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Streetwise Professor

December 19, 2008

Observations From Atop the Volcano

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:42 pm

There is an increasing flow of articles that openly discuss the potential for unrest in Russia, and the government’s likely response to it.     From Eurasia Daily Monitor:

Vladimir Putin’s government will, understandably, behave very cautiously when it comes to raising gas and electric bills so as not to provoke mass discontent which might threaten the government’s hold on power. It is entirely possible that the 2009 budget might not be able to cover projected social payments as a result of Gazprom’s projected shortfall. The choice between saving Gazprom, meeting the state’s social obligations, and clinging to power will be the bottom line.

Nonetheless, it is apparent that Putin’s ruling “United Russia” party and Putin himself are terrified of popular unrest. One proof of this is a recent change to the Russian criminal code, voted into law by the United Russia party and the Liberal Democratic Party on December 12. The change forbids a trial by jury not only in terrorist cases, hostage taking and the attempts to overthrow the government, but also for “mass disturbances,” “diversions,” “treason,” and “espionage” (Kommersant, December 15).

According to Kommersant Daily (December 15), Russian human rights activists and lawyers fear that these changes in the Criminal Code will make any critic of the regime potentially guilty of “espionage” or “treason” and therefore liable to a trial without jury, as was the practice during the Stalinist era when so-called “troika” tribunals passed sentence on defendants who were guilty until proven innocent.

It appears that the Putin/Medvedev duumvirate is facing the most severe challenge to its oligarchic rule. Will it manage to contain mass discontent in the countryside or will it resort to mass repression in order maintain its hold on power?

In November President Medvedev ordered senior police officials in St. Petersburg to stamp out any social unrest linked to the financial crisis. “If someone tries to exploit the consequences of the financial crisis … they [the police] should intervene [and] bring criminal charges, otherwise there won’t be order” (Moscow Times, December 12).

From the Christian Science Monitor:

The collapse of oil prices and the Russian ruble have ignited relatively small protests against the government here. But reaction from the Kremlin has been fast and furious.

Nationwide rallies planned for Sunday are expected to draw even larger crowds and will be the next major test of a Russian leadership increasingly anxious over dissent.

Leaders of the still-influential Communist Party, which is staging the upcoming rallies, say the Kremlin’s fears were on display during protests last weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg, when thousands of riot troopers confronted a few hundred demonstrators from the Other Russia, a broad anti-Kremlin coalition, and arrested 150 of them.

“On its face it seems ridiculous to see thousands of cops beating up a handful of peaceful demonstrators; logic dictates that they ought to ignore us,” says Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned leftist National Bolshevik Party. “But the authorities fear opposition and … [as the economic crisis grows] they have good reason for that. They read the FSB [security police] reports and they know that we are very well organized and ready to lead in the case of mass social unrest.”

. . . .

In the 1990s, opposition parties dominated the Duma, and a more open, robust media existed. Experts warn that the concentration of power in the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, and the near monopoly held by the United Russia Party, which Mr. Putin leads, leaves few outlets for dissent and no alternative avenues for spreading responsibility in the event of economic failure.

“The authorities argue that social stability has been the great achievement of the Putin era, and they are very much afraid of losing this image,” says Vladimir Gimpelson, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “The political system has become too rigid, and if unrest begins, there is a danger it can be completely broken.”

Prof. Gimpelson’s point about the rigidity of the Russian system echoes my arguments about the brittleness of the “power vertical.”

Meanwhile, Putin raises the specter of foreign bogeymen sowing dissent:

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Russia’s foes on Friday against trying to destabilize a country facing broadening economic crisis, Russian news agencies reported.

Putin did not specify who might pose a threat to Russia’s stability. But in the past, he has often blamed Western security services of trying to destabilize the country using opposition groups and non-governmental organizations as their instruments.

“Any attempts to weaken or destabilize Russia, harm the interests of the country will be toughly suppressed,” they quoted ex-KGB spy Putin as telling an annual meeting of top spies and security officers ahead of their professional holiday.

Putin was speaking ahead of “The Day of Security Officers” which “is marked annually on December 20, a day when in 1917 Bolshevik rulers created the CheKa secret police to suppress their foes.”   Tell me again what countries have holidays commemorating secret policemen to be held on the anniversary of the formation of an organization that committed mass murder and terror for seven decades.

From the WSJ:

The Kremlin has tried in state media to downplay the impact of the global financial crisis. Yet popular discontent is growing.

Last weekend, thousands of angry residents in the far eastern city of Vladivostok took to the streets and blocked traffic to protest government plans to raise tariffs on secondhand foreign cars, which are one of the impoverished region’s biggest moneymakers. Similar protests have been attempted in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, and further demonstrations are planned for Sunday in Vladivostok.

Public anger also spilled onto the streets this fall in the Siberian town of Barnaul, as thousands of pensioners who had lost their right to discounted public-transport tickets staged noisy protests.

The government’s response says a lot about the Kremlin’s growing angst over the financial crisis. After several tense days, the pensioners got their discount tickets back, police detained younger protesters who had joined the demonstrations, and state media made little mention of the events.

The prospect of further unrest poses what could be the biggest challenge yet to the authoritarian system built by Mr. Putin. It also foists a stark choice on the Kremlin: to stifle dissent, or to placate protesters to provide some kind of pressure outlet. For now, the Kremlin has decided on a mixture of both. But the government’s options may narrow as its financial reserves shrink.

“They’re incredibly scared of this,” says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic adviser to the Kremlin. “They don’t know how to operate in this environment.”

. . . .

This fall, Barnaul, an ailing Siberian industrial hub some 2,000 miles south of Moscow and one of the last regions to benefit from the oil boom, became one of the first to feel the crisis.

As the credit crunch poisoned Russia’s economy, supply chains broke down on a lack of cash and trust, and orders dried up at the town’s factories, which churn out diesel engines, heavy machinery and tires.

Three months ago, workers say, several factories sent workers home on reduced salaries until better times. Government data show over 1,000 workers in the region are in the process of being laid off; opposition lawmakers say hundreds more layoffs are likely.

In late October, when authorities revoked subsidized transport tickets for more than 200,000 pensioners in Barnaul, they gave no warning or explanation. When the pensioners — among the poorest groups in Russian society — learned the tickets were being axed, they panicked.

On Oct. 26, about 1,500 gathered in front of the regional government building to protest, according to people who attended. The pensioners blocked the town’s main thoroughfare, Lenin Avenue, for three hours, and only dispersed after a local government official invited a few of the leaders inside for a chat, promising the tickets would be reinstated.

Still, protesters came back the next day. This time, they numbered only a few hundred but demanded the resignation of the local Kremlin-appointed governor, Alexander Karlin.

In a third protest, a crowd of 2,000 again blocked Lenin Avenue as regional lawmakers debated the decision to do away with the discount. Some demonstrators tried to storm the government building, but police lines held. The governor tried to calm the crowd, but was forced to retreat.

Eventually, the government decided pensioners could keep their discounted transport tickets, while a new system allowing them to choose between cash payments and free transport passes is introduced.

. . . .

But political opponents believe remote regions and towns like Barnaul are the Kremlin’s Achilles’ heel. “They can only control what’s within the Moscow ring road,” says Vitaly Boldakov, a left-wing activist in Barnaul. “But beyond that road, their control collapses.”

Boldakov’s point about the center’s tenuous control over the regions is well taken.   Several governors are already asserting their independence in small ways.   Others are voicing their fears to the central government.

And Putin is channeling George Bush in an attempt to bail out the Russian car business and at the same time deal with the additional problem of tamping down protest:

With domestic and foreign companies curtailing car production in Russia and warning of potential layoffs, the Kremlin is increasingly worried about the fate of car manufacturing and its related industries, which altogether employ more than 1.5 million workers.

Putin called for setting up a national leasing company to buy locally made cars and for compensating the state rail monopoly for transporting Russian cars thousands of miles to distant regions in the far East.

He made a show of moral support for truck giant Kamaz Friday, visiting its plant in the central Tatarstan region Friday.

“Now that our producers are forced to slash production, I think it is absolutely unacceptable to spend money on acquiring foreign cars,” he said, according to a transcript posted on the government’s Web site, referring only to foreign imported cars, not foreign cars manufactured in Russia.

Putin said foreign manufacturers operating in Russia might also be eligible for state support if they meet “production localization requirements.”

While few government bureaucrats drive Russian-built Volga sedans, Putin himself is chauffeured around in a black Mercedes limousine.

The government had earlier announced it would raise tariffs on imported cars, including used cars.

That issue has sparked a grass-roots uproar in many regions, where importing and using used cars is big business, such as the far Eastern regions of Primorye and Khabarovsk, where the cars are almost entirely imported from Japan.

Last weekend disgruntled motorists in Primorye’s capital city, Vladivostok, staged a large protest against the higher tariffs, which come into effect in January.

That demonstration — and others planned for this weekend in more than 40 cities — are the largest show of public dissent in some time in Russia, where vocal opposition to the Kremlin has been all but silenced.

Putin tried to address some of those concerns during his visit to the Kamaz factory.

“I regularly visit the Far East, meet with people there, and I think they have reasons for their concern. Many people asked me: ‘Why should we buy Russian cars at prices that are two or three times higher than in European Russia?’” Putin said.

As the economy sputters, Russia’s car industry has floundered as people hoard their cash, banks stop offering credit and demand for big-ticket items plummets.

Major Russian car and truck makers have announced production shutdowns and have appealed for a government bailout. Foreign carmakers Renault and Ford have announced a temporary suspension of production at their Russian plants.

Russia was expected to emerge as Europe’s largest car market next year, but sales of foreign brands fell 15 percent in November year-on-year, the first decline in at least four years, according to figures produced by the Association of European Businesses. These included cars not made in Russia.

Russia is heading into its toughest economic period in a decade as oil prices tumble and falling demand for metals, cars and other goods has resulted in thousands of job losses and production cuts.

The uproar over import tariffs could be the tip of the iceberg, as civil unrest pops up in other regions. Migrant workers recently protested wage arrears in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. In the Siberian town of Barnaul, pensioners took to the streets to protest the withdrawal of discounted fares on public transport.

Putin also announced a plan to subsidize car loans for domestic economy brands.   This, plus the transport subsidies, place more strain on an already stretched budget.

Finally, from Vladimir Frolov in RP:

There appears little the government can do now to fight the recession other than to devalue the ruble sharply, perhaps, by as much as 30 percent, in one drastic move to promote import substitution and prevent the depletion of currency reserves. This move, however, poses serious risks of social and political instability, and will obviously undercut Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s popularity. The Kremlin, aware of brewing unrest, has instituted a sweeping system of social monitoring and rapid reaction that involves all levels of political power and even the United Russia party.

Ethan Burger adds:

Attempts to control the flow of information to the citizenry only make it more anxious. At some point, a government’s lack of credibility will come back to haunt it. There is more to fear than fear itself. In the absence of information, people are clueless as to what they should do as workers, savers, investors and consumers


I could go on, but I think the point is pretty clear.   Discontent is rising, albeit slowly, and the authorities are very, very nervous.   What is remarkable is that the full economic impact of the crisis has not been felt.   The layoffs are just beginning.   The prices of real estate are just beginning to fall:

lMoscow residential property prices fell 2.3 percent to $5,972 a square meter in November. By December 15, prices had dropped another 6.9 percent to $5,558 a square meter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Analysts from UniCredit suggests that prices will fall 25 to 50 percent, and Goldman Sachs is predicting a 32 percent fall in dollar terms.

Absent a rapid rebound in the price of oil–not something that appears to be likely in the near term–the situation will only worsen.     The price of oil depends on what happens in the US and Europe, and the picture here/there is still grim, with no immediate prospect for a turnaround.   That means no immediate prospect for a turnaround in Russia.   I remain very pessimistic as to how a brittle political system that has not dealt honestly with the citizenry will withstand a prolonged economic trial.

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  1. What’s wrong with the policy on cars. Sounds very reasonable and will ease pressure on the current account, since cars make up the largest component of the non-oil trade deficit.

    “Leaders of the still-influential Communist Party, which is staging the upcoming rallies, say the Kremlin’s fears were on display during protests last weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg, when thousands of riot troopers confronted a few hundred demonstrators from the Other Russia, a broad anti-Kremlin coalition, and arrested 150 of them.

    “On its face it seems ridiculous to see thousands of cops beating up a handful of peaceful demonstrators; logic dictates that they ought to ignore us,” says Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned leftist National Bolshevik Party. “But the authorities fear opposition and … [as the economic crisis grows] they have good reason for that. They read the FSB [security police] reports and they know that we are very well organized and ready to lead in the case of mass social unrest.”” – article SWP likes

    They got arrested because they didn’t get a permit. They don’t bother applying for permits because then they’d get arrested and have their traitorous mugs shown on foreign TV screens.

    P.S. I especially like the sympathetic inclusion of Limonov, a dude the Western media loved to hate and viewed as a Kremlin “virtual” party back in the days before he turned anti-Putin. The irony of course is that if they ever came to power the “liberals” like Kasyanov or Kasparov so beloved of by Russophobes would be first up against the wall.

    Comment by Da Russophile — December 20, 2008 @ 1:02 am

  2. “and viewed as a Kremlin “virtual” party back” – me

    The NazBols that is.

    Comment by Da Russophile — December 20, 2008 @ 1:03 am

  3. I’m hardly a Limonov fan, and definitely don’t endorse his views (I’m sure you’re shocked.) But he and his organization can foment difficulties, so although he and many of the other opposition figures are clownish, that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant.

    Re autos, just as I oppose the subsidization of US automakers who desperately need to restructure pursuant to market signals (rather than gov’t dictates), I believe that the RUS gov’t policy is counterproductive. It imposes higher costs on consumers (or taxpayers) than it generates in benefits for the industry and its workers. It is, in both Russia and the US, a politically driven allocation of resources to a lower value use, and will end up destroying rather than creating wealth.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 20, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  4. Professor:

    In all honesty, I think that you may be over stating the potential for civil unrest. Sure, there is a crisis here in Russia. Hell, there’s a crisis in almost every country around the world. In comparison, Russia is faring pretty well. Canada’s currency has lost more than the Ruble against the Dollar. Russia still has hundreds of billions in reserves. The price of oil has been pounded but that will reverse itself at some point in the medium term.

    Please remember, today’s Russia isn’t 1998. Huge differences. So some babushkas and dydushkas protested. Ok, so what. Some guys in Vladivostok are ticked-off because their livelihood is being threatened. Ok, so what?

    I wish all of you who are hoping for Russia to have problems could come to Krasnodar and see for yourself what’s happening. Life goes on. People are shopping, working, playing, and generally going about their lives. The crisis is a big topic of conversation but life, itself, hasn’t changed much.

    If you remember what the Russians went through during the 1990′s, then this crisis barely registers. This is nothing. Russians are pretty tough and I, for one, woulod be very surprised if there is a groundswell is civil unrest.

    Actually, to be honest, I think America is the country where you will see much more civil unrest and protests. Americans have much more to lose than do Russians.

    So, you’re welcome to dream your dreams of problems for Medvedev and Putin but I think at the end of the day you’ll just be frustrated. Time will tell.

    Comment by Timothy Post — December 20, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  5. “Ok, so what. Some guys in Vladivostok are ticked-off because their livelihood is being threatened. Ok, so what?”

    Timothy, what empathy :) Well, if you have enough people whose livelihood is threatened, then that does not make for a stable political state.

    Also, the trade in cars in Vladivostok is in used cars. The fact of the matter is that most normal Russians given the choice will prefer a used inomarka (foreign car) as opposed to a new Russian-made vehicle.

    Comment by Michel — December 20, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  6. In response to timothy-post last comment in which he stated that mass unrest is more likely in the U.S then in Russia.

    I violently disagree with that because of the difference in the 2 countries’s political goverment.

    First of all , the U.S will bring in a fresh president in January…No one blames him for the crisis , so he will have a lot of leeway to soften the crisis blow.

    Russia , on the other hand , has the same guys running the entire country and they wont be able to escape blame if things continues to deter in the next 2-3 months.

    Also , in the U.S if you hate your local or national politician , you can always vote him out…If you feel a politician is making the crisis worse , you can vote him out or even recall him if you cant wait for election-time.

    In Russia , if you hate Putin , there’s really no way to vote him out…therefore , russian are more likely to revolt in massive numbers because of the frustration that they are stuck with the same people who created the crisis.

    This is why massive unrest is more likely in Russia then the U.S.

    Comment by NjNinja — December 21, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  7. Timothy–

    Methinks you missed one of my main points. Specifically, that there is considerable evidence that the government, including most notably Putin and Medvedev, are seriously concerned about the prospect for serious civil disorder. They say so in their words, some of which are quoted above, but also in their deeds. The new treason legislation, and moves to eliminate jury trials in such cases, are quite clear evidence of this. And if “a few [ticked off] guys in Vladivostok” are such an irrelevance, and a harbinger of nothing, why were many arrested?

    So, if I am highlighting the potential for civil unrest, then Putin, Medvedev, the Duma, and the security structures are doing the same. What does this say? Several possibilities: (1) they, with their extensive information about domestic conditions, have a reasonable basis to believe that such potential is real, and a threat to them; (2) they are paranoid, and hence exaggerate the potential (though, the Nirvana line “just because your paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s after you” could fit here); or (3) they realize the threat is minor, but are manipulating the situation to enhance their political power.

    Alternative (1) is not supportive of your thesis that I am overstating the risk of civil unrest, for to me the strongest evidence of this possibility is the authorities’ statements and actions. Alternatives (2) and (3) would support your thesis, but are hardly flattering to the government.

    I should also note that even in the highly constrained Russian media, there are numerous voices (of whom Gontmakher has received the most attention) raising this issue. So, it is not just the product of a fervid imagination thousands of miles removed from the country. There are many in Russia doing the same.

    It is clear that things are not as severe as 1998, and are unlikely to become that bad. Cold comfort, that, as things can get far, far worse without approaching 1998. I have said the volcano is rumbling, not that it has erupted. As the last paragraphs emphasize, moreover, the full impact of the economic situation is still to come. Predictions for next year are growth of around 2 percent on the high side (a very optimistic prediction, in my view, especially inasmuch as it is predicated on $70/bbl oil), to -15 percent on the low side (probably unduly apocalyptic). Given the expectations of continued growth, and the banishment of anything even approaching 1998, such prospects cannot be at all comforting to the authorities.

    And, finally, re your dismissal of a few malcontents in Vladivostok–revolutions have sprung from smaller beginnings, so do not dismiss them too readily. Especially in a country as vast as Russia, where centrifugal forces have challenged rulers for centuries, seemingly scattered protests can pose serious dangers for the center. Which, returning to my original point, goes a long way in explaining the government’s robust response–which would be overkill if your diagnosis is correct.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 21, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  8. In my experience, Russian government officials and those close connected to Russian government officials were paranoid about the possibility of a color revolution à la Georgia or Ukraine when the petrodollars were flowing and the economy was getting better every day. I can only imagine the level of fear and paranoia now when the economy is tanking.

    Comment by Michel — December 21, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

  9. [...] The Streetwise professor rapoorterer noko liknande: Nonetheless, it is apparent that Putin’s ruling “United Russia” party and Putin himself are terrified of popular unrest. One proof of this is a recent change to the Russian criminal code, voted into law by the United Russia party and the Liberal Democratic Party on December 12. The change forbids a trial by jury not only in terrorist cases, hostage taking and the attempts to overthrow the government, but also for “mass disturbances,“ “diversions,” “treason,” and “espionage” (Kommersant, December 15). [...]

    Pingback by Gazprom - ein kjempe pÃ¥ leirføtter — December 21, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

  10. Timothy–

    Re the Loonie v. the ruble. Yes, the Canadian $ has declined more than the ruble–precisely because the Canadian central bank has had the good sense to let the currency find an equilibrium level in the face of weakening fundamentals. Russia, in contrast, has spent almost $200 billion propping up the currency. If Canada had followed Russia’s lead, it would have imposed a substantial burden on its non-energy industries.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 21, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  11. @Njninja,

    There are numerous signs in the alternate media that the US govrnment may be preparing to crack down harshly on dissent during the crisis.

    “mobile prisons” us financial crisis pre-formed

    Of course such things never make it into the managed MSM.

    Comment by Da Russophile — December 22, 2008 @ 1:23 am

  12. I agree with The Professor. Propping up the Canadian dollar would not have made much sense. The fall in the Canadian dollar helps Canadian companies deal with the rapid fall in the prices of their exports. Let’s say that an oil company is selling oil in US dollars and the price of the oil falls drastically. It is better for that company to have the Canadian dollar fall as well as it will be selling its goods and receiving a higher priced currency while the bulk of its expenses (salaries, for example) will be in a lower priced currency (the local currency). This allows it to cuts costs.

    When the Canadian dollar drops in value vis-a-vis the American dollar, it also encourages consumers to buy local goods. Rather than buying a bottle of California or French wine, they will buy a bottle of B.C. or Ontario wine. This means that more money stays in the country, which is good if exports are dropping.

    For these reasons, it makes much more sense to let the Canadian dollar fall.

    Comment by Michel — December 22, 2008 @ 2:30 am

  13. [...] another post, Streetwise Professor cites a number of media stories “that openly discuss the potential for unrest in Russia, and the government’s likely [...]

    Pingback by Global Voices Online » Russia: The Crisis and The Potential For Unrest — December 22, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  14. DR–Lyndon LaRouche? (IE, your larouchepac link). I mean, seriously. “Alternate media” or “alternative universe media”?

    I’ll be on the lookout for contrails and black helicopters. LOL.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 22, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  15. @Professor – Despite LaRouche’s penchant for the absurd, his need to create a weird personality cult, and his off-the-wall belief in conspiracies (particularly surrounding the British) his economic analysis has been quite prescient and his predictions accurate. Too bad its not possible to separate the ideas from the personality. The irony is that had our government simply implemented LaRouche’s economic prescriptions 15 years ago we would must certainly not be in the predicament we now find ourselves.

    I was surprised to see you use the term “equilibrium levels” with respect to a currency. Do you still believe in the basic tenants of neoclassical economics? I find you too bright to believe that supply and demand curves should be determined independently of each other. Markets are not inherently self-correcting and often need checks and balances, in the form of regulation, to prevent the prevailing bias from too detached from reality. Economics is a social science not a natural science and as such, should not rely too heavily on its econometric models.

    With respect to the scenarios you laid out above, is it not also possible that a 4th scenario is that the Russian authorities are concerned about the possibility of civil unrest (see link below) and are taking prudent measures to make sure things don’t get out of hand?

    RE: “It is, in both Russia and the US, a politically driven allocation of resources to a lower value use, and will end up destroying rather than creating wealth,” see Krugman’s blog post http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/22/bad-anti-stimulus-arguments/

    @NjNinja – See the following link: http://www.infowars.com/?p=6778 regarding the US War College on the possibility of widespread civil violence in the US. I think what this shows is that the Russian government is not unusual in its concern for maintaining order in times of severe stress. BTW, when did the US implement the option of a Presidential recall?

    @Michel – How’d those so-called Orange and Rose revolutions turn out? I, for one, am sure glad with didn’t have a “Chess Revolution” here in Russia. I think the folks in Ukraine and Georgia would gladly exchange places with folks in Russia today.

    Finally, the crux of much of our disagreement regarding Russia can be boiled down to how one reads Medvedev and Putin’s motivations. Some, like myself, think that both politicians have Russia’s best interests at heart and are taking steps they believe will make things better for Russian citizens. Others, like many of you, see nefarious motivations behind their decisions and policies.

    As always, “where one stands depends to a great deal on where s/he sits.”

    Happy Holidays to all regardless of where you “stand” with respect to Russia.

    Comment by Timothy Post — December 24, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

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