Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #6

June 10, 2021
Read a new issue of bi-weekly newsletter with monitoring of Russian activities and influence in Belarus to know more.
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Recent policy developments

Kremlin denies involvement in Belarus’ operation to land the Ryanair flight and shows little interest in Pratasevich’s arrest

The Kremlin’s reaction to the forced landing of the Ryanair flight and the detention of Raman Pratasevich was rather neutral. Compared to the news about the alleged coup against Lukashenka, which the Russian president specifically covered in the address to the Federal Assembly in April, 2021 Vladimir Putin showed little interest in discussing Raman Pratasevich’s arrest when he was asked about it at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin called not to politicize the Ryanair flight incident and criticized the sanctions against Belarus, labeling the West’s reaction as dictatorial. The Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Russia would provide all necessary support to the Russian citizen Sofya Sapega, who was detained together with Raman Pratasevich, and that her extradition to Russia was unnecessary. Aliaksandr Lukashenka reiterated that Vladimir Putin does not oppose his decision to keep Sofya Sapega in Belarus.

On the day of the forced landing of Ryanair, some sources suggested that there were Russian agents on the plane who followed Raman Pratasevich and then got off in Minsk upon landing.

However, the evidence suggests that the only passenger, with a Russian passport, who left the plane was Sofya Sapega, Raman Pratasevich’s partner. At the same time, a confidential source from the Greece Ministry of Interior reported to VICE World News that Pratasevich and Sapega were stalked by intelligence professionals carrying Russian passports. Vladimir Putin claimed that the Russian special services did not participate in the operation. Putin also added that “NATO is in danger” because the allegations of Russia’s participation in the incident indicate that NATO officials are unaware of how special operations are conducted.

At the moment, there is no reliable evidence directly linking Russia to the operation.

However, it is unlikely that Minsk officials would dare to conduct such a bold operation at the cost of disturbing the security interests of the EU and NATO without at least implicit approval from Moscow.

More details could emerge through the inquiries launched by the ICAO’s fact finding investigation and the terrorism investigation led by Lithuania.

Moscow could exploit several forced confessions made by Raman Pratasevich to draw further division between Belarus and the West

On June 3, Belarusian authorities forced Raman Pratasevich to appear on TV, where he made several “confessions”. Our Belarus Watch team stands in solidarity with Raman Pratasevich and supports the calls of human rights defenders not to quote or otherwise endorse that “forced interview”. However, there are several important messages broadcast in the TV interrogation that could be further exploited by the Belarusian and Russian authorities and lead to international implications.

Firstly, the interview script suggested that the NEXTA telegram channel was coordinated by the West’s intelligence services and, despite Belarusian protests, attempted to target the Russian audience at the same time as the rise in protests. Russia could exploit this to draw a dividing line with the West, in the spirit of blaming the West for sponsoring the color revolutions and meddling in domestic affairs.

Secondly, the TV talk suggested that the NEXTA channel received donations from Dmitry Mazepin, a stakeholder in a potash fertilizer company called “Uralkalii” and a competitor of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Gutseriev who is closely related to Lukashenka and the Kremlin. During the Belarusian protests in August 2020, Mazepin urged Lukashenka to stop the violence and enter into negotiations with the opposition.

Thirdly, Pratasevich was forced to “confess” his role as an intermediary in the “assassination attempt against Lukashenka”, which was allegedly prevented by a joint operation of the Russian and Belarusian special services.

Finally, Pratasevich admitted that he fears extradition to the Luhansk People’s Republic due to the criminal investigation of Pratasevich’s participation in the Azov battalion in 2014.

Raman Pratasevich indeed was the chief editor of the NEXTA telegram channel which played a leading role in the coordination of the post-electoral protests. However, Pratasevich did not hold any major decision-making positions in the Belarusian opposition after the protests subsided. Given that the Belarusian state channels regularly leaked videos of the working meetings of the Belarusian opposition, the intelligence services likely knew that Pratasevich held a relatively minor role at the opposition’s headquarters. Therefore, the portrayal of Pratasevich as an accomplice of the “coup attempt” hardly holds water.

