Analysis & Comment

Belarus Protests, Aleksei Navalny, BBC: Your Thursday Briefing

Here’s what you need to know.

By Natasha Frost

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Good morning.

We’re covering the first days of the Charlie Hebdo massacre trial, the results of Aleksei Navalny’s toxicology tests and a small but symbolic change for Afghan national identification cards.

Germany calls for answers on Aleksei Navalny’s poisoning

The Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, currently being treated in a Berlin hospital, was poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok family of toxins, the German government said, citing what it called “unequivocal evidence.” In a statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany demanded an explanation: “It raises very serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer.”

Novichok, a Soviet-era weapon invented for military use, was used in 2018 in an attack against Sergei V. Skripal, a former Soviet spy, and his daughter in Salisbury, England, attributed to Russia’s military intelligence arm by the British government. At the time, experts expressed doubts that the tightly controlled substance would be used by anyone other than a state-sponsored agent.

Explainer: Novichok — Russian for “new guy” — is a potent neurotoxin that causes muscle spasms which can stop the heart, deadly fluid buildup in the lungs, and damage to other organs and nerve cells.

A feud between the BBC and the British government

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain came into office in 2019, he quickly took aim at the British Broadcasting Corporation, questioning its political impartiality and fundamental source of revenue — the license fee charged to all television viewers in the country.

More than a year later, the feud simmers on. The latest clash? The BBC’s abortive plan to strip particularly jingoistic lyrics from two popular patriotic songs in its telecast of the Proms, an annual concert, over concerns of evoking an imperialist past out of step with the present political moment. After a backlash fueled by the government and pro-government newspapers, the BBC made an about-face, saying in a contrite statement, “We hope everyone will welcome this solution.”

Mr. Johnson described the BBC’s plan as “cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture,” which he attributed to “self-recrimination and wetness.” In Parliament on Wednesday, he hinted at his intention, seemingly delayed by the pandemic, to overhaul the BBC and address the compulsory license fee.

Quote of note: “The BBC is uniquely vulnerable at this moment,” said the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. “There is a convergence of interests between the government and media owners in damaging the BBC. For them, this story is almost too good to be true.”

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other coronavirus developments:

New data from clinical trials confirm that cheap, widely available steroid drugs can help seriously ill patients survive Covid-19.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy has tested positive for the virus.

The C.D.C. has told health officials to prepare to distribute a vaccine within the United States by November, raising concerns over politicized timing.

The Brazilian soccer player Neymar is among three members of the Paris St.-Germain team that played in last week’s Champions League final to test positive for the virus.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis welcomed his first general public audience since the pandemic struck more than six months ago.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre trial begins

Over the next months, France must revisit one of the worst chapters in its modern history, after a landmark trial opened in Paris on Wednesday for the January 2015 terrorist attacks. Seventeen people died over three harrowing days, starting with a daytime assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that Islamic extremists targeted after it published cartoons lampooning Islam, and followed by a string of deadly jihadist attacks.

With the central assailants dead, the trial will focus on those charged with providing logistical aid. Most of the accused face up to 20 years in prison. The trial is expected to be more cathartic than revelatory for a country forced to reckon with the threat of homegrown terrorism, permanently altering its balance between security and civil liberty.

Voices: The trial is “a necessary, symbolic and limited social ceremony,” wrote the critic Philippe Lançon, a survivor of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. “And also, for some of us, a consolation ritual,” he added.

If you have 6 minutes, this is worth it

A small victory for Afghan women

Afghan citizens will soon have their mothers’ names printed along with their fathers’ on their national identification cards, after years of campaigning by activists. It’s a symbolic but important win: The old Afghan taboo over women in public runs so deep that schoolboys often get into fights if someone mentions the name of their mother or sister, an act seen as a dishonor. Even most women’s graves never include their names — only those of male relatives.

This small boost for women’s rights comes amid imminent government negotiations over a power-sharing deal with the Taliban, whose government largely confined women to their homes and stripped them of basic rights like education and paid employment.

Here’s what else is happening

Kenosha: President Trump visited the Wisconsin city shaken by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man. The president did not mention Mr. Blake’s name or meet with his family, but instead offered support for law enforcement and toured shops damaged by rioting.

Australian economy: After nearly three decades of growth, Australia fell into recession after its economy shrank 7 percent in the second quarter, the government said on Wednesday.

Prince Harry and Meghan: Six months after they quit the royal family, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex signed a multiyear deal with Netflix to make documentaries, feature films, shows and children’s programs. Meghan has made it clear that she has no plans to return to acting.

Snapshot: Above, the Moria migrant camp on the Aegean island of Lesbos, which hosts nearly 12,000 people, four times its maximum capacity. The Greek authorities have reported the first case of the coronavirus there, raising concerns of spread in a vulnerable population.

What we’re reading: The September issue of Vanity Fair, titled “The Great Fire.” The cover features Breonna Taylor, the issue is guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the writing is a tour de force on the state of American race relations.

Now, a break from the news

Cook: This black pepper beef and cabbage stir-fry features coarsely crushed black peppercorns for a quick weeknight dish.

Watch: The documentary “Robin’s Wish” pays tribute to Robin Williams and sheds light on Lewy body dementia, which was diagnosed in him after his death.

Do: If you want to walk easily and well as you age, you may need to do more than just stroll. An eye-opening new study of older walkers and cyclists found that people who cycle for exercise can walk more efficiently than people whose primary exercise is placid walking.

Short on creativity? At Home has our full collection of ideas on what to read, cook, watch, and do.

And now for the Back Story on …

How Lukashenko has kept power in Belarus

Protests demanding an end to President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s rule have roiled Belarus for four weeks, since an election dismissed as a sham gave him his sixth term. Ivan Nechepurenko, who has been reporting there, spoke to “The Daily” about how the president amassed such power.

Lukashenko says that he created Belarus. What does he mean?

It is accurate in a sense, because, of course, he’s the first president of this country. Belarus became independent in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and people were euphoric about acquiring independence.

But shortly after, they realized that democracy also brings chaos. The economy is not working well because as the rest of the Soviet Union, the Belarusian economy was a planned economy with no market, with prices set up from a single center from Moscow, essentially.

Who is Lukashenko in this moment as people in Belarus struggle to figure out what a post-Soviet Belarus even looks like?

He’s someone who comes from a very modest background and who rises quickly through the ranks to become a collective farm manager and then engages in politics. And he seems to be very driven and very charismatic. And people listen to him. He attempts to talk to them directly by telling them that I can take your lives back to where they were when you enjoyed them so much, when the Soviet Union was kind of at the height of its power.

How do the people of Belarus respond to this kind of backward-looking, nostalgic Soviet message?

He wins the election. He increases people’s salaries. And he cancels many of the market economy reforms. People are very happy because they feel the change immediately, and their standards of living improve.

But what people fail to notice is the main reason he’s able to deliver them. Russia, being an energy superpower, was essentially giving Belarus large amounts of oil that Belarus could refine and sell to European markets and keep the difference. So by doing that, Russia was essentially trying to tie Belarus to Moscow.

Thanks for joining me. See you tomorrow.

— Natasha

Thank you
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at

• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about Belarus.
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