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Economy

Russian central bank allocates $2 bln for small, medium firms to pay salaries

MOSCOW, March 27 (Reuters) – The Russian central bank said on Friday it would channel up to 150 billion roubles ($1.92 billion) to small- and medium-sized companies to ensure flawless payments of salaries, as part of the state measures amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The central bank will also provide loans to banks at a rate of 4% for one year to ensure payment of salaries, as Russia prepares to shut many businesses during a week-long holiday the country will observe to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

To support market liquidity, the central bank said it would offer 500 billion roubles in repo operations, taking into account the span of non-working days from March 30 to April 3. ($1 = 78.2910 roubles) (Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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World News

Rosneft sells Venezuelan assets to Russia after U.S. sanctions ramp up

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft (ROSN.MM), said on Saturday it had terminated operations in Venezuela and sold the assets linked to its operations in the South American nation to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government.

The impact of the move, announced at a time when oil prices are languishing at around $25 per barrel, on Rosneft’s upstream joint ventures with Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela was not immediately clear.

The U.S. government has ramped up pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government, including imposing sanctions on two Swiss-based Rosneft units – Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading International – that Washington said provided PDVSA a lifeline by acting as intermediaries for its crude.

The change of ownership announced on Saturday means any future U.S. sanctions on Russian-controlled oil operations in Venezuela would target the Russian government directly.

Russia, via the state company Rosneftegaz, owns slightly over 50% of Kremlin-controlled Rosneft’s capital. International shareholders include BP (BP.L), which has 19.75%, and Qatar via QH Oil Investments LLC, which owns another 18.93%.By withdrawing from Venezuela and passing its assets to an entity owned by Moscow, Rosneft, headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, transfers the risks related to its Venezuelan operations to the Russian government.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontiyev told Reuters the decision to terminate operations in Venezuela was meant to protect the company’s shareholders.

“We defended the interests of our shareholders and did it in an effective way,” Leontiyev said. “And to whom the risks go is not an issue for us. The main thing is that the risks are leaving us.”

Rosneft would not disclose the name of the company to which it had sold its Venezuelan operations. A spokesman for the Russian government confirmed it had purchased Rosneft’s operations in Venezuela, but declined to say what company was involved in the deal.

TANKERS SAIL AWAY

Rosneft Trading and TNK took more than a third of Venezuela’s oil exports in 2019, allowing PDVSA to continue crude shipments even after U.S. sanctions imposed on the company left many traditional customers unwilling to work with it.

But neither company has lifted Venezuelan crude so far in March, and three tankers chartered by Rosneft to transport some 5.7 million barrels left Caribbean waters empty on Saturday after waiting off the Venezuelan coast for weeks.

It was not immediately clear if the apparent pullback would lead to a lifting of sanctions on Rosneft Trading and TNK. The Treasury Department has said it will “consider lifting sanctions for those who take concrete, meaningful, and verifiable actions to support democratic order in Venezuela.”

“Now it is our right to expect the fulfillment of the promises that were made publicly by American regulators,” a Rosneft representative said.

Along with some other Russian companies and individuals, Rosneft has been under U.S. financial and technological sanctions since 2014, after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Rosneft said the Venezuelan assets sold include those in the joint ventures of Petromonagas, Petroperija, Boqueron, Petromiranda and Petrovictoria, as well as in oilfield services companies, commercial and trading operations, it said.

The most significant of those operations is Petromonagas, a project in which Rosneft has a 40% stake that includes a field in the Orinoco oil belt and a heavy crude upgrader near the Jose terminal.

The Petromonagas field produced 79,000 barrels of crude on Friday, according to an internal PDVSA document seen by Reuters, representing around 10% of the country’s total output. The upgrader, however, has been offline for months.

PDVSA and the country’s oil ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

While it was not immediately clear how the move would impact operations at those joint ventures, Russia’s ambassador to Venezuela, Sergei Melik-Bagdasarov, wrote on Twitter that the deal would allow the two countries to continue working together.

“Don’t worry! This is about the transfer of Rosneft’s assets in Venezuela to Russia’s government directly. We will remain together going forward,” he wrote on Twitter. Venezuela’s Maduro retweeted the ambassador’s comment.

Elias Matta, an opposition lawmaker who chairs the Venezuelan National Assembly’s energy committee, said any transfer of shares in the joint ventures would need to be approved by the congress to be considered legitimate.

Rosneft said it would be receiving a settlement payment worth a 9.6% share of Rosneft’s equity capital that would be held by a subsidiary. It did not say which of its shareholders was responsible for transferring the 9.6% stake.

