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Press review: US Treasury clamps down on Moscow and who’s been buying up Russian bonds

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, March 14
US Treasury Building in Washington EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
US Treasury Building in Washington


RBC: US Treasury to clamp down on Russia

The US Treasury Department has established six Strategic Impact Units dealing with issues related to terrorism and financial intelligence. They will focus on top priority areas - Russia, North Korea, the Islamic State terror group (outlawed in Russia), Iran, virtual currencies, human rights and corruption, RBC writes.

Acting United States Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Sigal Mandelker said the Trump administration had put more than 270 individuals and legal entities related to Russia on its sanctions lists. Many of those targeted by our sanctions have become outcasts for the international community, losing their ability to make themselves out to be legitimate businessmen, she said. One example is Oleg Deripaska: We were able to remove his control over aluminum giant Rusal and En+ holding. The US is also cooperating with Cyprus and other jurisdictions to ensure that they are not vulnerable to illegal transfer of money, including from Russia.

The unit focusing on Russia will "actively participate in detecting and assessing financial resources, which are personally but indirectly controlled by Vladimir Putin, as demanded by the bill passed by the House of Representatives on March 12, Director of the French branch of Britain’s Aperio Intelligence consulting company George Voloshin told the paper. The new US structures will meticulously scrutinize the finances of some major Russian businessmen, and a number of state corporations, which Washington suspects of playing a role in promoting the Russian state’s interests abroad, he said.

The new mechanisms are important because they will enable the units focusing on terrorism and financial intelligence to share information more quickly, head of the Washington-based law firm Ferrari & Associates Erich Ferrari told RBC.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Algerian authorities’ concessions to protesters could be a slick trick

After three weeks of major protests sweeping Algeria, the country’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika decided to drop his bid for a fifth presidential term, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Simultaneously, it was announced that Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s government stepped down and a new cabinet led by Noureddine Bedoui would be formed, while the presidential election scheduled for April 18 would be postponed indefinitely. Besides, a decision was made on dissolving the High Independent Election Monitoring Body and convening the Independent National Assembly, which will be tasked with drawing up political and economic reforms and a new constitution.

Many observers viewed the ruling regime’s willingness to make concessions as the first success of the Algerian protesters, who are unhappy with Bouteflika, 82, who has ruled the country since 1999. However, this triumph does not guarantee a final victory by those demanding fundamental changes in the life of Algeria’s citizens, the paper says. Upon a closer look, these concessions could be a slick trick, which the authorities are using to buy time in order to preserve their positions. It’s not a coincidence that after the initial euphoria many Algerians, mostly young people, took to the streets once again.

In fact, instead of immediately resigning as millions of Algerians demand Bouteflika still holds power, along with a small group of the military, who controls the army and security services. It’s unclear who and when will set the new date for the presidential election, after which the incumbent leader promises to transfer powers to the president-elect.

The latest events, which have been dubbed the "Algerian Spring", started shortly after February 10. Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke in 2013, announced plans to run for a fifth term. However, many Algerians believe it is not the elderly and even incapable president who is running the country but his corrupt allies, led by his brother Said. It’s not surprising that this entire performance with Bouteflika’s nomination was viewed by Algerians as a mockery of common sense and the Constitution and also a personal insult.


RBC: Venezuelan investors may be linked to record-high sales of Russian government bonds

A surge in demand for Russia’s coupon-bearing federal loan bonds known as OFZs in late February 2019 could have been from purchases by Venezuelan investors, senior analyst on developing markets at Manulife Asset Management Richard Segal told RBC. Venezuela’s purchases could have been ensured by the money from recent gold sales by President Nicolas Maduro’s regime. The growing foreign demand for OFZs is logical as the share of non-residents has plummeted to a minimum and profits are high (nearly 8.5%) with the ruble rate stabilizing, Segal said.

These non-residents who snapped up a large volume of Russia’s bonds despite the looming US sanctions could be Venezuelan investors, who form investment portfolios to preserve their savings and are loyal to the Russian market, a bank analyst told the paper.

