Regional headlines: Russia denies UK foul play; Orban vs. the “Dutchman”; opposition unites in Belarus; coronavirus in Romania; and a Mongolian football story.

Russian Ambassador to UK Dismisses Hacking Claims 

Andrei Kelin told the BBC in an interview broadcast yesterday that there was “no sense” in claims that Russian intelligence services attempted to steal research into the development of a vaccine against the coronavirus. Kelin’s reply comes after British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was “very clear Russia did this,” adding that it is important to call out this “pariah-type behavior.” The Russian ambassador also denied Moscow interfered in British politics. “We do not interfere at all,” Kelin said. “We do not see any point in interference because for us, whether it will be [the] Conservative Party or Labour’s party at the head of this country, we will try to settle relations and to establish better relations than now.” According to The Guardian, Britain, the U.S., and Canada said last Thursday that a group of hackers linked to Russian intelligence, known as the Dukes or Cozy Bear, have targeted research bodies around the world, including in the UK. The Russian news service, TASS, recently reported that clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine took place last month at Moscow’s Sechenov University, one of the country’s leading medical schools. If successful, these trials mean that Russia could begin vaccinating the public against COVID-19 as early as mid-August, according to TASS.

Orban Blames “the Dutchman” for Lack of Consensus at EU Summit

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban blamed Dutch leader Mark Rutte for stalling the progress of talks in Brussels, as a summit on the distribution of coronavirus recovery funds enters another day, Reuters writes. “I don’t know what is the personal reason for the Dutch prime minister to hate me or Hungary, but he is attacking so harshly,” he told reporters yesterday. “I don’t like blame games but the Dutchman is the real responsible man for the whole mess … The Dutch prime minister, he is the fighter.” The Netherlands is part of a group of countries that dubbed themselves the “frugal four,” along with Sweden, Denmark, and Austria. They have been refusing a proposal to allow 500 billion euros ($572 billion) to be offered in grants to countries hardest-hit by the effects of COVID-19, the BBC writes. Some countries have also argued that grants should be linked to member states’ adherence to democratic standards, a touchy subject in Budapest. “What’s going on is a little bit strange because there is a 100 percent agreement on the rule of law,” Orban said. “If somebody is not ready to accept the rule of law [they] should leave the European Union immediately. They should not be punished by money.” He added “these guys who inherited freedom, rule of law, and political democracy” did not have the experience that he and others in Eastern Europe had fighting against communism.

Belarusian Opposition Unites Behind Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya   

Syarhei Tsikhanouski’s wife, Svyatlana, held two rallies on 19 July in Minsk and in the nearby city of Dzyarzhynsk, after securing the backing of opposition figures who vowed to “defeat” the “longtime dictatorial regime,” Radio Free Europe writes. She is standing in for her husband, a well-known blogger, after he was imprisoned for threatening public order after a rally in May. Representatives of former Belgazprombank head Viktar Babariko and prominent businessman Valer Tsepkalo, joined Tsikhanouskaya at the rallies. “They saw a threat to the government, but they did not understand that the threat is not in the candidates, but in the people themselves, who are tired of living in humiliation and fear,” Tsikhanouskaya said. Hundreds of people were detained last week following clashes with police in Minsk and other cities as people took to the streets to vent their anger at the authorities’ refusal to register leading presidential hopefuls Babariko and Tsepkalo. The Belarusian economy is set to shrink by around 4 percent this year, Deutsche Welle writes, citing World Bank figures. Incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is running for another term in next month’s election, refused to impose a lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has likely contributed to a decline in his popularity. According to the results of an online poll, cited by DW, support for Lukashenko and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic stood at 3 percent.

COVID-19 Ruling Allows Infected Romanians to Leave Hospital and Isolation

Hundreds of Romanians who tested positive for coronavirus left the hospital and quarantine after a Constitutional Court ruling that passed earlier this month, Euronews writes. The most recent figures from the Romanian Health Ministry put their total numbers at 757 people. The court ruling said that only a bill approved by the parliament, and not an order from the Health Ministry, can lead to the imposition of mandatory quarantine, isolation, or hospital treatment for infected patients. Prime Minister Ludovic Orban blamed the Constitutional Court for carrying out the orders of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), The Irish Times writes. “Unfortunately in recent months we have faced organized campaigns aimed at making Romanians not believe in the virus, not follow the rules we established, ignore the danger, and we see that, unfortunately, these campaigns have had consequences,” Orban said. “The virus does not spare anyone. It does not spare those who do not believe in it.” PSD had welcomed the court’s ruling, Euronews notes. Romania has seen a surge in the number of coronavirus infections, with 799 new infections registered last Friday – the largest daily increase since the start of the pandemic.

Ludovic Orban. Image via EPP/Wikimedia Commons.

From Teenage Hopeful to Mongolian Football Champion 

Mongolian football (soccer) fan Ochiroo Batbold has made his ambition to play winning football come true – despite falling victim to a scammer, the BBC writes. Ochiroo – who is known as Wazza after his idol, British footballer Wayne Rooney – became a football fan in his teens, after playing the FIFA game on PlayStation. The game is less popular than wrestling and basketball in Mongolia, whose harsh climate favors indoors sports. However, Ochiroo’s determination earned him a spot on football team Bayangol FC, which went on a winning streak that led it to the Mongolian Premier League. Ochiroo’s fate, however, took a fateful turn when an agent contacted him on Facebook, and offered him a trial with U.S. team Los Angeles Galaxy – an offer that turned out to be fake, and cost Ochiroo $6,000. However, with the help of the local football community, and a crowdfunding campaign set up in his name, Ochiroo succeeded in raising the needed money to cover his debts, and resumed his football career. He even went on to play for UB City, the team that was crowned champion of Mongolia last year.

Compiled by Ioana Caloianu