As for the attempt to portray Pratasevich a “neo-Nazi” terrorist who fought in Mariupol, this could be further used by Russia for two purposes. First, Lukashenka’s invitation of the Luhansk republic’s prosecutors to interrogate Pratasevich and the talks about possible extradition could be interpreted as a recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics by Belarus. The speaker of the Ukrainian delegation in the Contact Group Alexey Arestovich stated that Lukashenka’s decision to invite the prosecutors from Luhansk means that Belarus can no longer serve as a dialogue platform. Secondly, the Kremlin could exploit the linkage between the Belarusian protest and Ukraine, taking a hard line in talks with Biden at the summit on June 16.

Friendship in the public eye: Putin and Lukashenka met in Sochi

On May 28, Lukashenka and Putin met in Sochi for the third time this year. The informal part of the meeting received extensive media coverage, portraying Lukashenka and Putin on a boat trip and at a breakfast with Lukashenka’s son Nikolai.

Such a demonstration of an amicable relationship was unlikely accidental.

For Lukashenka, it served the purpose of demonstrating Russia’s support during toughened EU sanctions due to the Ryanair hijacking episode. For Putin, showcasing support to Lukashenka serves as a message of Russia’s geopolitical stance in the light of the upcoming summit with Joe Biden, where the Belarusian crisis would be discussed among other issues.

Following up on the meeting upon his return to Minsk, Lukashenka stated that economy-related topics were the major subjects of discussion with Putin, including mitigation of the impact of Western sanctions against Belarus. Another important follow-up note by Lukashenka was that the counterparts discussed military cooperation and that there was no discussion of placing Russia’s military bases in Belarus, yet this could change overnight, should NATO conduct suspicious activities against Belarus.

Lukashenka also commented on the content of the integration talks in Sochi. He emphasized that the talks served the interests of Belarus and that, in response to Russia’s offer to create a supranational customs body, he suggested a coordination mechanism. He also underlined that the suggested tax policies would create equal terms for both parties and exchange of information, thus improving economic conditions for both.

Belarusian authorities consistently explain to the public that the integration serves the interest of the country.

Thus, on June 1, Belarus’ Prime minister Golovchenko claimed that Belarus and Russia built a new economic model aiming “to debunk the innuendo that the integration bears the risks for Belarus’ sovereignty”.

Energy and economy

Belarusian GDP grows in comparison to 2020

Belarus' GDP increased by 2.5% in comparison with 2020 (0.9% in the first quarter) between January to April, 2021. The growth is generated by export-oriented industries, primarily the chemical sector and mechanical engineering. The undervalued Belarusian ruble also contributes to the recovery of external demand. More than 0.4 points of GDP growth was provided by the IT and communications sector, stronger than the Eurasian Development Bank's (EDB) expectations. This shows weak domestic consumer demand amid a slowdown in income of Belarusian households. Fixed capital investments decreased by 7.5% in April.

To sum up, the growth of the Belarusian economy due to exports with stagnating domestic demand makes it vulnerable to external shocks.

In the second half of 2021, according to the EDB’s estimates, GDP growth in Belarus will slow down not only as the active recovery phase of the economies of its trading partners ends; but also due to the effect of the low baseline in potash production along with the exhaustion of oil refineries.

Belarus owes Russia $8 billion.

At the end of last week, Aliaksandr Lukashenka ordered the placement of bonds (100 billion rubles, almost $ 1.3 billion) in Russia. Now, Belarus owes foreign creditors $18 billion according to the latest data for 2020. Last year, the country was provided with a $500 million loan from the Russian government and banks. But the total amount of Minsk's debt to Moscow is 16 times larger, roughly $8 billion.

Belarus can hardly afford to pay back these debts.

