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Will Ukrainian comedian be any match for Vladimir Putin?

April 22, 2019

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election has thrust a comedian and political novice into the middle of the most dangerous flashpoint between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.

Whether Zelenskiy is any match at all for Vladimir Putin, a canny and ruthless KGB veteran who has led Russia for nearly 20 years, remains to be seen. Zelenskiy, who played an accidental president in a hugely popular sitcom but has no real political background, has vowed to keep Ukraine on its pro-Western course. At the same time, he has pledged to quickly reach out to Moscow to negotiate an end to the five years of fighting in Ukraine’s industrial east against Russian-backed separatists, a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Arkady Moshes, an expert on Russia and Ukraine with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said the Kremlin may try to exploit Zelenskiy’s lack of political experience. Moscow “can on the one hand offer him something and basically outplay him diplomatically, and on the other hand threaten Zelenskiy as an inexperienced commander-in-chief with the destabilization of the situation in the east,” he said.

With nearly all ballots counted in Sunday’s election, the 41-year-old Zelenskiy won 73% of the vote to President Petro Poroshenko’s 24%, reflecting disillusionment with the old elite amid economic woes, deep-seated corruption and the war.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has fomented the fighting in Ukraine’s industrial heartland in a bid to maintain its influence in the country and keep the former Soviet state from joining the European Union and NATO. NATO doesn’t welcome nations with unsettled territorial conflicts.

The question is whether Zelenskiy will have any more success than his predecessor in halting the hostilities. “Everything will depend on Putin — whether the Kremlin will continue to use the conflict in the east to put the brakes on Kiev’s movement toward the EU and NATO,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center, a Kiev-based think tank.

Russia paid a steep price for its actions in Ukraine, with the U.S. and the EU responding with sanctions that have limited Moscow’s access to global financial markets and restricted imports of key technologies. The Kremlin may now be eager to engage in talks with Zelenskiy in the hope that a lull in the fighting will pave the way for the lifting of Western restrictions.

On the campaign trail, Poroshenko warned over and over that Zelenskiy could be easy prey for the steely Russian leader. But Zelenskiy could also face powerful resistance at home. A case in point: Zelenskiy has said he will push for implementation of the 2015 Minsk peace deal, the internationally brokered agreement that would enable Russia to maintain influence in Ukraine by allowing broad autonomy for the rebel east. But the Ukrainian public has made it clear it opposes any concessions to Russia.

“Any Ukrainian ruler’s room for concessions in the Russian direction is very limited,” Moshes said. During the campaign, Zelenskiy said he would continue efforts to join the EU and NATO but emphasized that becoming part of the alliance should be approved by a nationwide referendum.

Zelenskiy, who comes from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and spent years working in Moscow during his entertainment career, has many friends in Russia’s artistic community who were excited by his election.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Zelenskiy’s election, saying, “There is still a chance for Ukraine to improve its relations with Russia.” Zelenskiy has also pledged to try to integrate people in separatist-controlled areas into Ukraine — a promise that contrasted with the policy of Poroshenko, who made it extremely difficult for those living in the rebel regions to get pensions and other benefits.

In addition, he has vowed to seek a quick release of Ukrainian prisoners held by separatists and Ukrainian sailors seized by Russia during a naval incident in the Black Sea in November. “I will do all I can to bring our guys back home,” he said.

Some observers speculated the Kremlin may release the sailors to create goodwill for future talks. Asked about that, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was noncommittal, saying the seamen have yet to face trial. They are accused of violating the Russian border, charges they deny.

Still, members of Zelenskiy’s team were vague on how he will proceed in trying to negotiate peace in the east. “There is no magic wand,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former finance minister who worked as campaign adviser for Zelenskiy, told The Associated Press. “We will proceed step by step.”

Along with the conflict with Russia, Zelenskiy will face a daunting challenge in trying to root out corruption and reverse a sharp plunge in living standards. While voters saw his lack of political experience as an advantage, observers warned that the reality could be different.

