The Kerch Strait crisis has become the focus of attention both in Moscow and Kiev, as well as in other capitals. The Russian FSB said that Ukrainian naval ships had entered Russia’s territorial waters "on Kiev’s direct order," while "Ukrainian Security Service officers coordinated the provocation." In Kiev, the Rada approved President Pyotr Poroshenko’s decree declaring martial law, though many lawmakers believe the Ukrainian leader’s move is aimed at disrupting the election scheduled for March 2019, Kommersant writes.
Both Kiev and Moscow are absolutely certain they are right. A source in the Russian intelligence services told Kommersant that the operation to detain the ships had been legitimately conducted, and besides, there were no fatalities. Two federal officials, in turn, said that a decision concerning the release of the Ukrainian sailors would be made "at a very high level." They did not rule out that the Russian and Ukrainian heads of state may hold closed-door talks on the issue.
Meanwhile, according to experts, declaring martial law is the only way for Poroshenko to hold on to the presidency. Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee head Konstantin Kosachev is confident that all of the recent steps by the authorities in Kiev stem from their desire to cling to power. The Minsk Agreements, public security and relations with Russia are being sacrificed to that desire, he told Izvestia.
Many Ukrainian politicians agree that imposing martial law provides an excuse for delaying the election. Verkhovna Rada member Yevgeny Balitsky, who represents the Opposition Bloc, told Izvestia that the Kerch Strait incident had been planned in advance in order to influence Ukrainian voters, as the presidential election is scheduled for late March 2019 and Poroshenko’s approval rating does not exceed 10%, according to recent opinion polls. "The provocation is only aimed at disrupting the election and increasing [the president’s] ratings," Balitsky said. "Additional provocations may be expected in Donbass. Everything will be blamed on Russia, who is considered to be responsible for all of the country’s ills. The authorities in Kiev are political terrorists, they will do anything," he stressed.
Nevertheless, having declared martial law, Kiev is unlikely to limit economic contacts with Russia, particularly in the gas transit sector, National Energy Institute Deputy Director General Alexander Frolov told the paper. "What's important to understand is that gas transit means money and no one is going to give up money. Next year, Ukraine will have to pay about $5 bln to creditors. For that purpose, Ukraine is seeking a loan from the IMF, so in this situation no one will reject gas transit," Frolov emphasized.
However, there is also a political aspect to the issue. "In the event that Ukraine makes any careless step regarding its gas transmission system, tries to limit gas supplies through the system or starts demanding something from Russia, Europe will immediately show a highly nervous response," the expert noted.
Russian businesses in Ukraine are unlikely to face any damage, said Timur Nigmatullin, an analyst at the Otkrytiye brokerage firm. The situation may affect only some companies, he added. "It is hard to imagine a situation when private businesses would be taken away, given the development of the market economy. Something extraordinary must happen. So these companies are facing very small risks, whereas state companies are the ones under attack at the moment," the expert said.
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is currently on a tour of Arab states, seeking to reduce the damage Riyadh is facing over the Jamal Khashoggi murder case. On Monday, the prince visited Bahrain, on Tuesday he will travel to Tunisia, and at the end of the week, he will represent Saudi Arabia at the G20 summit in Argentina. In particular, he will hold a meeting with US President Donald Trump in an effort to close the chapter concerning the journalist’s murder, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.
Mohammad bin Salman kicked off his tour of Arab countries in the United Arab Emirates at the end of last week. On November 25, he met with former Spanish King Juan Carlos I during the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi. The next day, the Saudi crown prince held talks with Bahrain’s king.
Adviser to the Director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies Elena Suponina believes that there are various reasons why these visits are important for the Saudi crown prince. "One of his goals is to improve his leader’s image following the Jamal Khashoggi tragedy. For the past several weeks, the crown prince’s opponents have been telling the media that he is depressed and does not live in his palace. The current round of talks is supposed to dispel these rumors," the expert told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
According to Suponina, during his tour of Arab countries, the prince also wants to reach specific agreements with other leaders, which concern pressing issues the Middle East is facing. "It also may strengthen his image as a politician capable of resolving the most complicated global issues, including the long-standing Palestinian issue," the expert said. "US President Donald Trump’s administration has been exerting pressure on the Arab monarchies to make them provide financial support to Washington’s initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. However, the US president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has been unable to achieve any success here. So bin Salman’s tour is particularly aimed at breaking the impasse in the process," Suponina noted.
Apart from the Palestinian issue, Mohammad bin Salman is also interested in turning the tide in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been conducting a military campaign since 2015, with the Emirates as an ally. "Therefore, the prince has paid particular attention to the UAE for a reason. The two countries’ common goal is to unite their regional partners against Iran, with whom the kingdom has hostile relations, accusing Tehran of supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen," the expert stressed.
"It seems the US administration wants to force the Saudi crown prince to make more concessions in light of the recent scandal. Riyadh is not hiding its intention to increase oil production in the near future. It will bring oil prices down a bit, which is what Trump wants," Suponina concluded.
