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Rehabilitation of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine a soft-power win for Vladimir Putin

At first dismissed and ridiculed by Western countries, Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has not only been rehabilitated; it’s emerging as a powerful tool of influence abroad for President Vladimir Putin.

“I think they possibly couldn’t be feeling more smug and delighted about the way things are going,” said Judy Twigg, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., and an expert on the politics of global health.

“The Kremlin is having a whole lot of problems in other areas right now but this is one unvarnished, unmitigated win they can point to right now.”

The vaccine, named after the first satellite sent into space almost 70 years ago, was meant to evoke historic images of Russian glory. Instead, initial claims of Sputnik V’s effectiveness were met with deep skepticism after Russia authorized its widespread use before completing all phases of its clinical trials.

However, a key turning point came last week with the validation of Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trials by the Lancet medical journal.

(CBC News)

It confirmed the vaccine is safe and effective. While the journal noted Sputnik V’s development faced criticism for “an absence of transparency” and “corner cutting,” it said the vaccine maker, Moscow’s Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology, had, in fact, demonstrated solid scientific principles.

At about $ 10 US each for the two-shot dose, the vaccine is roughly half the price of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and it can be stored at –2 C whereas the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require much-colder temperatures.   

Global market

Since the Lancet article, more good news announcements about the vaccine have followed, with Russian TV showing pallets of boxes filled with vaccine vials being fork-lifted into the bellies of Aeroflot aircraft, ready for delivery to countries across South America, the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Russia’s government reports that up to 30 countries have either already purchased the vaccine or have expressed an interest in doing so.   

People wait to receive doses of Sputnik V on the basket ball court at the River Plate stadium, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week. (Maryam Kamyab/Reuters)

Even the once-unlikely notion of selling the vaccine to countries in Europe suddenly seems to be within reach.

On Tuesday, the regulatory body for the 27 members of the European Union announced Russia had made a formal submission for approval of Sputnik V and that the review process could begin shortly.  

Hungary, which ran its own trials of Sputnik V, is so far the only EU country to announce plans to use it.

Other member states, however, say they continue to have reservations about the political motivations behind Russia’s vaccine hype.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte tweeted that she saw no good news in Russia’s vaccine breakthrough.

“They say, Sputnik V is good but Putin doesn’t care to use it as a cure for the Russian people — he offers it to the world as another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”

Neither Canada nor the United States has expressed an interest in taking a closer look at the Russian vaccine, and it doesn’t appear likely they will.

Sara Goudarzi, a nurse from the Imam Khomeini Hospital, flashes a victory sign as she receives a Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in a staged event in Tehran Tuesday. Iran is one of about 30 countries that Russia says are using or have expressed interest in its vaccine. (Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press)

Diplomatic dilemma

Twigg says for Russia’s adversaries, the choice of whether to use Sputnik or not presents an ethical dilemma.

“You don’t want to give Vladimir Putin, in these circumstances, a political win,” she said. “On the other hand, you need vaccines for your people. In fact, you needed [them] yesterday.”

That conundrum was on display last Friday during a visit to Moscow by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

With the Kremlin facing widespread criticism for its imprisonment of Putin-foe Alexey Navalny and the subsequent mass arrests of thousands of protestors who came out in support of the opposition leader, Borrell’s words of criticism for Putin were overshadowed by his comments praising Sputnik and his hope it would be made widely available to the world.

Borrell’s visit was widely slammed as a diplomatic blunder that allowed Putin to shift the focus away from Russia’s authoritarian crackdown on dissent and dodge the issue of Navlany’s fate.

A Russian medical worker, right, administers a shot of Sputnik V in Moscow. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

The question of whether or not to use Sputnik V is especially acute for Russia’s closest neighbour, Ukraine, which is one of the poorest nations in Europe and has yet to launch a mass vaccination campaign. 

Nonetheless, Ukraine, which has had close to 1.3 million cases of coronavirus and more than 25,000 deaths, has passed a law banning Sputnik V because the idea of using a Russian-made vaccine is so politically toxic domestically. 

The only regions of Ukraine that will use the Russian vaccine are those controlled by pro-Russia separatist forces around the eastern city of Donetsk, where a shipment of 100,000 doses of Sputnik V arrived recently.

“I’d like to remind everybody who might have forgotten this, there has been a war [with Russia] for almost seven years already,” Ukraine’s health minister, Maxym Stephanov, told CBC News in an interview, referencing the ongoing conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine.

“The Russian Federation didn’t bring death … to the territories of those countries [considering using Sputnik V].”

Ukraine’s health minister, Maxym Stephanov, shown at a forum in Kiev on Monday, said it would be unpalatable for Ukraine to use Sputnik V given the toll that the years-long conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine has had on the country. (CBC News)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced this week that his country would start receiving the first deliveries of a potential eight million doses through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program later this month, as well as vaccines purchased from the United Kingdom and China.