For one thing, Poroshenko’s party and its allies control the parliament, making it difficult for Zelenskiy to form his team and pursue his own course. “Zelenskiy’s approach is naive and romantic,” said Fesenko of the Penta Center, who predicted the president-elect will now face pressure from various political and business clans who will try to put their people on his team.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

Russia detains activists trying to help hospital amid virus

April 03, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — An activist doctor who had criticized Russia’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was forcibly detained as she and some of her colleagues tried to deliver protective gear to a hospital in need.

Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva of the Alliance of Doctors union was trying to bring more than 500 masks, sanitizers, hazmat suits, gloves and protective glasses to a hospital in the Novgorod region about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) northwest of Moscow on Thursday when she and the others were stopped by police on a highway.

They were accused by police of violating self-isolation regulations, currently in place in many regions, including Moscow and Novgorod. The group was taken to a police station and held for hours, and the activists had to ask hospital workers to come to the station to pick up the gear.

After a night in custody, Vasilyeva appeared in court on charges of defying police orders. Two long court hearings later, she was ordered to pay fines totaling the equivalent of $20. “It was not about the money for them, It was about breaking me,” Vasilyeva said afterward. “But I’m even more convinced that we’re doing the right thing, and we will definitely keep on doing it.”

Just two weeks ago, Russia reported only a few hundred coronavirus cases and insisted the outbreak was under control. As the virus spread and more infections were reported this week, however, residents of Moscow and other cities were ordered to stay home.

On Friday, officials reported 4,149 cases in the country — four times more than a week ago. The government sought to reassure the public that Russia has everything it needs to fight the outbreak and even sent planeloads of protective gear and medical equipment to Italy, the U.S. and other countries. Still, hospitals across the country complained about shortages of equipment and supplies, and earlier this week, the union began a fundraising campaign to buy protective gear for hospitals.

Vasilyeva, who has become the most vocal critic of the Kremlin’s response to the virus, accused authorities of playing down the scale of the outbreak and pressuring medics to work without sufficient protection.

“We realized that we can’t just sit and watch; otherwise it is going to be too late,” she said in a tweet Monday announcing the campaign. After being released from the police station, Vasilyeva was almost immediately detained again and charged with defying police orders. Video posted on Twitter by activists shows a dozen police officers gathering around Vasilyeva and two of them dragging her into the station.

According to Ivan Konovalov, spokesman of the Alliance of Doctors, Vasilyeva was physically assaulted in the process and even fainted briefly. “We thought we may run into some difficulties, but no one could even imagine anything like that,” said Konovalov, who accompanied Vasilyeva to the Novgorod region.

The incident elicited outrage from other activists. “Why are they harassing this person, because she brought masks for the doctors? Bastards,” tweeted opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supports the Alliance of Doctors and works closely with Vasilyeva.

Natalia Zviagina, Russia director of Amnesty International, said in a statement that “it is staggering that the Russian authorities appear to fear criticism more than the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.” “By keeping her behind bars, they expose their true motive — they are willing to punish health professionals who dare contradict the official Russian narrative and expose flaws in the public health system,” Zviagina said.

With the outbreak dominating the agenda in Russia, anyone who criticizes the country’s struggling health system becomes a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-political analyst.

“The pressure will continue, because right now the most important political issue is on the table: How will the voters will see the authorities after the crisis —as effective and acting in people’s interests, or ineffective, out of touch with the people, and in need of being replaced?” Gallyamov said.

Doctors’ unions say shortages of protective equipment is one of the most pressing problems amid the outbreak. Konovalov said the Alliance of Doctors has gotten about 30 requests for protective gear from hospitals and medical facilities across Russia, and 100 more generic complaints about lack of protective equipment.

Andrei Konoval, chairman of the Action medical union, echoed his sentiment. “It is a serious problem that the authorities have started to solve, but not as fast as we want them to,” Konoval said, adding that his union is getting complaints from ambulance workers, who are often the first to come in contact with potentially infected patients.

