The outcome of Sunday's presidential election still dominates the headlines in the Russian press on Tuesday. The Kremlin has given high marks to Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign, RBC writes with reference to sources among federal officials. The estimation is based on three main parameters - the lack of major violations, high turnout and the level of support. "The key thing is that it was a high-quality campaign, without serious violations," one of the sources said, adding that this assessment criterion has been the most important. Another source told the newspaper that the number of ballots cast in Putin’s favor in absolute terms was the most important parameter for the Kremlin. With 76.66% of the vote, the president has outstripped the 2012 election result (63.6%) and beat his own record set in 2004 (71.31%). In absolute terms, 56.2 mln people cast their ballots for Putin, the newspaper said.
It is not that ‘Putin’s majority’ has gained more than 10 million people since the previous election that is crucial, "what’s more important is the fact that there has been a qualitative increase of this majority," head of the ISEPR Fund Dmitry Badovsky told RBC. "For the first time, a Crimean consensus has been recorded at the presidential election," he said, adding that "a new generation of voters are joining ‘Putin’s majority’." Experts interviewed by Izvestia consider the voting in Crimea to be the second referendum on unification with Russia. Crimeans cast their ballots in the Russian presidential election for the first time. With the voter turnout exceeding 71%, Vladimir Putin garnered 92.16% of the vote on the peninsula.
"An efficient mobilization and information sharing campaign was conducted, with loyalists having understood that the power is really in the struggle for their vote," Alexander Pozhalov, a political expert, said in an interview with Vedomosti. "February’s drop in Putin’s rating could have been related to a certain pause in the campaign and the rising number of uncommitted voters, but the outstanding address (to the Federal Assembly - TASS) and last week's international political environment made the campaign dynamic again," he added. Another political expert Grigory Golosov thinks one could not have expected another outcome at a non-competitive election. "This is typical or even slightly lower than all authoritarian regimes usually have. The same concerns the turnout - it usually exceeds 80% in such regimes. In Russia, the system is still being shaped, and if the current trends persist, the turnout issue will no longer exist by the next presidential election," he told Vedomosti.
Eight candidates ran for the highest office in the Russian Federation: incumbent President Vladimir Putin; Pavel Grudinin, director of the Lenin State Farm (nominated by the Communist Party of Russia); TV personality and socialite Ksenia Sobchak (nominated by Civil Initiative); Sergey Baburin, head of the Russian People’s Union party; Maxim Suraikin, chairman of the Central Committee of the Communists of Russia party; Boris Titov, chairman of the Party of Growth and Russian Presidential Envoy for Entrepreneurs’ Rights; Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the Yabloko Party’s federal political committee; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Grudinin followed Putin with 11.80% of the vote, while leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky was third with 5.66%
The outcome of the presidential vote in Crimea is additional proof that the local population stands behind their decision to unite with the Russian Federation, Ulrich Amy, a member of Germany’s opposition faction, the Alternative for Germany party, and the first Bundestag legislator to visit the peninsula as a foreign observer, told Izvestia. "I was pleasantly impressed by the election. It was perfectly organized. There were minor hiccups, though they had no influence either on the process, or the result of the voting. Moreover, I noted for myself, again in a positive sense, that there was not a single billboard with a picture of any candidate on our way to the polling station, which means all agitation rules were strictly observed,” he said.
According to the politician, he had an opportunity to speak with locals. "Those short conversations convinced me that the Crimean people themselves do not regret the choice they made four years ago. Vladimir Putin’s result in Crimea testifies to the fact that the peninsula is committed to Russia. Many have even assured me that had the referendum been conducted again in 2018, they would have made the same choice,” he said.
Asked whether he expects the EU’s anti-Russia policy of sanctions to be lifted at some time in the near future, the politician replied in the affirmative. "The biggest opposition party in Germany is fighting for the political decision to abandon the policy of anti-Russia sanctions as soon as possible. Both Moscow and the European Union would only benefit to overcome the stagnation in the relationship," he said. "It is very important for the Russian delegation to return to the PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) and resume joint work with its partners," Ulrich Amy added.