Ambulances parked at a Kiev hospital. Ukraine has recorded over 1.2 million coronavirus cases with 23,000 deaths but its leaders said they won’t be using Russia’s vaccine. (CBC News)

Russia-friendly media outlets have launched a barrage of coverage, including dozens of newspaper and TV reports, targeting Ukrainian audiences, much of it aimed at denigrating Western-made coronavirus vaccines and attempting to leverage Ukraine’s lack of vaccines as a means of turning the population against Zelensky’s pro-Western government.

In response, Ukraine’s president revoked the licenses of three pro-Russia TV channels in the country, claiming the move was necessary in “the name of national security.”

“I think if Sputnik V was the world’s only vaccine, I still wouldn’t buy it,” IT worker Leonid Koloda told a CBC crew in Kiev,  reflecting a skepticism common outside the separatist regions of the country.

Few options for some countries

Elsewhere, however, geopolitics are either less of a factor or simply outweighed by the lack of vaccine alternatives.

Russia shipped 10,000 doses of Sputnik V to the Palestinian Territories this week, allowing a mass-vaccination campaign to begin for the 4.5 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

Doctors and staff at Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah were among the first to get jabbed.

Staff at the Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah get their first look at Sputnik V. Palestinian officials said they are happy to have the vaccine so they can begin mass vaccinations in Gaza and the West Bank. (CBC News)

“I’m very happy we have it,” anesthesiologist Samir Nasrallah told CBC News as he rolled up his sleeve.

“Russian [vaccine] factories are good, and when they do something, it will work.”

Senior Palestinian health officials told CBC they are deeply appreciative.

“We don’t care about political issues. We have to protect our population against this pandemic and this virus,” said Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo, director of preventative health for the Palestinian Authority.

Hesitancy at home

One of the ironies of Sputnik V’s new-found international success is that people outside of Russia may be more convinced of its efficacy than those at home.

The Levada Centre, an independent polling and research organization, reported earlier this month that only 38 per cent of Russians are ready to get vaccinated, with many saying they either fear side-effects or don’t trust the Russian vaccine maker or just won’t take any vaccine.

Maria Anikina, left, and a friend eat ice cream after receiving their second dose of the Sputnik V vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site at Moscow’s GUM luxury shopping mall. Not all Russians are as eager to get the vaccine. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

In an effort to overcome the vaccine hesitancy, pop-up vaccination clinics have been established at many sites around the capital, Moscow, and getting a jab is easy, free and usually involves just a short wait.

One of the most popular is at the GUM luxury shopping mall on Red Square, where Maria Anikina and a friend got their second dose on Tuesday.

She told CBC her friends who live in Vancouver are jealous, and they can’t believe it’s so easy to get vaccinated in Russia.

“They would also like to get the vaccine,  but as I understand, it’s not time yet for them in Canada.”

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‘This situation is very scary’: Coronavirus is disrupting Vladimir Putin’s Russia

In Yakutia, in Russia’s far north east — easily one of the most remote resource regions on the planet — isolation appears to be the least of concerns among its more than 10,000 oil field workers.

“We’re infected! Where’s the f—ing quarantine? Where are the f—ing masks?” employees shouted in an angry rant aimed at their company and local government posted on a Russian social media site earlier this week.

As many as 10,500 workers at the Chayanda oil field site have been tested for COVID-19, and though the results haven’t been released, the website Meduza quotes the regional governor as saying the number of positive cases is “very significant.” 

The availability — or rather scarcity — of protective gear at facilities and institutions closer to the country’s major population centres appears to be equally problematic.

“Here is the real truth about Reutov hospital [near Moscow] — there is no personal protective equipment in the coronavirus department!” one hospital worker wrote this week on a whistleblower Facebook page set up by frustrated Russian health-care workers.

“Staff wear [their] disposable protective equipment over and over again.”

Another video viewed by CBC News showed COVID-19 patients in a hospital in the city of Derbent, Republic of Dagestan, crammed into makeshift bunks in what appears to be storage room, coughing and hacking with IVs in their arms. They were being tended by a nurse who wasn’t wearing a mask or any other protective gear.

Social media video from Derbent, in the Russian republic of Dagestan, shows patients stacked in bunk beds to get treatment for coronavirus, with staff who aren’t wearing face masks or protective gear. (MoshebabaV/YouTube)

COVID-19 appeared to come late to Russia, compared with North America and Europe, but now it’s striking with a vengeance, the damage compounded by the lack of personal protective equipment for hospital workers.

There are almost daily reports across the vast country — from St. Petersburg to Siberia — of hospitals being quarantined because of coronavirus outbreaks among staff.