Several hospitals have reported that their staff had become infected with the coronavirus and the workers had to be quarantined, according to Russian media reports. In one district in the Chelyabinsk region, almost the entire ambulance service had to be quarantined after coming in contact with a patient without sufficient protection, Konoval said.

Russian authorities sought to put a good face on the crisis. The Health Ministry said the outbreak has so far taken a “fortunate” course, while the Defense Ministry said it was sending another 11 planes with medical specialists and equipment to Serbia, a close ally of Moscow.

In Moscow, which has the largest number of cases reported in the country, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was driven around the city in a van carrying an icon, praying for the epidemic to end. Media reports said the motorcade caused traffic jams as it traveled around the capital.

NATO says its role not hit by virus as Russia drills troops

April 01, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that the organization’s security capabilities have not been diminished by the coronavirus, amid suspicion that Russia might try to use the impact of disease to probe the military alliance’s defenses.

NATO acknowledges that cases of the disease have surfaced among personnel deployed near Russia’s border as well as in its training operation in Afghanistan. Wargames have been scaled down and the coronavirus has forced the 30-country alliance to cut staffing and meetings at its Brussels headquarters.

Russia, meanwhile, has been conducting drills that its defense ministry says are aimed at checking troop readiness to deal with any contagion. Britain’s navy said last week that its vessels had been shadowing Russian warships “after unusually high levels of activity in the English Channel and North Sea.”

“We of course see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military district of Russia,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “We have seen significant Russian presence in the North Sea.”

“We have made some adjustments to exercises. We have cancelled some exercises, we have adjusted other exercises, but that doesn’t undermine our operational readiness. We continue to patrol the skies and defend our borders and continue our missions and operations,” he said.

Stoltenberg’s remarks came on the eve of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, to be held by secure video-conference for the first time in the U.S.-led organization’s 70-year history, where the impact of the coronavirus will dominate discussion.

While the disease is hitting all its member countries and could yet raise security concerns, NATO itself has no front-line role to play against its spread, apart from coordinating and supporting national efforts with logistical, transport and communications help.

Moscow goes into lockdown, rest of Russia braces for same

March 30, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian capital, Moscow, on Monday woke up to a lockdown obliging most of its 13 million residents to stay home, and many other regions of the vast country quickly followed suit to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

A stern-looking President Vladimir Putin warned his envoys in Russia’s far-flung regions that they will be personally responsible for the availability of beds, ventilators and other key equipment. “We have managed to win time and slow down an explosive spread of the disease in the previous weeks, and we need to use that time reserve to the full,” Putin said.

Russia so far has been relatively spared by the outbreak, with 1,836 confirmed cases and nine deaths, but the number of people testing positive has risen quickly in recent days and authorities are bracing for the worst.

Putin has declared that only people employed by essential sectors should work this week, leaving it to regional authorities to spell out the details. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin followed up by ordering Muscovites to stay home starting Monday except for medical emergencies and runs to nearby shops. He said the city will issue special passes for those who need to keep working and track all others with electronic surveillance.

“We will steadily tighten controls,” Sobyanin told a Cabinet meeting. “I hope that by the week’s end we will have information systems allowing us to fully control citizens’ movements and prevent possible violations.”

On Tuesday, the Russian parliament is scheduled to approve a bill that imposes prison terms of up to seven years and fines of up to 2 million rubles (about $25,000) — a huge sum in a country where an average monthly salary hovers around $500 — on violators of the lockdown.

Moscow has a sprawling system of surveillance cameras complete with facial recognition technology, which were tested during anti-Kremlin rallies last year to track down protesters. City authorities have also used cell phone location data from mobile providers to monitor those who were ordered to self-quarantine for two weeks after arriving from abroad.