The fate of the British Council in Russia, whose operations had been terminated a couple of days ago due to a diplomatic spat over the poisoning of ex-Colonel Sergey Skripal formerly from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, may be resolved fairly quickly. Mikhail Shvydkoy, Special Representative of Russian President for International Cultural Cooperation revealed this to Kommersant, adding that Moscow has no plans to scrap or shelve cultural, educational or scientific contacts with Britain. "By no means does Russia want a war with Britain in the cultural field. The issue is not about cutting ties with the British Council or scrapping its programs in Russia," he said. According to Shvydkoy, Russia’s question to the British Council relies on the assumption that "from the viewpoint of Russian lawyers," that is its operations on Russian soil "had no legal framework." "The issue is only about bringing the British Council’s representative office in line with Russian legislation," he added.
On Saturday, Moscow announced a set of tit-for-tat steps in response to the confrontational measures announced by British Prime Minister Theresa May last week. In particular, Russia said it would terminate the operation of the British Council in the Russian Federation - a non-for-profit organization involved in educational and cultural programs. Its first office in Russia was opened in 1992 in Moscow, after which the council expanded operations to a number of cities across the country. However, since January 1, 2008 the activities of all regional branches of the British Council in Russia, excluding its head office in Moscow, have been shut down for not complying with Russian legislation.
"We believe that the correct way out of this situation would be concluding a separate bilateral agreement between Russia and the United Kingdom on the establishment and operation of cultural and information centers in both countries," Shvydkoy told Kommersant. "With the approval of the British side this kind of agreement could be signed fairly quickly, which will bring things back on track," he said, adding that the situation depends on the political framework. Speaking about the British Council’s scheduled projects, he hoped that the current situation will not get in their way," simply the logistics of the work will be changed."
As Turkey has reached the main target of its Operation Olive Branch in Syria and occupied Afrin, it is set to follow the practice of creating local authorities in the region, RBC writes. Senior Professor of the Political Sciences Department at Russia’s Higher School of Economics Grigory Lukyanov told the newspaper that Ankara has already used this practice earlier. "Turkey has promoted the formation of local councils mainly consisting of rights advocates, local figures and the ‘second-rank’ politicians, who most often represented the ‘downtrodden’ Syrian minorities," the expert said. "For a long time now, Ankara has been proposing to view them as a real alternative to the Syrian political system," Lukyanov said, adding though that he doubts those efforts will bear fruit. Marginal Kurdish politicians and representatives of non-Kurdish pro-Turkish groups won’t rely on the locals since they will be seen as occupiers, he added.
On January 20, the Turkish General Staff declared the start of Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (part of the Syrian Democratic Forces armed coalition) and the Democratic Union Party in Syria’s Afrin inhabited by about 1.5 mln Kurds and refugees from other Syrian regions. Ankara has branded these organizations as terrorist entities. The Olive Branch operation was meant to demonstrate rapid action to tackle the Kurdish militants," Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst, told the newspaper. The operation should have highlighted that Ankara can and does want to solve the issue using military means," he said, adding that Turkey is unlikely to annex the territories in northern Syria that it now controls as it will face a backlash from the entire Arab world. Akhmetov suggests that those territories would be used as a bargaining chip by Turkey to get an advantage in dealing with the other sides involved in the Syrian conflict, even on the economic front, for example, for the potential participation of Turkish construction firms in the country’s reconstruction.
Russia’s top gas producer, Gazprom, will have to enter into a new gas transit system contract with Ukraine until at least 2020, since the inland part of the EU’s infrastructure will not be ready to receive Russian gas pumped through the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, Kommersant says. The Eugal pipeline, which is set to become an extension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline through German territory, will only be completed by the end of 2020, a source in Gascade (which owns 50.5% of shares in the project) told the publication.
Meanwhile, Nord Stream 2 itself - having 55 bln cubic meters annual capacity - is planned to be put into operation by the end of 2019, according to repeated statements by Gazprom. This means that in practice Russia’s gas giant will not be able to use the pipe’s full capacity in 2020, which in its turn leaves no choice for Gazprom but to enter into a new gas transit contract with Ukraine, the paper says.
Gazprom will only be able to ensure full utilization of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and two threads of the Turkish Stream pipeline by 2024, Kommersant writes with reference to Simon Pirani, research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. This can probably enable the company to give up the Ukrainian route to ensure its long-term contract portfolio (around 180 bln cubic meters per year). However, the expert adds, the company may not be able to fully close the door to Ukrainian transit in practice, even when the mentioned gas pipelines are completed given the surging demand for Russian gas.
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