Last summer, the Belarusian government asked Russia to refinance part of this state debt. The political crisis and high debt burden do not make the Belarusian economy attractive to foreign/Western investors. Only at the beginning of May, the international agency Fitch confirmed that the sovereign credit rating of Belarus is at a “ B- ” - a negative outlook. This is one of the worst results among post-Soviet countries.

Gazprombank will not buy government bonds from Belarus until Viktor Babariko is released

According to Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo Moskvy, Gazprombank will not buy Belarusian government bonds on the Moscow Stock Exchange until the release of the former head of Belgazprombank, Viktor Babariko.

Russia set to loan Belarus another $500 million

The $500 million transfer of the second tranche of the state loan from Russia to Belarus has been agreed upon during the talks between Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko on May 28, 2021, in Russia. The topic of a single currency was not touched upon in the meeting. The major issues of discussion included further development of trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Belarus; general approaches to the basic principles of organizing customs and tax as well as the fight against the pandemic.

In December 2020, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed an order to provide Belarus with a $ 1 billion interstate loan in Russian rubles. It is provided in two tranches of $500 million in 2020 and 2021. On December 30, Belarus received the first tranche equivalent to $500 million. On October 16, Belarus also received a loan of $ 500 million from the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development for up to ten years.

The second reactor of the Belarusian nuclear power plant set to launch in fall 2021

The physical start-up of the second reactor of the Belarusian nuclear power plant (BelNPP), constructed by the Russian energy corporation Rosatom, is scheduled for fall 2021 and will take place after loading the nuclear fuel. The readiness of the second power unit of the BelNPP is at 85%. In April, nuclear fuel was delivered to the station site. Thus, physical " start-up of the second power unit" will begin, according to the Minister of Energy of Belarus Viktor Karankevich. Also according to him, the first unit of the BelNPP has already generated 2.3 billion kWh of electricity. After full commissioning, BelNPP will produce about 18 billion kWh per year, which will provide for about 40% of internal electricity needs.

Export duty on oil in Russia and Belarus will increase by $3

During the period of April 15, 2021 - May 14, 2021, the average price for Urals oil was $65.45 per barrel, or $477.8 per ton, Russia’s Ministry of Finance said.

According to the ministry's calculations, the export duty on oil in Russia and Belarus will increase by $3, to $58.8 per ton from June 1, 2021.

The duty on light oil products and oils will rise from $16.4 to $17.6 per ton, on dark - from $54.9 to $58.8. The duty on the export of commercial gasoline will increase to $17.6, straight-run (naphtha) — from $30.1 to $32.3 per ton. The duty on coke will be $3.8 per ton. Currently, the export duty on oil is $ 54.9 per ton.

Russian companies stopped supplying oil to Novopolotsk refinery in May

Large Russian oil companies have not supplied oil to the Novopolotsk refinery since early May. For 16 days in May, 54.8 thousand tons were supplied to Naftan from Russia by "other subsoil users" (that is, according to the methodology of official statistics, among the main ones). This is 20.7 thousand tons per day less than in the previous month. Since the beginning of the month, the Mozyr Oil Refinery has received 300,000 tons of oil from the Russian Federation. The main shippers are LUKOIL, Gazprom Neft and Rosneft, with the latter two increasing volumes from last month.

As reported, pipeline deliveries of oil from Russia to Belarusian refineries are expected to amount to 608,000 tons in May, which is half the amount compared to April.

At the same time, the breakdown of supplies for each of the plants - Mozyr and Novopolotsk refineries - was not specified.

Russia attracts Belarusian construction workers

A working meeting between Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin and Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Belarus Anatoly Sivak took place in Moscow on May 20, 2021. Marat Khusnullin emphasized that today there is a problem of a shortage of labour in the construction sector in the Russian Federation and the issue of attracting labour for the implementation of key construction projects, such as, for example, theatrical and cultural centres in Vladivostok and Kaliningrad, the Vostochny cosmodrome and other projects, is urgent. Anatoly Sivak, in turn, confirmed the interest of the Belarusian side in cooperation in this matter.