Russia took early steps to counter the outbreak, closing the borders with China and then barring access to Chinese citizens last month when China was still the world’s hottest coronavirus spot. Authorities followed up by screening arrivals from Italy, France, Spain and other countries worst-affected by the outbreak, and obliging them to self-quarantine. Last week Russia cut all international commercial flights and finally fully closed its borders effective Monday, with the exception of diplomats, truck drivers and a few other categories.

Russian officials said those measures helped slow down the spread of COVID-19, but acknowledged that the disease is accelerating rapidly and relatively low numbers of confirmed cases could be explained by insufficient screening.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with prior health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and can be fatal.

Authorities have converted several hospitals in Moscow to treat coronavirus patients and thousands of construction workers labored around the clock at a construction site on Moscow’s outskirts to build a new specialized hospital to be ready in a few weeks.

The Defense Ministry also launched a massive effort to build 16 hospitals across the country in a matter of weeks. Last week, the military also conducted massive drills across Russia to disinfect and quarantine broad areas.

Despite those efforts, many in Russia worry that the nation’s underfunded health care system that just recently underwent massive cuts could be easily overwhelmed by the crisis. Putin told his envoys in the regions Monday that they must quickly report the real situation with ventilators and other essential equipment, prepare for moving seriously ill patients between regions and mobilize medical personnel, including medical students. He also ordered a sharp increase in screening. Until last week, just one laboratory in Siberia was analyzing the coronavirus tests.

In a move reflecting the gravity of the crisis, Putin last week postponed a vote on constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in office until 2036 if he chooses. Russian authorities haven’t restricted travel to and from the capital city. Many residents of the Moscow region commute to work in the capital.

In a sign of lack of sync between various state agencies amid quick-paced developments, police in the Moscow region on Sunday night announced a curfew on top of the lockdown, but the authorities quickly denied the announcement.

Putin has hailed Moscow’s lockdown as “necessary and justified.” St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, and over a dozen other regions from the westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad to Tatarstan on the Volga River to the Yekaterinburg region in the Urals quickly followed Moscow’s example and imposed similar lockdowns.

Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, on Monday blasted the Kremlin for longtime neglect of the country’s hospitals and called for public donations to help them. He posted a letter from a doctor at one of Moscow’s hospitals treating coronavirus patients who said staff have run out of protective suits and have to reuse those they have worn.

Kremlin critics also voiced concern that the government would use the lockdown to further tighten political controls and crack down on dissent. The authorities already have declared a campaign against “fake news” about the coronavirus, tracking down social media users making claims that contradict official figures on coronavirus figures. Some already have been given heavy fines.

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Strong showing for opposition in Moscow city election

September 09, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — Candidates supported by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny won almost half the vote in the Moscow city council election, authorities said Monday. Elections to the Moscow City Duma are usually low-key affairs but Sunday’s vote grew in prominence when election authorities refused to register a dozen independent candidates, including well-known Kremlin critics.

The candidates’ dismissal triggered major opposition protests over the summer. With 99 percent of the votes counted, 20 candidates supported by Navalny got seats in the 45-member legislature. All of the 20 candidates, although often nominally opposing authorities, were endorsed by Navalny’s Smart Voting strategy which called on voters to cast their ballots in order to oust the candidates of the United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin.

“This is a terrific result, and we fought for it together,” Navalny said in a tweet in the early hours on Monday. In a sign that United Russia is losing ground in Moscow, the party did not officially nominate a single candidate for the Moscow City Duma, and all of its members or candidates affiliated with the party ran as independents, playing down their ties to the party.

United Russia nominees were seen winning governorships in several dozen regions in Sunday’s elections. In the Far East, however, they suffered a crushing defeat. The Liberal Democratic Party won all but one seat in the Khabarovsk City Duma and dominated in several other local elections including the mayoral vote.

The opposition celebrated Sunday’s election results that would cut the pro-government presence in the council from 38 to 25 but many expressed disappointment with what has been perceived as an unfair registration process.

Daria Besedina, a candidate from the liberal Yabloko party who was allowed on the ballot and won in her district, said on Monday that she would vote for the dissolution of the legislature when it convenes.