On Thursday, the state news agency RIA novesti reported that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishutsin tested positive for the coronavirus and is in self-isolation. He is so far the most senior member of government known to have contracted the virus. President Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public with Mishutsin in weeks, and the prime minister broke the news by video conference.

Doctors dying

Among health care workers, the toll has been so high over the past fortnight or so that colleagues have started compiling the names of the dead on an online memorial page — 74 names as of Tuesday night and growing.

Among them was Natalia Lebedeva, who headed up medical services at Russia’s cosmonaut training centre outside Moscow. She allegedly died after falling out a window — a fate that has become strikingly common over the years for those who either disapprove of or disappoint Russian authorities.

Independent Russian media reported Lebedeva may have committed suicide after being blamed for letting the coronavirus spread throughout the facility.

Another doctor from Siberia may also have tried to take her life by similarly jumping out of a fifth-storey window at her workplace in Siberia.

As in the cosmonaut hospital case, local media reported that Yelena Nepomnyashchay was blamed by authorities for an outbreak of the virus. She survived but is in critical condition.

A screenshot from the popular Russian Information program Vesti Nedeli, or News of the Week, shows doctors handling wards of COVID-19 patients in Moscow. (Russia 1 Television)

Putin’s plan

For the first time, Putin has acknowledged Russia is having trouble meeting the demands for enough personal protective equipment for its health-care workers.

In an address Tuesday, Putin admitted that “there is still a shortage of some technical items, equipment and disposable materials,” despite increasing production of masks 10-fold in April and making more than 100,000 protective suits every day.

“We have concentrated and mobilized all our industrial resources,” he said.

Protesters in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, stage a protest on April 20, urging the government to end the lockdown and allow them to return to work. (Youtube)

Russia is poised to surpass 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, with approximately 900 reported deaths. Those are extremely low numbers compared with the experience of western Europe, where more than 20,000 people have died in each of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain.

Many doctors — even those sympathetic to the government — have told CBC News part of the challenge is that Russia’s tests return an unusually large number of false negative results.

Other health officials linked to opposition groups believe many deaths are also either deliberately or unintentionally misrepresented.

For example, the Russian business publication RBC quoted Moscow’s deputy mayor as saying cases of pneumonia increased more than 70 per cent in the past week, filling up urgent-care beds in the city. 

Since many coronavirus patients develop pneumonia, the head of a doctors advocacy group told CBC News in an earlier interview that it’s fair to assume most of those patients had COVID-19.

Economic disaster

Putin is also facing increasing pressure over the enormous economic cost of the coronavirus lockdown, now into its fifth week in the capital Moscow.

With Moscow and most other Russian cities locked down for a over month, up to six million jobs have disappeared. (Alexey Sergeev/CBC)

Russia’s labour ministry reported Tuesday that unemployment could soon reach six million people.

Many of those out of work would only be eligible to receive a meagre maximum payout of roughly $ 200 Cdn a month.

Others who are self-employed might not get anything.

“They can’t survive in this situation if the lockdown is prolonged,” said opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov.

Gudkov is among those calling on the Putin administration to release some of the money in Russia’s huge sovereign wealth fund, which holds more than $ 150 billion US.

When oil revenues were stronger, the money was set aside by the Putin administration to help ease the shock of any future economic sanctions that might be imposed by the West. But Gudkov says the money should be spent now, by making direct payments to people, as has been done in Canada and the United States.

“He doesn’t want to spend this reserve fund,” Gudkov told CBC News.

Frustration growing

“Putin needs the money to maintain the ‘Putin forever’ model,” a reference to the Russian leader’s attempts to change the constitution to allow him to serve two more terms as Russia’s president.

Gudkov says Putin has a long list of “legacy projects” he wants built, and spending money on direct payments to people will deplete the funds for that.

But frustration is growing, as jobs dry up and the Kremlin offers people little in return, Gudkov says.

“If there is a choice to die from hunger or the virus, it’s better to die from the virus.”

Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov wants the Kremlin to offer a much bigger assistance package to those hurt by COVID-19. (Chris Brown/Skype)

In his remarks Tuesday, Putin indicated the government is preparing another round of economic assistance for individuals and businesses, but he didn’t offer any clues to what it might be.

He also suggested that some parts of Russia might be able to start easing their lockdown and returning to work after a holiday period that ends in mid-May. 

‘Very scary’ for Russian government

In an online discussion hosted by the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, liberal-leaning Russian economist Sergei Guriev, who is based in Paris, suggested COVID-19 represents the most difficult challenge Putin has faced in the 20 years he has sat atop Russia’s power structure.

Guriev says street protests against the lockdown may become more frequent, as Russians run out of money and face difficulties feeding their families.

