Nord Stream’s Fate in Merkel’s Hands as Evidence of Navalny Poisoning Mounts

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was the victim of “attempted murder with a nerve agent” – but it remains to be seen if she will bow to increasing pressure to stop Nord Stream, the Russian-built gas pipeline that Germany sees as vital to its energy future. Merkel yesterday said the Navalny case raises “very serious questions that only the Russian government can answer – and must answer,” after a German government spokesman announced that a special military lab had found conclusive evidence that Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, Deutsche Welle reports. The Kremlin critic was transported to a Berlin hospital from Russia after falling ill on an internal flight. Some German politicians and diplomats are now coming round to the idea of a European response to the Navalny poisoning, possibly meaning a halt to the Russian-funded Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Reuters writes. The Trump administration has been pressuring Germany for months to pull out, although the pipeline, which would transport Russian gas across the Baltic Sea to Germany, is nearly finished. On Tuesday, Merkel reaffirmed the government’s intention to see the pipeline completed and said “extraterritorial sanctions that go beyond the territory of the United States” were illegal, German TV channel RTL reported. Last month, three Republican U.S. senators threatened the German port of Sassnitz with “crushing” sanctions if it continued to cooperate with Russian firms on Nord Stream 2.

Dozens of Belarusian Protesters Missing, Tsikhanouskaya Claims

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka could meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin within two weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday, ahead of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s visit to Minsk today. Lavrov criticized “destructive” Western criticism of the Belarusian authorities, RFE/RL reports, as protests against Lukashenka’s disputed re-election continue into a fourth week. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claims dozens of arrested protesters remain unaccounted for. “After the demonstrations,” she told Politico, “we still don’t know where about 70 people are and they are miss[ing].” She repeated earlier statements that she would not seek office if the election is re-run, as the opposition demands. Six journalists detained on 1 September remain in custody, although the police will review the charges against them of participating in an unauthorized public event, reports today. Last week, 19 journalists lost their accreditation to work for foreign media outlets, and two Associated Press reporters were deported, CNN reported, days after the authorities detained almost 50 journalists, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The six reporters still in detention include two working for independent Belarusian website and one for the independent news agency BelaPAN, and three local correspondents for the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Slovak Tycoon Acquitted of Journalist’s Slaying

The influential Slovak businessman on trial for ordering the killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018 was acquitted today, dealing a heavy blow to the final resolution of the case. Along with Marian Kocner, who is serving a 19-year sentence for unrelated financial crimes, co-defendant Alena Zsuzsova was also acquitted, Lidove noviny reports. A third defendant, Tomas Szabo, was found guilty. Prosecutors accused Zsuzsova of conspiring with Kocner to hire a man named Zoltan Andrusko to carry out the killing. Andrusko testified that on Kocner’s orders he acted as a middleman between Zsuzsova and Szabo, whose cousin Miroslav Marcek was convicted of being the hitman in February, shortly after Andrusko was also found guilty in a separate trial. The acquittals of Kocner and Zsuzsova mean the mastermind of the Kuciak killing remains unpunished, writes Beata Balogova, chief editor of Slovakia’s Sme daily. “The killer did not act without a contract,” she noted. At the time of his death, Kuciak was investigating Kocner’s murky business contacts with high-ranking government officials and members of the then-ruling Smer party, as well as the infiltration of Italian mob groups into Slovakia.

Campaigners Say Russia Behind Weakened Arctic Pollution Pact

With Russian and other countries’ shipping on the Arctic Sea expected to rise dramatically as sea ice grows less every year, the threat of pollution also grows. But environmentalists say a proposal to restrict the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) – the most common fuel for ships, and the source of the damaging spill in Mauritius after a bulk carrier broke apart there last month – will actually make the Arctic more vulnerable. A draft agreement being negotiated at the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) would come into effect in 2024. But the proposal was “weakened to suit Russian interests,” Climate Change News writes, and the exemptions and waivers added could allow most ships to avoid the HFO restrictions until 2029. Emissions from burning HFO are high in greenhouse gases, the website says. Warning of the potential for harm from a watered-down agreement, the International Council on Clean Transportation, a campaign group, says HFO use in the Arctic rose by 75 percent between 2015 and 2019, according to Splash 247, a Singapore-based maritime news site. Meanwhile, as the BBC reports, Russia plans to raise two Soviet-era nuclear submarines and four nuclear reactor compartments from the Arctic seabed, dramatically reducing the amount of radioactive material from discarded Soviet ships. “The message, which comes before Russia’s turn to chair the Arctic Council next year, seems to be that the country is not only the preeminent commercial and military power in the warming Arctic, but also a steward of the environment,” the BBC writes.

Pentagon Warns of Growing Chinese Military Might in Tajikistan

The U.S. military is concerned about China’s growing, if still relatively small, military presence in Tajikistan. The latest release of the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military affairs says it is probable that both Chinese military personnel and members of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) are present in Tajikistan. “Since at least 2016, PAP forces have likely operated in Tajikistan, patrolling the tri-border region connecting Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China. In 2019, the PAP hosted joint counterterrorism training in China and in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan,” the report states. The Pentagon believes Chinese forces may be patrolling the tri-country border area unilaterally rather than jointly with Tajik troops. Sightings and rumors of Chinese military activity in Tajikistan’s rugged Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region have surfaced regularly in recent years, but the extent of the cooperation remains unclear. “The report links growing Chinese concerns about the border region to the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan,” The Diplomat writes, adding that document seems to overplay Chinese concerns about terrorists moving from Afghanistan into China’s Xinjiang region, site of mass political re-education camps for Muslim Uighurs and other minorities. Chinese security assistance to Tajikistan is on the rise, “with Beijing promising to refurbish as many as several dozen guard posts along the border with Afghanistan,” Eurasianet writes.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer