Amid the New Year’s ceasefire in Donbass, Kiev and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics carried out the biggest prisoner swap on Wednesday, Kommersant writes. The agreement on releasing a large number of POWs was reached after talks that had lasted for 14 months. The negotiations were conducted very painstakingly and could reach a stalemate at any moment, the paper says.
Initially, Kiev was expected to hand over to Donetsk and Lugansk 306 persons, while 74 Ukrainians, mostly servicemen, were due to be sent back home. The real number of prisoners was fewer. There were some people on both sides who refused to cross the contact line due to different reasons. According to Kommersant’s sources, several Russians, who are being kept in Ukrainian prisons, are also awaiting release.
Experts interviewed by Kommersant believe that although the prisoner exchange was an important step for implementing the Minsk agreements, it still did not turn the tide in settling the crisis in Donbass. Some forces that place their stakes on escalation still have the upper hand in the conflict zone, they said.
"Will the prisoner exchange bring about further progress in reaching a settlement in Donbass? I don’t think so. Let us recall that this process began one and a half months ago when the foreign policy environment was different. Then it seemed that political and diplomatic arguments would be a priority in Donbass, rather than military ones. Since then, the situation has changed," Director of the Kiev-based Institute for Global Strategies Vadim Karasev told the paper, referring to the latest decision by US President Donald Trump to endorse lethal arms supplies to Ukraine.
"Now this is a very unfavorable moment for further steps as part of the Minsk agreements, first and foremost the adoption of some laws by the Verkhovna Rada that are sought by Donetsk, Lugansk and Moscow," he said.
Deputy PM Vitaly Mutko, who cut his duties short as president of the Russian Football Union for six months earlier this week, has quit another important role, that as chairman of the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) Russia-2018, Kommersant writes. Alexey Sorokin, who has been director general of the body since January 2011, will replace him. Sources earlier named Sorokin as the right choice for the top position in Russian football instead of Mutko, who has been sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee.
Mutko earlier attributed his departure from the presidency of the Russian Football Union to the consequences of the Russian doping crisis and the need to defend the reputation of Russian athletes affected by it and his own as well. Meanwhile, sources told the paper that the move came due to pressure from the world’s football governing body FIFA over Russia’s doping scandal.
Commenting on his appointment, Sorokin said he was sure that Mutko’s exit won’t affect the preparations for the world championship. However, honorary president of the Russian Football Union Vyacheslav Koloskov voiced concerns over Mutko’s resignation. "Just six months are left before the World Cup, and there is a bundle of unsolved issues. [Mutko] chaired the committee and is the deputy prime minister - that’s absolutely right, only at this level can all issues be solved…And now he quits. And Sorokin has never dealt with such massive issues before," he emphasized.
Russia expects that in 2018 it will be able to put further effort into reviving relations with Georgia and consolidating the advances in economic and trade cooperation, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Izvestia. In 2017, Russia was Georgia’s second largest trade partner, with trade turnover growing by more than 30%, he said.
Russian-Georgian contacts started normalizing several years ago when Mikhail Saakashvili’s party was defeated in the parliamentary election and the country’s new government was formed, Karasin said. After that, Moscow and Tbilisi managed "to achieve significant results in trade and transport, and enhance humanitarian ties."
Russia became the top market for Georgian goods, first of all wine, the senior diplomat said. Shipments between the two countries started growing, but at the moment only one checkpoint is operating on the border.
"Now, there are preparations for a large-scale reconstruction of the Verkhny Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border. This measure is aimed at easing transport links between the two countries," Karasin said.
The diplomat voiced hope that next year these positive trends will be enhanced, noting that Moscow is ready for "comprehensive practical cooperation" and expects "an adequate reaction from the Georgian side." "At the same time, we are not turning a blind eye to evident hurdles, suspended diplomatic relations and geopolitical tendencies in the South Caucasian region," he said.
Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian prime minister’s special envoy for relations with Russia, also notes positive tendencies in economic and trade areas. But the political ties are still in crisis, he stressed.
Vladimir Putin submitted documents to Russia’s Central Election Commission for his nomination to run in the 2018 presidential race on Wednesday and was given the green light to start campaigning. Vedomosti writes that much of what the Russian leader did throughout 2017 was directly linked to the 2018 campaign and Putin’s last presidential term allowed by the Constitution.
One of the Kremlin’s noteworthy domestic policy achievements was the reshuffling of regional heads. From January to April, Putin had replaced nine governors, and in September-October another 11. These were well-prepared campaigns with a set scenario, spin doctoring and attempts to make this part of a unified set of workforce’s tenets, the paper says.
Putin also killed two birds with one stone in Syria in 2017. However, the Kremlin’s hopes that a joint war on terror could somehow break the West’s isolation over Crimea evaporated during the campaign’s first year. Nevertheless, here Putin fulfilled both his mission to keep Bashar Assad’s regime in place and strengthen Russia’s influence in the Middle East, laying the foundation to continue his multipolar foreign policy for the next presidential term.
The success of the Syrian mission also played its role in the presidential campaign, Vedomosti writes. On the one hand, it worked in favor of Russia’s image in public opinion as being the sole fighter against global terror and also consolidated their confidence in a powerful army.
The announcement of the military pullout from Syria amid the West’s Olympic war against Russian athletes allowed Putin to act as a peacekeeper, the paper says. The decision lived up to the expectations of most Russians who did not understand the real need to fight in Syria, according to sociologists.
However, the Kremlin had some pre-election blunders. The rallies on March 26 and June 12 staged by opposition figure Alexey Navalny did not only frighten the authorities by their scale but also dispelled the myth that young people who were born under Putin would unwaveringly support the current administration, Vedomosti writes.
"The pressure of new generations on politics and trajectory of the country’s future significantly changed the focus and priorities of the Kremlin’s work with society and the administration’s rhetoric," political scientist Dmitry Badovsky said.
Putin’s aides have so far failed to find a key ideological gimmick for the 2018 campaign. Previously, there were suggestions that it could be "the image of the future," but now the talks on this abated, the paper says.
Russia’s federal tourism agency, Rostourism, expects that nearly 1.5 million guests will visit the country for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, its chief Oleg Safonov said in an interview with Izvestia.
"Our goal is not just to attract fans for the championship, but to do so that they fall in love with this country and return here as tourists. The World Cup is the window of opportunity to develop inbound tourism, which should be effectively used," Safonov said.
The Rostourism head anticipates that tourists will bring up to $2 bln in cash. "This money will produce a synergetic effect for our economy as it will give extra impetus to 53 fields of the national economy, involved in creating tourism products," he said.
Safonov said all 11 Russian cities are almost ready to host the World Cup. "All Russian and foreign fans as well as tourists will be able to stay in hotels and have very good relaxation with comfort."
The agency is also developing automobile tourism and caravanning in Russia, Safonov said, noting that this is a very promising type of travel, which is valued at 19 billion euros in Europe.
TASS is not responsible for the material quoted in these press reviews