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World News

Rosneft sells Venezuela operations to Russian state firm

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, said on Saturday it had terminated operations in Venezuela and sold the assets linked to its operations there to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government.

It was not immediately clear if the move, announced at a time when oil prices are languishing at around $25 per barrel, would change much in practice or whether it was a legal move to protect Rosneft from U.S. sanctions.

The United States earlier this year imposed sanctions on two Rosneft subsidiaries – Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading International, a Swiss-based unit of the company.

The aim was to ramp up pressure on the Russian state oil giant, which U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said provided a financial lifeline to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom Washington has called on to step down.

The change of ownership announced on Saturday means any future U.S. sanctions on Russian-controlled oil operations in Venezuela would target the Russian government directly.

Kremlin-controlled Rosneft has a number of international shareholders, including oil major BP, which owns 19.75% in the company. By withdrawing from Venezuela and passing its assets to an entity owned by Moscow, Rosneft, headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, transfers the risks related its Venezuelan operations to the Russian government.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontiyev told Reuters the decision to terminate operations in Venezuela was meant to protect the company’s shareholders.

“We defended the interests of our shareholders and did it in an effective way,” said Leontiyev. “And to whom the risks go is not an issue for us. The main thing is that the risks are leaving us.”

Rosneft would not disclose the name of the company to which it had sold its Venezuelan operations. A spokesman for the Russian government confirmed it had purchased Rosneft’s operations in Venezuela, but declined to say what company was involved in the deal.

Rosneft said the Venezuelan assets sold include those in the joint ventures of Petromonagas, Petroperija, Boqueron, Petromiranda and Petrovictoria, as well as in oilfield services companies, commercial and trading operations, it said.

Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and the country’s oil ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Russia’s ambassador to Venezuela, Sergei Melik-Bagdasarov, wrote on Twitter that the deal would allow the two countries to continue working together.

“Don’t worry! This is about the transfer of Rosneft’s assets in Venezuela to Russia’s government directly. We will remain together going forward,” he wrote in a Tweet that was retweeted by Maduro.

Rosneft said it would be receiving a settlement payment worth a 9.6% share of Rosneft’s equity capital that would be held by a subsidiary.

Washington has long sought to isolate the socialist Venezuelan government as it seeks to pressure Maduro from power.

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World News

Russia confirms coronavirus case in Putin's administration, tightens curbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin confirmed a coronavirus case in President Vladimir Putin’s administration on Friday and the government said measures imposed in Moscow to fight the virus should be extended across Russia.

The official tally of confirmed cases jumped by a record daily amount for the third day in a row, bringing Russia’s total to 1,036. Four people have died of the coronavirus.

The Kremlin said it was taking measures to stop the virus spreading further after a staff member in the presidential administration contracted the virus. It said the person had not come into contact with Putin, but declined to identify them.

Putin has declared next week a non-working week, and Moscow, the vast country’s worst-affected area, will this weekend close all cafes, restaurants and shops apart from those selling food and medicine, until April 5. International flights have been suspended.

On Friday, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said measures in place in Moscow to halt the spread of the virus should be imposed across the country and urged Russians to stay at home and refrain from all but essential trips.

“Maybe on these days you were planning to visit a shopping center, pop into a cafe, go to a health resort, but it is important to understand that coronavirus comes from these trips, you get infected in crowded places,” he said.

Mishustin also ordered the country’s huge network of state-run hotels, resorts and recreational facilities to shut down from March 28 until June 1.

Russia’s mass domestic tourism and recreation sector is still dominated by the state, a legacy from Soviet times. Millions of Russians still holiday each year at state-run hotels, resorts, health spas and children’s camps.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia remains much lower than in many European countries, but the mayor of Moscow told Putin on Tuesday that the real scale of the problem in the capital far exceeded official figures.

An opinion poll by the Moscow-based Levada Centre showed the majority of Russians, some 59 percent, do not believe the official figures. Twenty-four percent said they “absolutely” did not believe them and 35 percent said they only partially believed them, the poll showed.

Anna Popova, the head of the state consumer health watchdog, said Russia was not yet seeing signs of an exponential growth in cases. Putin has said he hopes Russia would defeat coronavirus in two to three months if it imposed tough measures quickly.

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World News

Russia to ground international flights on March 27 due to coronavirus

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian government has ordered the civil aviation authority to suspend all regular and charter flights to and from Russia from March 27, the government said on its website.

Russian airlines will still be allowed to fly to other countries to bring Russian citizens back or if they are authorized by special government decisions.