Russian national Maria Butina has been keeping her head up despite being imprisoned in the US. The Russian, charged with interfering in the US domestic affairs, has started to give algebra and yoga lessons to other inmates, and took up learning the Italian language herself, Maria’s father Valery Butin told Izvestia, adding that his daughter had celebrated her 30th birthday in prison.
Maria "has been trying hard to withstand the difficult situation she is currently in," the father said.
"Masha has a university degree, so she started teaching algebra to some of her fellow inmates. In addition, she is giving yoga lessons since she has been involved in sports all her life. She has also started to learn Italian," Valery Butin said. "She is a very strong-willed person. Luckily, there are no people accused of murder or other violent crimes in the block where she is being kept now, so she has no issues with other inmates," he added.
According to Valery Butin, the current condition of Maria’s health can be described as stable but she rarely goes outside for fresh air.
"There is a spot of about 12 square meters meant for walks, with bars overhead, so that inmates can make sure the sky is still there. There is no possibility of conducting any activity in the open air," Butin explained.
On November 10, Maria turned 30 and had to celebrate her birthday in jail.
"I heard that she and her fellow inmates even baked cookies," Valery Butin said. "But it is difficult to imagine how hard it is when your daughter is jailed under spurious charges. I hope this nightmare will end soon and we will meet again," he added.
"Maria is being held hostage to big politics, by arresting her, Washington is flaunting its power. The Russian Foreign Ministry now faces a serious task - to help our political prisoners return home," Professor of the Faculty of Law at the Higher School of Economics Alexander Domrin, who knows Maria personally, told Izvestia.
In light of rising tensions between Iran and the United States, along with growing cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, the Russian language has been gaining popularity among Iranians. In 2018, there were ten candidates for each slot at Russian language faculties at the country’s universities, Izvestia notes.
According to Iran’s Student Association, Iranians, particularly young ones, have been taking more and more interest in the Russian language over the past several years. Most of those who choose to learn Russian plan to study further in Russian universities. "The Russian language’s popularity stems, first and foremost, from good political relations between our countries," Association Spokesman Mohammed Azin said.
However, according to Professor of the Faculty of Russian Studies at Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University Mireila Ahmadi, the popularity of Russian does not come only from politics. Experts with the knowledge of Russian are considered to be worth their weight in gold on the labor market, she noted.
"Though Russian is not an easy language, it is rather popular in Iran, particular in the country’s north," Mireila Ahmadi told Izvestia. "Our labor market is used to experts fluent in English because many speak the language. However, Russian is in demand as never before. Our graduates find jobs easily as translators, teachers or diplomatic workers," the professor said.
"There were plans to introduce the Russian language in some schools as an experiment. If everything went as planned, the initiative would have applied to the entire country but the project hasn’t been launched yet due to the lack of teaching books," Ahmadi went on to say. "Some of my post-graduate students are writing papers on teaching Russian at school. We want to make an agreement with the Ministry of Education. In fact, we can release a Russian language book for Iranians schools in three years," she added.
If the Iranian government agrees to introduce Russian as a second foreign language at school, Iran will become the largest country in the Middle East working on such a project. Syria has been implementing a similar initiative since 2013.
The Black Friday campaign, which took place in Russia on November 23-25, proved successful for retailers. According to early indications, total sales reached 17.4 bln rubles ($259.7 mln), which is 2.5-times more than in 2017, Association of Internet Trade Companies (AITC) President Artyom Sokolov told Izvestia. According to the OFD Platform fiscal data operator, the average check soared eight-fold, reaching 11,000 rubles ($164).
Sokolov pointed to several reasons behind the success of the 2018 Black Friday sales. First, 1.5-fold more retailers participated in the campaign than last year. In addition, there was an increase in customer traffic. "The sales event attracted shoppers loyal to brands, who knew about the upcoming event in advance and made preparations for it. They planned their shopping for those particular dates," the expert noted.
According to the AITC, the most popular purchases included household equipment, electronics, clothing, shoes, as well as car parts and accessories.
"Devices aimed at the so-called selfie-generation are a significant driver behind the sales. As a rule, this group includes young people living in large cities, who are used to online shopping," an OFD Platform spokesman told Izvestia. "Retailers have been focusing on them, extending their online trade and offering various marketing opportunities, including discounts, loyalty programs, cashback services and the like," he said.
The Black Friday campaign indeed caused a stir among shoppers, said Board Chairman at the Russian Retail Market Expert Association Andrei Karpov. However, in his view, it is too early to compare sales figures in Russia and the United States, where billions of dollars are spent on Black Friday.
According to the AITC’s estimates, this year, 5,000 retailers took part in the sales campaign compared to 3,500 in 2017, RBC wrote. Blow-out sales events have been one of the key trends in the past several years, amid falling consumer spending.
As people’s incomes continue to fall, retailers can hardly go on without promotion campaigns, INFOLine-Analitika Director General Mikhail Burmistrov said. Major promos such as Black Friday allow big retailers to accomplish several important tasks at a time, as they attract new customers, optimize their stocks and increase the efficiency of their marketing spending, the expert pointed out.
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