“We are in very uncharted waters,” he said. “This situation is very scary for the Russian government.”

WATCH | Russians’ frustration with the COVID-19 lockdown is growing:

Millions of Russians have become impoverished during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Kremlin is offering little financial support even though it has billions in the coffers. 2:04

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CBC | World News

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. suffers knee injury as Jays fall to Mariners

Kyle Seager got a kick out of displacing Alex Rodriguez from the Seattle Mariners’ record book.

Seager hit a tiebreaking home run in the eighth inning, Austin Nola also went deep, and the Seattle Mariners beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 Saturday.

Seager’s two-out drive off the right field foul screen came on the first pitch from left-hander Tim Mayza (1-2).

“At the end, it started hooking a little bit hard on me,” Seager said. “I’m not mad at it for staying fair.”

Seattle won for the third time in five games after losing eight of the previous nine.

WATCH | Jays lose Guerrero Jr. in loss to Mariners:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. left after two innings with injury in a 4-3 Blue Jays loss to the Seattle Mariners. 1:19

Seager’s home run extended his hitting streak to 11 games. The third baseman has reached safely in 21 of his past 22 and has hit nine of his 15 home runs in that stretch.

“You want to get on runs like that,” Seager said. “That’s kind of how it goes in the power department. You know, you hit them in spurts, at least I have.”

Seattle Mariners Austin Nola celebrates in the dugout with teammates after hitting a solo home run during fourth inning. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Prss )

Since July 22, Seager has raised his batting average from .186 to .242.

“His timing is really good. He’s not in a hurry at the plate,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. He should.”

The homer was Seager’s 190th, the most ever by a Mariners infielder. Rodriguez hit 189 homers in his seven seasons with Seattle.

“That’s definitely something that I don’t take lightly,” Seager said of the record. “I’m very proud of that.”

Vlad undergoes MRI

Blue Jays rookie third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. left after two innings because of a sore left knee and was replaced by Brandon Drury.

In the second, Guerrero cut in front of shortstop Bo Bichette to field Nola’s grounder and made an awkward throw across his body, too late to record the out. He finished the inning but did not return in the third.

Manager Charlie Montoyo said Guerrero “felt a little tweak in his knee.” Guerrero was not available after the game because he had left to undergo an MRI.

“We took him out just in case,” Montoyo said.

Nola scored later in the second on a sacrifice fly by Keon Broxton, but Toronto answered in the bottom half on Billy McKinney’s two-out RBI single.

Nola homered off right off Trent Thornton to begin the fourth, his fifth, and Broxton added a second sacrifice fly later in the inning, but the Mariners couldn’t hold the two-run lead.

Bichette trimmed it to 3-2 with a two-out blast off Taylor Guilbeau in the fifth, and Reese McGuire tied it in the seventh, homering on the second pitch from Anthony Bass. Bichette’s homer was his fifth, while McGuire’s was his third.

Bo Bichette of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates after hitting a home run in the fifth inning. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Bass (2-4) worked one inning for the win and Sam Tuivailala pitched the eighth. Matt Magill pitched around a two-out double in the ninth to earn his first career save, catching Bichette looking to end it.

Guilbeau made his major league debut in the fourth, becoming the 40th pitcher and 62nd player to appear for the Mariners this season. Seattle also used 40 pitchers in 2017, while 62 players breaks the team mark set two years ago.

Thornton allowed three runs and five hits in six innings.

Right-hander Reggie McClain opened for Seattle, allowing one run and three hits in two innings.

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hits 1st career grand slam as Jays bounce back to beat Tigers

When rookie slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. came to the plate with the bases loaded, there was an air of anticipation at Comerica Park.

Toronto and Detroit are a combined 60 games under .500, but this was still a moment to remember.

Guerrero hit his first career grand slam, a 441-foot drive toward the bushes that helped the Blue Jays rally for a 7-5 victory over the Tigers on Saturday night. The home run erased a 5-1 deficit in the fifth, and Brandon Drury added a two-run shot an inning later to put Toronto ahead.

“It was a good pitch to hit,” Guerrero said through a translator. “He gave me my pitch, and I hit it pretty good.”

WATCH | Vlad Jr. launch his 1st career grand slam:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 1st career grand slam helped the Toronto Blue Jays comeback to beat the Detroit Tigers 7-5. 1:50

Niko Goodrum and John Hicks went deep for the Tigers, who are 7-33 since the start of June. Goodrum’s two-run homer in the second gave Detroit a 3-1 lead, but a 59-minute rain delay in the fourth knocked out both starting pitchers.