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World News

Moscow bans events, closes most shops to curb coronavirus spread: Mayor

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow introduced a raft of new measures on Wednesday aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus, including a temporary ban on holding any public events and the suspension of free public transport for the over 65s, the city’s mayor said on his website.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said food shops, banks and household services would remain open.

Russia has reported 658 coronavirus cases, 410 of them in Moscow.

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World News

Vladimir Putin does not need coronavirus test because he’s healthy, Kremlin says

The Kremlin says that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been tested for coronavirus and does not need to be because he is healthy and has no symptoms.

So far, Russia has reported 253 total cases and one death related to coronavirus – these figures are significantly lower than other European countries.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a conference call that people who are are involved in events with Putin, 67, are screened for the virus beforehand.

"We think these are justified measures so the president can confidently continue working," he said.

"Thank God, he always feels brilliant," Peskov said when asked if Putin had undergone a test.

All high-ranking Kremlin officials as well as Peskov have been tested for coronavirus.

In hopes calming down the panic, Moscow-based Razvedka Bar began selling its "coronavirus" cocktail on Wednesday.

Other European countries such as Italy have seen a very high number of cases and deaths.

Italy overtook China this week after 3,405 deaths were reported.

In China the death toll is 3,248.

In Italy, dozens of military vehicles have been pictured carrying coronavirus victims across Italy – with morgues too full to hold corpses.

Well-known celebrities have also taken to social media to encourage others to socially distance, the first royal in the world tested positive for COVID-19.

The Archduke of Austria has tested positive for coronavirus and is currently in quarantine – making him the first royal in the world to catch the potentially life-threatening virus.

In the UK, there have been 3,269 cases so far, with 183 deaths.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the closure of schools and has encouraged citizens to stay indoors, avoiding pubs, clubs and theatres.

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World News

Russia reports its first coronavirus death

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Thursday reported its first coronavirus-related death, an unnamed 79-year-old woman in Moscow with underlying health issues who died from pneumonia after testing positive for the virus.

Russia, which has temporarily barred entry to foreigners and imposed an array of flight restrictions, has reported 147 coronavirus cases so far, less than many other European countries.

That figure has risen sharply in recent days however, but authorities have said the situation is under control and that most infected people have entered Russia from coronavirus hot spots.

Some doctors have questioned the veracity of Russian data, given what they say is the patchy nature of testing. But the government has said it has been totally transparent about its handling of the crisis, and that its statistics are accurate.

Moscow’s coronavirus crisis centre said in a statement on Thursday that the elderly woman who died had begun receiving treatment last week in a private clinic before being moved to a hospital specialising in infectious diseases.

It did not say where the woman was thought to have picked up the virus, but said her circle of close acquaintances had been identified and was under medical observation.

None of them were displaying any serious coronavirus symptoms, it said. Russians aged over 60 were strongly advised to minimise contacts with other people, it added.

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World News

Russia's Putin orders nationwide vote on constitutional amendments on April 22

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered a nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments on April 22, the Kremlin said in a statement on Tuesday, despite the spread of the coronavirus.

The vote will take place if “the epidemiological situation” allows, Interfax news agency said, citing Putin.

The amendments, if passed, would allow Putin to run again for president despite the current constitutional ban. There had been speculation the vote would be postponed due to the spread of the coronavirus.

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Politics

Russian firm says it will sue U.S for $50 billion after meddling case dropped

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian firm accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election said on Tuesday it planned to file a $50 billion lawsuit against the United States after a U.S. federal judge dismissed the criminal case against it.

Concord Management and Consulting LLC was accused of funding a propaganda operation to tilt the 2016 vote in favor of President Donald Trump. The case was set to be tried next month, but the case was dismissed on Monday at the request of U.S. prosecutors.

Prosecutors questioned the merit of holding the trial, saying Concord had tried to use case evidence to discredit the investigation, refused to cooperate and that there were also challenges raised by some evidence being classified as secret.

The firm’s executive, Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with ties to President Vladimir Putin and who was also charged in the case, was not expected to attend the trial in the United States.

On Tuesday, Concord hailed the dismissal of the case as a victory and said it was proof the case had been based on lies aimed at blaming Russia for the United States’s own domestic problems.

“A $50 billion Concord vs U.S. lawsuit for unlawful prosecution and sanctions is currently being drawn up,” it said in a statement.

Prigozhin and Concord were both charged in 2018, along with 12 other individuals and two other entities, with conspiracy to defraud the United States for their alleged role in election meddling aimed at sowing discord in the United States.

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