The parties agreed to work out the cost of attracting Belarusian specialists as soon as possible.

They also discussed the issue of regulation in construction. In the meeting, the participants came to the conclusion that it is necessary to analyze the building codes of both countries and further align them, taking into account the best practices of Russia and Belarus in the issue of technical standards. Anatoly Sivak stressed the interest of the Republic of Belarus in increasing the export of construction services to Russia. Marat Khusnullin instructed the Russian Minister of Construction and Housing and Communal Services Irek Fayzullin to analyze the projects being implemented in Belarus.

Public Administration

Russian MP suggests creating a commission to combat interference in the affairs of Belarus and Russia

The head of the State Duma Commission for Investigating Foreign Interference in Russia's Internal Affairs Vasili Piskarev suggested that Belarusian MPs establish a unified commission to combat interference in the internal affairs of the two countries. According to Vasily Piskarev, the same foreign non-governmental organizations and foundations make such attempts to interfere in the internal agendas of Russia and Belarus.

The statement was made during the conference "Countering External Challenges and Threats: the Parliamentary Dimension of the Union State" in Minsk, organized by the Standing Committee of the Union State and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia. The conference was devoted to the information security policy of the two countries.

This is not the first time Russian deputies and officials have discussed the need for joint control over the information security of Belarus and Russia.

They emphasize the similarity of information attacks in the case of the two countries and point out common enemies - foreign organizations - that allegedly attempt to interfere in internal affairs.

Former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service speaks about the significance of the CIS at an event sponsored by the Minsk City Executive Committee

Sergei Lebedev, chairman of the Executive Committee, Executive Secretary of the CIS and former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, took part in the opening of the exhibition devoted to the 30th anniversary of the CIS held in the framework of the project "Preserving Traditions - Creating the Future". Lebedev stressed the importance of the CIS and the related Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and noted the great role of Minsk in the integration processes in the post-Soviet space. The opening ceremony was also attended by the leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, ambassadors and permanent ambassadors of CIS member states, representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus, the leadership of the Minsk City Executive Committee and Minsk City Council of Deputies that supported the project.

Officially, Minsk is actively involved in integration projects promoted by Russia, including the CIS, the EAEU and the CSTO.

The Belarusian authorities support relevant political and cultural events aimed at supporting the ideas of integration. Hence, was is significant that the aforementioned event was attended by Sergei Lebedev, former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, who has been the Executive Secretary of the CIS since 2007. This demonstrates that ties are being maintained between Russian and Belarusian officials at various levels.

Military and law-enforcement agencies

Belarusian security services detained former editor of NEXTA Telegram channel

On May 25 the Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania with 126 passengers on board to land in Minsk over an alleged bomb threat which turned out to be a hoax. A dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich (former editor of NEXTA Telegram channel) and his girlfriend, a Russian national, Sofia Sapega who were on board were arrested. Besides them, four other passengers left the plane, which raised suspicions that those were operatives coordinating the whole act.

This event, which was a special operation by the Belarusian security services, drew outrage from the international community, because the case demonstrated that Belarus poses a real threat to regional and wider European security.

The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen deemed the incident a “state-sponsored hijacking” and called to close European airspace to flights from Belarus. As a result, a ban on all Belarusian flights was introduced.

While EU officials were adamant that serious measures should be introduced, they realised that tougher sanctions mean Belarus’ dependence on Russia will further increase. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis suggested, “Lukashenko is playing with Putin and trying, helping Putin to annex the country.” Also, many experts said that the special operation could not have been conducted without assistance from Russian law enforcement agencies, as the Belarusian KGB simply lack the necessary experience and resources to carry out such an act. For example, the US military expert Ben Hodges recalled that the special operation was likely launched with the knowledge of the Russian military because the Belarusian system of air defence is integrated with the Russian one. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab agreed with this statement, noting that such an action was conducted “at least with the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said Russia was likely involved in the plane “hijacking”.