“We shouldn’t forget that these were not real elections — a lot of genuine (opposition) candidates who would have won were not allowed to run,” she tweeted. “Moscow would have got an opposition Duma if all the candidates were registered.”

Protests over Russian local election make Kremlin nervous

September 07, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — A seemingly second-tier local election has evolved into a major challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, triggering the biggest protests against his rule in seven years and causing divisions among his top lieutenants.

Although the protests were sparked by the exclusion of some opposition and independent candidates from the ballot for the Moscow city council election to be held Sunday, they also reflect growing discontent after Putin’s nearly two decades in power.

The protests come amid public irritation over the Kremlin’s decision to raise the retirement age and other unpopular moves by the government. The economy, burdened by several waves of Western sanctions, has barely climbed out of recession and remains anemic, spawning frustration over stagnant living standards.

“The government can’t offer any vision of the future, any positive agenda,” said Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The authorities treat the public with contempt, and a rift between the government and society is widening.”

A series of rallies — some sanctioned by city officials, some unauthorized — attracted crowds of up to 60,000 at a time, making them the largest show of discontent since massive demonstrations in Moscow against Putin’s rule in 2011-2012.

Police violently cracked down on some of the protests that weren’t sanctioned, beating many and detaining a total of more than 2,400 people. Most detainees were quickly released, but 14 people were accused of involvement in riots; four have been convicted and sentenced to up to four years, while charges against five others were dropped.

Putin’s most visible foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, and a few opposition candidates were put in jail for weeks for calling for unsanctioned protests. Putin backed the crackdown, saying the government doesn’t want to see violence similar to the yellow vest protests in Paris. He charged that election officials barred the opposition candidates from the race because they produced falsified signatures to qualify, which the opposition denies.

In an echo of the 2011-12 protests, authorities again blame the West for encouraging the protests. The lower house of parliament set up a panel to look into alleged foreign meddling. The quick and brutal response contrasted with the authorities’ treatment of the 2011-2012 protests, when they let demonstrations continue for months and even made some concessions to the opposition, including a few liberal changes in the electoral law.

A crackdown came when a demonstration on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for another term ended in violence. The Kremlin responded with a package of laws that introduced heavy fines and prison terms for taking part in unsanctioned protests and tightened rules for non-government organizations.

This time, authorities didn’t linger and a crackdown came swiftly, reflecting the Kremlin’s view of the protests as a clear threat despite their local focus. “The government saw it as a direct challenge,” said Alexei Makarkin, a political expert with Moscow’s HSE University. He noted, however, that the excessive use of force by police has drawn criticism from some members of Putin’s inner circle.

“For many in the ruling elite, it was clearly over the top,” Makarkin said. “They see those events as a signal that the party relying on force has gained excessive clout, and they don’t want it.” A longtime associate of Putin, Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who now heads the Accounting Chamber, the state audit agency, condemned “the unprecedented use of force” by police and demanded a public investigation.

And Sergei Chemezov, the head of the state-controlled Russian Technologies corporation, who has been close to Putin since they both were Soviet KGB officers posted to Dresden, East Germany, warned that the country needs an opposition to avoid plunging into stagnation. “People are angry, and it’s not in anyone’s interests,” Chemezov said in a recent interview.

Members of Putin’s human rights council also strongly criticized the brutal police tactics and the criminal charges brought against some of the protesters, describing them as unfounded. The protests have dealt a blow to the powerful mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, who has been widely seen as one of several potential candidates to succeed Putin. Observers say that other powerful members of Putin’s inner circle were jealous of Sobyanin’s clout and eager to cast the protests as a sign of the mayor’s failure to maintain control over the capital.

“There is a deep rift between the liberal-minded, pro-modernization part of the ruling elite and the conservative and isolationist part that wants to tighten the screws and confront the West and peddles allegations of foreign interference to justify the crackdown on protest,” Stanovaya said.