Wilmer Font (2-0) came on in the bottom of the fourth and gave up a two-run homer to Hicks that put the Tigers up by four, but Gregory Soto (0-4) quickly gave away the advantage. Toronto loaded the bases in the fifth, then Guerrero hit his home run a bit to the left of straightaway centre.

“That’s a strong young man,” Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I think Soto was trying to get that on the outer corner but he left it over the middle and you saw where that young fellow hit it. I think they’ve got a good one there, but I don’t think they need me to tell them.”

Toronto Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gets sunflowers seeds dumped on his head by Justin Smoak, left, after hitting a grand slam. (Duane Burleson/Associated Press)

It was the ninth major league homer for Guerrero, who had three hits in a win Friday and two more on Saturday.

“That’s the Vladdy that we know,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “That’s what he can do, and that’s what we’re waiting for, everybody was waiting for. He’s looking good at the plate now.”

Guerrero came into the year as one of the game’s top prospects, but his debut season has been uneven. He’s hitting .249 with an OPS of .729.

“He’s 20 years old, and he’s going to have his ups and downs, but he’s always going to find a way to smile,” Montoyo said. “That’s just who he is.”

Guerrero said he already had the ball from his grand slam, and indicated he would give it to his Hall of Fame father.

Toronto Blue Jays’ Brandon Drury hits a two-run home run against the Detroit Tigers during the sixth inning. (Duane Burleson/Associated Press )

Drury’s homer gave the Blue Jays the lead, and the Tigers didn’t score again off the Toronto bullpen. Ken Giles struck out three in the ninth for his 14th save in 15 chances.

Detroit has lost 27 of its last 30 home games that were played to completion. There was a suspended game May 19 — and the Tigers were losing that one, too.

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. cranks first big league homer in San Francisco


Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hits his first home run in the majors to give the Jays an early lead against the Giants.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hits his first home run in the majors to give the Jays an early lead against the Giants. 1:05

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 1st MLB hit ignites Jays’ walk-off win

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., set the stage for the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night. Brandon Drury provided the knockout blow.

Guerrero led off the ninth inning with a double off Oakland’s Yusmeiro Petit for his first big-league hit. Drury made it a storybook finish with his first career walk-off homer — a two-run, two-out blast — in a 4-2 victory over the Athletics.

“I know I’m always one swing away,” Drury said. “So I was excited to come through for the team and help us win a big game.”

Alen Hanson came on as a pinch-runner for Guerrero and moved to third on Billy McKinney’s sacrifice bunt. After a Teoscar Hernandez lineout, Drury belted the first pitch from Petit (0-1) for his third homer of the season.

WATCH | Guerrero Jr. leads Blue Jays to win in MLB debut:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was 1 for 4 with a double that led to the game-winning run in his big league debut on Friday. 2:11

Walkoff dramatics aside, the night was all about Guerrero.

“I was just concentrating on every at-bat, just trying to do my job,” he said through a translator. “It was exciting.”

Rogers Centre came to life with a playoff-like atmosphere every time the top-ranked prospect came to the plate or made a play at third base.

Gates opened early at the stadium so fans could take in batting practice. With Guerrero’s father — Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr. — watching behind the cage and loads of media on hand, the youngster belted a ball off a 300-level window above the fence in left field.

Eric Sogard’s first career lead-off homer gave Toronto a 1-0 lead but Oakland starter Mike Fiers retired the next three batters in order to set Guerrero up to lead off in the second.

WATCH | Guerrero Jr. gets standing ovation before 1st at bat: 

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. grounded out to first base in his first at-bat in the big leagues. 1:06

The crowd roared during the slugger’s pre-game introduction and roared again when he took the field in his much-anticipated debut. Guerrero was even cheered when he picked up a foul ball that rolled down the third-base line and tossed it in the stands.

The 20-year-old was given a standing ovation as he walked to the plate for his first at-bat and the 28,688 spectators hung on every pitch.

Guerrero worked a 2-2 count before grounding out to first base. Fans still loudly applauded the effort.

The Blue Jays added a run in the third inning when Danny Jansen scored on a Randal Grichuk two-out single.

WATCH | Guerrero Jr. speaks to media ahead of Blue Jays debut:

The 20-year-old phenom will bat fifth and play third base when he takes the field on Friday against Oakland. 19:26

Toronto starter Marcus Stroman cruised through the first three innings before giving up a leadoff single to Marcus Semien in the fourth. Guerrero’s first defensive play came later in the frame and it was a beauty.

He short-hopped a ball on the run and made a crisp throw to first base to retire Stephen Piscotty for the second out. Stroman followed up by striking out Khris Davis.

“I was probably just as excited as the entire fanbase, getting Vladdy up here,” Stroman said. “It’s like having [Duke basketball star] Zion Williamson on your team. It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent.