The authors of the unpublished report from the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies argued that the engagement of Russian security services was “beyond doubt”.

In the same vein, famous Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin said that it was a joint operation by KGB and FSB, with the leader of the Russian movement “The Union of Right Forces” Leonid Gozman also agreeing with this statement. These arguments might be substantiated by the possible meeting between the Russian FSB and Belarusian KGB in Homel, several days after the incident with the flight.

Russian and Belarusian special services agreed to further cooperate in the context of the West’ aggression

On June 3, the heads of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Belarus’ State Security Committee (KGB) during a working meeting in Vitebsk agreed to cooperate “against the destructive activities of the West aimed at destabilizing the political and socio-economic situation in the Union State”.

The Belarusian and Russian special services have a long history of cooperation.

One of the recent joint operations by Russia’s Federal Security Service and the Belarusian KGB was capturing Belarusian opposition figures in Moscow to prevent the alleged coup d’etat attempt in Belarus. During the recent meeting in Sochi, Lukashenka claimed that they exchanged intelligence information with Putin concerning malicious intents of the U.S. and EU towards the Union State. Thus, the announcement of the deepened cooperation between the SVR and KGB is hardly something new. Such a public statement serves the purpose of publicly stressing the unity of the Belarusian and Russian agencies and constructing the image of a common threat from the West.

Russia and Belarus prepare for “Zapad-2021” military exercises

Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu said the preparation for the military exercise “Zapad-2021”, which is scheduled to commence on September 10, 2021, is in an active phase. Belarusian and Russian military forces remain in close coordination and synchronization, which they have developed and improved through previous “Zapad” joint military exercises, the most recent of which was in 2017.

Healthcare

Belarus continues producing Sputnik V

Belarus has produced half a million doses of Sputnik V vaccine using Russian technologies.

This was staż May 28 by Aliaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with the heads of government of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In addition, he said that the republic has developed its own vaccine against coronavirus, but it is in no hurry with testing, as it wants to take into account the strains of next year and is ready, if successful, to share the drug with other CIS count.

Church

A large scientific conference was held in Minsk under the auspices of the Belarusian Orthodox Church

On May 18-19, 2021 the National Library of the Republic of Belarus in Minsk hosted the XXIV International Cyrill and Methodius Readings, entitled "The Spiritual Significance of the Ministry of Saint Blessed Prince Alexander Nevsky in the Context of History". The conference has been held annually for 25 years as a platform of "intercultural and interconfessional dialogue and Christian spirituality in the modern world”. The event was supported by Belarusian authorities, including the Minsk City Executive Committee, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education. It is also indicated that it was supported by "caring Christian benefactors," whose names are not disclosed. At the opening of the conference the Russian Ambassador Yevgeny Lukyanov spoke. Researchers, pedagogues and representatives of clergy from Russia took part in the conference.

The Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Benjamin spoke at the conference and emphasized the historical significance of Alexander Nevsky's personality for all Orthodox Christians and for Belarus in the "year of national unity".

The Readings in Minsk are part of similar readings that were held the day before in Moscow. It is noteworthy that Cossacks from Belarus took part in the Readings in Moscow.

The event that took place in Minsk looks rather formal. However, in its content it is aimed to promote and strengthen the idea of the Orthodox people united by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

Russian historical figures (in this case, the military leader Alexander Nevsky) are imposed on Belarus as symbolically significant and allegedly requiring recognition. Characteristically, the Russian Ambassador to Belarus spoke at the event. Conferences of this kind can be viewed as soft power tools used by Moscow to gain a symbolic foothold in the post-Soviet space and in Belarus.

Interaction of the Belarusian Orthodox Church with the authorities in Belarus

Several meetings of representatives of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) with representatives of public institutions were held in Belarus. On May 21, 2021 Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Benjamin, Patriarch Exarch of All Belarus, met with the Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan Kubrakov. The meeting resulted in the signing of an agreement between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Belarusian Orthodox Church on cooperation in drug addiction prevention. Metropolitan Benjamin pointed out that the implementation of the agreement should be carried out with the involvement of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, the media and public associations of Belarus.