In February, Venezuela’s opposition said that in 2018 Maduro’s government sold 73 tonnes of gold to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In late February, Reuters said that another 8 tonnes of gold retrieved from Venezuela’s Central Bank was sold abroad. Earlier, Bloomberg reported that some gold worth $1.2 bln, which Venezuela kept in the Bank of England, was arrested.

In late February, foreign investors shelled out 28.5 bln rubles ($435.8 mln) on Russia’s OFZs, a record high for the past 18 months, the Central Bank said. Since the beginning of the year, non-residents have increased their investments in Russia’s bonds by more than 100 bln rubles ($1.5 bln).

However, Director of Research at Macro-Advisory Tom Adshead doubts that Venezuela could have bought a major volume of Russia’s bonds in February. "I believe that ordinary foreign buyers returned to the market of OFZs, attracted by profits and the entire atmosphere of risk. If I were Maduro, I would invest money in US treasury bonds through a Geneva account," he told the paper.


Izvestia: Trump wants NATO allies to cough up more money for US military bases

March 12 marked the 20th anniversary since NATO’s first post-Soviet expansion when Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic officially joined the alliance, Izvestia reports. Today, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is undergoing another transformation stage linked to reassessing the participation of its members. One of the important factors, which can determine NATO’s future in the coming years, is the position of US President Donald Trump, who declared that Washington’s allies should pay for their security by fully compensating the price tag for hosting US military bases on their territory plus 50%.

During the first Cold War characterized by a standoff between alliances led by the Soviet Union and the United States, Washington’s bases in Eurasia were considered primarily as an external boundary of US defense, designed to swiftly attack the territory of the USSR and block a possible Soviet strike, and the US allies’ terrain would turn into a battlefield. The Soviet Union’s development of ICBMs changed the situation so if a war broke out, the US would not be able to avoid a strike on its territory. Nevertheless, Eurasia would suffer the brunt of such a huge clash, primarily all of Washington’s European allies in NATO.

The current situation is principally different. From the Trump administration’s standpoint, foreign bases mainly ensure the security of those countries where they are deployed, and the possibility of a conflict between Russia and Eastern European countries or between China and Japan is seen as more likely than between Russia and the US or China and the US, according to the paper.

The Pentagon spends more than $150 bln annually on maintaining these bases, without taking into account the money paid by the US allies, partially compensating for the expenditures on the groupings. In the future, the differences between the regions will be seen. Those where the US military presence is vital for Washington, the US will maintain it, providing more benefits and guarantees for these allies, and the regions, where the US will get a pretext to scale down its presence, Washington will cite a reluctance by its partners to pay for hosting US military bases on their territory. The US will be also able to earn money, taking advantage of local elites, who view the US military presence as a guarantee of their own political future, the paper writes. There is no doubt that "a Russian military threat" will be often touted as an argument. The deployment and maintenance of US bases is very costly and NATO’s Eastern European members will actively use this for bargaining.


Kommersant: Russian candy maker seeks to build plant in China

Russian confectioners, who have been tapping into the Chinese market, have begun thinking about localizing their production in the country, Kommersant writes. Russia’s United Confectioners holding, which owns such legendary Soviet brands as Alyonka and Babaevsky, has come up with a project to create production facilities in China. This localization may help the company boost its presence on the market to the tune of 1 trillion rubles ($15.2 bln) but may require additional spending on marketing.

According to the Candy Industry magazine, the holding is ranked 17th among major confectioners in the world with the profits of $1.7 bln in 2018. China is the second largest importer of Russian sweets after Kazakhstan, the Association of Confectionery Manufacturers Askond says. However, Russian manufacturers still don’t have their own production in China, Executive Director of the Confectionery Market Research Center Elizaveta Nikitina notes. In 2018, export of Russian confectionery to China grew 14.2% to 52,100 tonnes, bringing $120.6 mln in profits.

A source in the sector told the paper that the expenditures on building a plant reach nearly 3 bln rubles ($45.8 mln), not excluding that the enterprise in China could be less costly. According to AliExpress spokesman Anton Panteleyev, Russian sweets are one of the most recognizable and popular goods among Chinese citizens.


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