“Just to have the opportunity to play with him, it’s amazing to look out there and see him behind you at third base.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. short-hops a ball and makes the out in the fourth inning on Friday. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Fans rose from their seats again when Guerrero led off in the bottom half of the frame.

The Montreal native put a charge into the building by belting a 3-1 pitch to deep left field but Chad Pinder made a nice leaping catch against the wall. Guerrero flew out to deep right-centre field in the sixth.

Toronto (12-14), which ended a two-game mini-skid, has won eight of its last 12 games. The Athletics (14-14) fell back to the .500 mark by dropping the opener of the three-game series.

Stroman allowed one hit over seven innings but didn’t factor in the decision after Joe Biagini gave up a two-run homer to Oakland pinch-hitter Robbie Grossman in the eighth.

Stroman struck out seven batters and issued two walks over his 97-pitch outing, lowering his earned-run average to a sparkling 1.43.

“He’s throwing all his pitches for strikes,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “That ball has got movement. He’s been fun to watch.”

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. says he’s ‘proud’ to be making debut in Canada

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. walked to the front of the Rogers Centre interview room, pulled out his chair, took his seat and stoically waited for his press conference to begin.

Baseball’s top prospect wasn’t the least bit fazed by the few dozen reporters — or the seven TV cameras — staring back at him.

After all, he’s used to all the attention. He’s well aware of the lofty expectations surrounding his major-league debut and doesn’t seem to mind any of it.

“I’m just going to come here and play hard, give my 100 per cent to help the team win,” Guerrero said through a translator Friday in a pre-game news conference. “Whatever happens, happens.”

The Blue Jays announced Wednesday the 20-year-old third baseman would be called up from triple-A Buffalo for Friday’s game against the visiting Oakland Athletics. Toronto optioned infielder Richard Urena to Buffalo to make room on its roster.

WATCH | Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on his MLB debut:

The 20-year-old phenom will bat fifth and play third base when he takes the field on Friday against Oakland. 19:26

Guerrero, who was placed fifth in the batting order for Friday’s game and was slotted in at third base, said he would approach his MLB debut like any other game.

“I’ve been talking to my teammates and they say it’s all the same, to play in the big leagues it’s the same game,” Guerrero said. “So I’m trying to control my emotions that way and if I do that I’m going to be OK.”

While Guerrero was calm and collected throughout his news conference, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins couldn’t hide his excitement.

He smiled from ear to ear at the podium, calling Guerrero’s debut “an exceptional day” for the organization.

“This is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Atkins said. “I’ve seen a lot of great players transition and I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

TV cameras caught Guerrero arriving at Rogers Centre early Friday wearing a No. 27 Expos jersey, the same his Hall of Fame father wore for eight seasons in Montreal.

Guerrero said he did that to honour his dad.

“Since I was a kid, I was running around with my dad in the clubhouse in Montreal,” Guerrero said. “I just wanted to bring that back today.”

Guerrero, who was born in Montreal and raised in the Dominican Republic, said he was “very happy, very proud” to make his debut in Canada.

He’s already had some success in baseball games north of the border, hitting a walk-off homer in a pre-season contest in Montreal in 2018.

Atkins said Guerrero’s connection to the country makes his story that much more special.

“We have a Canadian-born, Dominican baseball player, son of a Hall of Famer that is coming into Canada to play for this great city and country,” he said. “It’s such a good baseball story and he’s so aware of it.

“He’s more aware than most of our young players of what it means to play for a city and a country. … He understands the magnitude of it.”

Toronto Blue Jays rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. enters a press conference Friday ahead of his major-league debut. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo marvelled at Guerrero’s demeanour ahead of Friday’s game.

“I don’t know if it’s because he grew up in a clubhouse, maybe it makes him more relaxed. But he really is relaxed,” he said. “That’s pretty good. That’s special to be like that.”

Guerrero smiled when asked about how he learned he was going to the big leagues — via a joke from Buffalo manager Bobby Meacham.

Meacham called Guerrero into his office Wednesday and told him he had to work on his defence with the triple-A team. When Guerrero said he understood, Meacham responded there was a problem: he wouldn’t be around to help him because Guerrero would be in Toronto instead.

The young star also cracked a smile when asked about his grandmother, Altagracia, who has accompanied him on the stops of his minor-league journey, cooking his meals and taking care of him along the way.

“Today we couldn’t cook because we don’t have an apartment yet, we’re still in a hotel,” Guerrero said, prompting laughter from reporters.

Guerrero signed a $ 3.9-million US deal with the Blue Jays as a 16-year-old international free agent in 2015 and has proven his dominance at the plate at every minor-league level. He mashed double-A pitching in 2018, batting a whopping .402 through 61 games, then continued that mastery with a .336 batting average in 30 games with Buffalo.

Guerrero, whose spring training was cut short due to an oblique injury, began the season in the minor leagues and batted .367 with a 1.124 OPS in eight games at Buffalo before his MLB debut.

Asked what the celebration would be like in his native Dominican Republic for his long-awaited debut, Guerrero he said he didn’t know.

“They haven’t seen me play,” he said. “But maybe after the game there’s going to be a big party.”

Prospects in pipeline

Guerrero Jr. is just the first of Toronto’s top prospects to make his debut this year, with the likes of Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and top pitching prospect Nate Pearson seemingly a year or two away.

If all goes according to plan, and these prospects fulfill their promise, the Jays could emerge quicker than most pundits predict, according to Toronto right-fielder Randal Grichuk, recently signed to the team for a five-year, $ 52-million US contract.

“They have a lot of good, young talented players that are coming up. They have the financial ability to sign some pieces if they feel like we need a piece here or there,” Grichuk told CBC Sports. “And, we want to win. We are dedicated to winning. So, if you put all that together over the next five years, that screams good runs deep into the playoffs and a chance to win it all. Definitely, something I wanted to be a part of.”

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CBC | Sports News

Young Russians risk futures to support Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin's nemesis

Shards of glass scattered all over Egor Cherniack’s pillow and landed just short of his head the night a brick crashed through his bedroom window. 

“I was really scared,” he told CBC News during a visit to his apartment in the Russian city of Kaliningrad.

“There was a big hole in the window and glass all over the room,” he said, pointing to where the attack occurred. 

“The brick (landed) about 40 centimetres from the bed.” 

Although just 19 years old, Cherniack holds one of the most controversial and perhaps dangerous jobs in the city.

He’s managing the local political campaign for opposition figure Alexei Navalny, whose crusade to uncover corruption in government has made him arguably Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest nemesis.


Navalny was once described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘the man Vladimir Putin fears most.’ (Reuters)

Navalny leads the Progress Party and founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation.  Legions of young supporters have been won over to his cause by Navalny’s savvy use of the internet and social media to spread his message. 

It has also made him a loathed figure in the Kremlin and turned some of his supporters into targets.

Cherniack admits speaking out publicly about the harassment could draw even more unwanted attention. But he says he won’t be intimidated.

“They wrote offensive comments next to my apartment, like ‘Navalny is a fascist. Egor is a fascist.’ And they drew obscene things. So I am very certain it is only because I am working there.”

Broken Window

A brick recently shattered Cherniack’s bedroom window; the exterior of his apartment was shot up with a paint gun. He attributes the attack to anti-Navalny foes. (Human Rights Watch)

Cherniack says a division of the local police that specializes in rooting out so-called “extremism” has raided the campaign office at least six times. He says a co-worker was even expelled from university for supporting Navalny.

As part of the pattern of harassment, Cherniak says the same police turned up at his father’s rental property that he runs like a B&B and threatened to seize it for not meeting building standards. Local camera crews filmed it and put it on the news, noting that coincidentally his son runs the Navalny headquarters in Kaliningrad.

Unwavering support

Despite the scare tactics, Cherniack’s support for Navalny has not wavered.

“The negative emotions subside and the things that matter, like the very reason I became the head of Navalny’s campaign, is that I want to make change.”

Egor at his apartment

Cherniack hopes to get accepted at a U.S. university and support U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in a bid to become president one day, before returning to Russia. (Pascal Dumont)

Navalny, a 41-year-old Moscow-area lawyer, has never been elected to public office in Russia. But his campaign to embarrass Putin by uncovering allegedly corrupt practices involving his top officials strikes a chord with many younger Russians who follow him on social media.

His most popular YouTube video, focusing on the accumulated riches of Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has been watched more than 25 million times.

At a recent Navalny campaign meeting in Kaliningrad that a CBC News crew attended, practically everyone in the room was under the age of 25.

Navalny Meeting

A meeting of Alexei Navalny volunteers in Kaliningrad. Most are under the age of 25. (Pascal Dumont)

“To make sure this candidate will be a great president, you have to look and see how he behaves with his supporters,” Cherniack said.

“The way I see this campaign: I think Navalny will be a good president and Russia will have the same traits.”

Election ban

But Navalny won’t get a chance to run for Russia’s presidency anytime soon. The country’s electoral commission has banned him from challenging Putin in the upcoming vote in March 2018, citing a fraud conviction that supporters say is bogus.

Exactly how popular Navalny and his message is with Russians is difficult to tell. His campaign claims to have 84 offices throughout the country. Thousands of people have attended his rallies during the last six months.

The Kremlin disputes Navalny’s appeal.

Government officials routinely cite opinion polls that put his support at less than five per cent nationally.   