On May 19, 2021, Metropolitan Benjamin visited the Ministry of Health, where he had a meeting with Minister Dmitry Pinevich and First Deputy Minister Elena Bogdan. The meeting focused on cooperation between the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Health.

Representatives of the BOC actively cooperate with the authorities of Belarus at formal and informal levels.

Within the framework of formal cooperation, agreements are concluded on the participation of the Church in joint programs with the authorities. Similar agreements are often made at the local level. The BOC de facto becomes one of the implementers of state programs in Belarus. Thus, one of the most pro-Russian institutions in the country gets the opportunity to participate in various spheres of public policy as a recognized actor.

Internet and Media

Belarusian authorities attack independent media outlet tut.by

The Belarusian authorities further intensified its crackdown on independent journalism: this time they launched an offensive against the largest independent portal – tut.by. On May 18, law enforcement agencies blocked the website, searched the regional offices in Brest, Homel, and Mahileu, and arrested a dozen of its employees on the pretence of tax evasion. The outlet moved to social media and messengers, with the audience of the Telegram channel increasing by 100,000 subscribers overnight.

Elimination of the independent Belarusian media sphere further decreases the country’s information security and makes it vulnerable to pro-Russian propaganda.

Further laws tightening working conditions for journalists are being introduced

In particular, the law “On Telecommunications” makes it legally possible to cut off the Internet, TV, and radio in the situation of a threat to state security. From this time on, journalists are unable to stream mass events, publish the results of surveys concerning the socio-political situation, etc.

European Broadcasting Union suspended Belarus’ state broadcaster

The executive board of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has voted to suspend Belteleradio, Belarus's national broadcaster, due to "serious and quite exceptional concerns" that threaten freedom of expression and other "core values." This was most likely due to the Belteleradio broadcast of separate videos showing a detained Belarusian journalist, Raman Pratasevich, and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Civil Society

Russia increased the number of scholarships for Belarusian students

The federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo reports that Russian universities have tripled the number of free places for applicants from Belarus. According to the agency, this year 700 quotas have been allocated for the free education of Belarusian citizens. To enter a Russian university free of charge , Belarusians need to be selected by a special commission. Representatives of universities look at the average score of the applicants, as well as their academic achievements. Currently about 12,000 citizens of Belarus are studying at Russian universities, and mostBelarusian students are enrolled at universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Russia is the most attractive destination for Belarusian applicants, which can be explained by the Russian language of instruction and geographical proximity. After studying in Russia, many Belarusian students do not return home.

Thus, the increase in free places for Belarusian applicants is to some extent a channel for brain drain and migration.

At the same time, studying in Russia can also be considered a tool of Russian influence on the youth of Belarus.

Russian and Belarusian pro-governmental experts meet in Minsk

According to Russian online media outlet Sputnik, a meeting of representatives of the expert community of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was held in Minsk on the initiative of the Center "Northern Eurasia" (Belarus), the "Institute of Russian Abroad" (Russia) and the Republican Public Association "Belaya Rus”. Fedor Gaida, Associate Professor of the Department of History at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, gave an interview to Sputnik on the results of the meeting.

At the meeting the issues of integration, vision of the "common future" of the two states, development of a common ideology and common ethical principles of the Union of Belarus and Russia were discussed. It was noted that in addition to the existing common values (in particular, culture) it is necessary to create joint analytical centers.

Joint events between pro-governmental Russian and Belarusian experts are conducted regularly . Their appeal to the common culture, shared history , as well as work with the agenda of the Union State, is typical. At the same time, it is impossible to point out any long-term functioning platforms of this kind, which indicates a lack of initiative of the experts themselves or a lack of resources for regular activities. Interestingly, the meeting was held on the basis of GoNGO Belaya Rus, which unites Belarusian civil servants, officials and those who are involved in the budgetary sphere.

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