes it hard for US companies to sell products and technology to the Chinese oil group.

The Biden administration has not made clear whether it intends to keep Trump’s executive order in place. But the new president and his officials have so far adopted a tough stance towards China over everything from its economic “coercion” to concerns about its clampdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong to the repression of more than 1m Uighur Muslims in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Earlier this month, Biden used his first conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping since assuming office to raise concerns about Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and aggressive Chinese actions towards Taiwan. Antony Blinken, secretary of state, also described the detention of Uighurs in labour camps as “genocide”.

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, has said the administration was conducting a number of “complex reviews” of the China actions that Trump took. The former president put dozens of other Chinese companies on the Pentagon and commerce department blacklists, including Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment group.

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Bond sell-off roils markets, ex-Petrobras chief hits back, Ghana’s first Covax vaccines




The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury exceeded 1.5 per cent for the first time in a year and the outgoing head of Petrobras warns Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro against state controlled fuel prices. Plus, the FT’s Africa editor, David Pilling, discusses the Covax vaccine rollout in low-income countries. 

Wall Street stocks sell off as government bond rout accelerates

Ousted Petrobras chief hits back at Bolsonaro

Africa will pay more for Russian Covid vaccine than ‘western’ jabs

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Petrobras/Bolsonaro: bossa boots | Financial Times




“Brazil is not for beginners.” Composer Tom Jobim’s remark about his homeland stands as a warning to gung-ho foreign investors. Shares in Petrobras have fallen almost a fifth since President Jair Bolsonaro said he would replace the widely respected chief executive of the oil giant.

Firebrand Bolsonaro campaigned on a free-market platform. Now he is reverting to the interventionism of leftist predecessors. It is the latest reminder that a country with huge potential has big political and social problems.

Bolsonaro reacted to fuel protests by pushing for a retired army general to supplant chief executive Roberto Castello Branco, who had refused to lower prices. This is politically advantageous but economically short-sighted.

Fourth-quarter ebitda beat expectations at R$60bn (US$11bn), announced late on Wednesday, a 47 per cent increase on the previous quarter. This partly reflected the reversal of a R$13bn charge for healthcare costs. Investors now have to factor the cost of possible fuel subsidies into forecasts. The last time Petrobras was leaned on, it set the company back about R$60bn (US$24bn at the time). That equates to 40 per cent of forecast ebitda for 2021.

At just over 8 times forward earnings, shares trade at a sharp discount to global peers. Forcing Petrobras to cut fuel prices will make sales of underperforming assets harder to pull off and debt reduction less certain. Bidders may fear the obligation to cap prices will apply to them too.

A booming local stock market, rock bottom interest rates and low levels of foreign debt are giving Bolsonaro scope to spend his way out of the Covid-19 crisis. But the economy remains precarious. Public debt stands at 90 per cent of gross domestic product. The real — at R$5.40 per US dollar — remains near record lows. Brazil’s credit is rated junk by big agencies.

Rising developed market yields will make financings costlier for developing nations such as Brazil. So will high-handed treatment of minority investors. It sends a dire signal when a government with an economic stake of just over a third uses its voting majority to deliver a boardroom coup.

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