That is no doubt aided by the fact that Russia’s omnipresent state TV stations and Kremlin-friendly broadcasters usually ignore Navalny’s rallies and statements.

Putin himself even refuses to say Navalny’s name in public. When the Russian president was asked directly to comment on Navalny during his 2017 yearend news conference, he replied obliquely, referring to “that person who you mentioned.”

Revolution candidate?

A TV program by Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov berated young people for not understanding their history and suggested Navalny wants another “Maidan” — a reference to the 2014 street protests in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of that country’s pro-Russian president.


Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks to the media after submitting his documents to be registered as a presidential candidate on Dec. 24. He was later banned from running. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Still, even though he won’t be on the ballot for the March 18 vote, Navalny’s young followers continue to flock to his campaign, even if for some, it has to be in secret.

One 18-year-old woman in Kaliningrad named Ally said her parents have forbidden her from going to the meetings. She goes anyway.

“My father is really against it. So is my grandfather. They think we [young people] don’t understand, that we didn’t learn our history.”

She told CBC News her father accepts the Kremlin view that supporting Navalny is akin to supporting a coup — but she does not.

“All my life, it’s been Vladimir Putin,” she said. “This kind of thing should change from time to time. Like all the other countries.”

She continues: “Even though the [state] TV says we’ve been growing and Putin has done great things and I understand we’ve lived in worse conditions, but these are still not the best conditions.

“We deserve more.”

Protest day

Navalny is now calling on Russians to boycott the election to drive down voter turnout and deny Putin a strong mandate.

He’s called for a Russia-wide day of protest on Jan. 28, encouraging poeple to take to the streets and show their opposition to what Navalny claims is an election stage-managed by the Kremlin.

In the leadup, CBC News spent time with volunteers holding one-person pickets near Kaliningrad’s Victory Square to draw attention to the event.

Among those who stopped to criticize the protest and Navalny was ardent Putin supporter Dimitry Milanin.

“If you elect someone else, you really don’t know what you’ll get,” he said.


Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to win the March 2018 election by a wide margin. (Kremlin)

“Maybe we’ll lose our pay or something and then what will we do? He [Putin] used to work in the KGB; he’s a military man,  so he knows exactly how to run a country.” 

Putin is expected to be easily re-elected by a wide margin. Some pulls suggest his support will be in the 70 per cent range.

Positive future

Cherniack says after Russia’s election, he hopes to get accepted into a U.S. university and work on a presidential campaign for his political hero, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

Like Navalny, Sanders attracted large number to young voters with his anti-establishment message.

“The U.S. system is the most influential one in the world,” Cherniack said. “By changing it you make a positive impact on the world in general.”

Then he says, he will return to Russia.

“I’m pretty hopeful,” he says about the future of his country.

“If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be working here.”

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CBC | World News

Vladimir Putin hopes World Cup will cleanse Russia's scandal-clad image

Vladimir Putin welcomes soccer luminaries to the Kremlin on Friday for a World Cup draw that provides a global audience for the Russian president to attempt to burnish the image of a country scandalized by sports corruption.

By staging the ceremony for the 32 World Cup finalists at the seat of Russian power and draping the Kremlin in FIFA branding, soccer’s governing body is undercutting its pretense that sports and politics should not mix — and in a country where the association has proved so damaging.

FIFA is on the final countdown to the first World Cup in Russia as it continues to assess the extent the 2014 World Cup squad was embroiled in the country’s state-sponsored doping scheme. FIFA President Gianni Infantino still plans to share a stage Friday with Vitaly Mutko, the Russian deputy prime minister accused of overseeing the elaborate scheme that saw positive samples across Russian sports destroyed or hidden.

Infantino, though, is still trying to rebuild FIFA’s image after far-reaching bribery scandals threatened the future of the organization. The draw comes one day short of the seventh anniversary of the World Cup vote from which so many of FIFA’s legal travails stemmed.


On Friday, Russia will welcome the 32 finalists for the World Cup draw in Moscow. (Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE)

Russian authorities deny government involvement in doping and the country has weathered FIFA corruption investigations, concerns about hooliganism, racism around games, deaths on World Cup construction sites and a sponsor shortfall to stay on track to host soccer’s biggest tournament for the first time.

The draw is the moment fans can start to plan their journeys across Russia, with 11 host cities spread from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea in the west to Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains which separate Europe and Asia.

Germany will discover the path to defending the title won in Brazil, while Iceland and Panama will be in the draw for the finals for the first time. Two teams are returning after long absences: Peru hasn’t contested the World Cup since 1982 and Egypt is returning for the first time since 1990. But there is no space for four-time champion Italy, two-time reigning Copa America champion Chile, while the United States is missing for the first time since 1986.

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CBC | Soccer News