Last weekend, the authorities abruptly changed course, allowing protesters to march across central Moscow unimpeded even though the demonstration wasn’t authorized. In a sudden show of clemency, the courts also dropped charges against some of those who were accused of involvement in riots and moved a couple of others from jail under house arrest.

The about-face appeared to reflect divisions at the top. There is no immediate sign that protests could spread to other regions and pose a threat to Putin’s rule. Stanovaya said that the brewing discontent in the provinces has been driven by social and environmental issues and hasn’t yet focused on Putin. She predicted that political protests will gradually grow across Russia, adding that a violent response by the authorities would only fuel anger and foment more protests.

“It all depends on how stupid the authorities are,” she said. “In Moscow, the authorities’ action led to the escalation of the crisis. The government’s disproportionate response to the opposition actions has radicalized the situation and caused the conflict to expand.”

Makarkin said the latest wave of protests in the capital have been driven mostly by politically astute students and members of the middle class, while people in the provinces mostly focus on daily survival and are less interested in politics. He said that protests’ future will depend on whether their leaders could offer a platform that would appeal to people in the regions.

“If they formulate an attractive nationwide agenda and spread it, the government may run into serious problems,” he said.

Moscow activists vow to fight on after clashes with police

March 20, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Activists in Moscow vowed Friday to persist with their campaign against plans to bulldoze a highway through a radioactive waste site, despite a police crackdown and mass detentions. The campaign started two months ago as a small grassroots effort, and made national headlines on Thursday night after riot police stormed the protesters’ make-shift command post near the site and detained more than 60 people.

On Friday, several dozen people gathered near the site once again. “We will continue to fight. Of course, we’re not willing to give up,” Larisa Bodrova, one of the activists, told The Associated Press before the meeting.

Awareness about environmental issues has been growing in Russia in recent years. In a poll released in December 2019 by the Levada independent pollster, 48% of Russians named environmental pollution as the number one threat of the 21st century, prioritizing it over terrorism.

Environmental activism has been on the rise too. In 2018-2019, spontaneous environmental campaigns across the country — mostly against toxic landfills operating at capacity — accounted for the biggest non-political protests.

Bodrova and dozens of other activists live in residential blocks in southeast Moscow, where city authorities plan to build a multi-lane motorway. Part of it is supposed to go through a plot of land where at least 60,000 tons of nuclear waste are buried, according to Russia’s public health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor.

Digging into this contaminated land is dangerous as it would stir up a huge amount of radioactive dust, Alexei Ozerov, a physicist supporting the activists, told the AP. “People will be inhaling it, and (the dust) will spread quite far — 10-15 kilometers (around the site),” Ozerov said.

Radiation levels on the surface of the soil in the area are already several times higher than normal, activists who regularly take measurements argue. Construction work was supposed to start in early January, but the activists blocked the entrance to the contaminated area, not letting workers and trucks in. Since then, they have been camping out there 24/7, keeping warm in an old used minivan they all chipped in to buy.

“I don’t have another home, I don’t have a place I could move to,” activist and local resident Katya Maksimova told the AP in February. “Neither do other residents, so we (continue to) keep the vigil.”

In late January, Moscow officials acknowledged the problem and admitted the area had “minor traces” of contamination. They promised to start removing the contaminated earth in the spring, but the activists continued their 24/7 watch, demanding a through investigation into the levels of contamination first.

As the starting date for earth removal works loomed, the police turned up the pressure on the activists and tried to clear out the make-shift camp this week. Their first attempt on Tuesday night to tow away the minivan and fence off the area was unsuccessful: the activists, supported by dozens of local residents, blocked the tow truck and refused to go away despite the presence of a riot squad. The resistance continued on Wednesday, and on Thursday resulted in mass detentions.

By Friday morning, almost all of those detained were let go. The minivan was towed away, and the area where the activists used to gather was fenced off, but the group called for a gathering nonetheless.

“Yes, it is scary,” Maksimova said, recalling clashes with the police on Thursday. “But we’re not prepared to throw in the towel.”

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