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Press review: Russia votes on constitutional amendments and Astana trio meets on Syria

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, July 2


Media: Most Russians back constitutional amendments paving the way for political reform

After the results of the high-profile nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments are announced, Russia will launch a political reform drive and is likely to change the format of voting in elections in the future, political scientists questioned by Izvestia said. According to preliminary data, more than 78% of Russians backed the amendments to the nation’s key law, while some 21% opposed them. The public supported Russia’s social policy and the goal of the government is to fulfill it, experts said. The voter turnout hit a record high but varied in the regions and therefore pundits say the governors in the worst-performing regions could find themselves in hot water.

One of the outcomes of the political reform will be vesting the Russian State Duma with powers on appointing government members, and passing a law on the State Council that will significantly increase its authority. However, this is unlikely to change the political balance of powers in the country, experts told the paper.

According to Head of the Political Expert Group Konstantin Kalachev, Russia has built a system of checks and balances and that’s why the consolidation of the elites will be more important. "Any serious staff rotation will create turbulence, risks and threats," he noted. Meanwhile, political scientist Dmitry Fetisov believes that the governors who failed to ensure high voter turnout in their regions could face some consequences. "Some regions turned out to be an unpleasant surprise for the Kremlin. For example, a very low turnout in the Novgorod Region (lower than expected in the Siberian regions) as well as in Kamchatka. I think all this will be analyzed," the expert predicted.

Head of the Foundation for Civil Society Development Konstantin Kostin told Vedomosti that the voter turnout of over 60% was a good sign and was a surprise to a certain extent. The high voter turnout was ensured by a public information campaign (more than 95% were aware of the vote), which lasted for nearly four months. Many amendments concerned large social groups and the factor of President Vladimir Putin’s personal participation played a certain role, he said. "He is the most popular politician in the country, he has a significant group of supporters and they accepted his invitation to take part in the vote."

Another factor was that the ballot was held during the week and this experience could be used in elections at various levels, the expert noted. "The crisis of participation may be overcome by making the election system more convenient and now we have managed to do this." According to him, the voter turnout and the results were better than during the vote on the 1993 Constitution, when 58.4% of Russians backed it and the turnout was 54.8%.


Izvestia: Takeaways from the online summit of Astana guarantor states on Syria

The Astana format (Russia, Iran and Turkey) on the Syrian settlement is still relevant and contributes to gradually normalizing the situation in the war-torn Middle East country, experts told Izvestia following a trilateral online summit held by the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey on July 1. During the video conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the sanctions policy of Western states against Syria and called on his Iranian and Turkish colleagues to consider extra measures on combating terrorism. The leaders of the three countries passed a joint statement expressing their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity.

The meetings of the Astana guarantor states are greatly needed, especially for solving the conflict in Idlib, Turkish political scientist Kerim Has said.

However, it should not be expected that Russia, Iran and Turkey will be able to immediately resolve the Syrian conflict and fully restore peace to the country, the expert told Izvestia. The Astana trio is actively working on normalizing life in the Arab republic and in the near future, more trilateral talks will be held.

"Besides, it should be understood that since the last summit many important events have taken place in the Middle East region, which demand a constant synchronization of watches," Has said.

In October 2019, the Turkish president declared the launch of a military operation dubbed Peace Spring in northern Syria against Kurdish units. Early this year, tensions flared up in Idlib after the death of dozens of Turkish soldiers, who came under fire by Assad’s forces. In response, Ankara launched a new military operation dubbed Spring Shield, the expert noted.

Meanwhile, the deterioration in Idlib was temporarily prevented thanks to the talks between the Russian and Turkish leaders on March 5. "In January, the US killed Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking Iranian commander. Moreover, the Lebanese crisis is worsening. All this creates additional tensions in the Middle East and somehow affects the Syrian settlement. That’s why the meetings in the Astana format should not be underestimated," he said.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US threatens military action to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions

US President Donald Trump is set to launch a war if the prospect of creating Iranian nuclear weapons becomes real, US Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook said. This statement was made at a special moment when the UN Security Council is beginning to discuss a US-proposed resolution on extending the international embargo on the arms trade with Iran. It expires on October 18 and Washington believes this is one of the key obstacles containing the Iranian regime’s ambitions, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Iranian authorities of violating the embargo by supplying arms to its Middle Eastern allies. He also said Iran cannot be given a tool for creating instability in the region because this would affect the oil market and inflict damage to many countries, including Russia and China. However, Pompeo did not convince anyone.

At the P5 group’s video conference on Tuesday, delegates from Russia and China, as well as the United Kingdom, Germany and France (which is especially unpleasant for the US) called for lifting the embargo. It is unclear when the meeting on the US resolution is going to be held but after the video conference it became clear that one of the permanent members of the Security Council will veto it.

Senior Researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies Vladimir Sazhin noted that although Hook’s statement was part and parcel of the propaganda rhetoric, the US and Israel could indeed take last-ditch measures in case the prospects of obtaining nuclear weapons by Iran become real. "But even if Iran de jure withdraws from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it won’t create a nuclear bomb the next day. This will take at least five or six years. So, a potential US strike could be discussed as a remote prospect," the expert noted.


Izvestia: Germany braces to defend Nord Stream 2 from US sanctions assault

Germany is mulling a response to Washington’s sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. The Bundestag is pressing to start protecting itself from the assault on the sovereignty of Germany and Europe. These statements came after a bill was submitted to the US House of Representatives on expanding restrictions against Nord Stream 2, which could target European companies.

The proposed US restrictions could affect any vessels involved in the pipeline’s construction as well as companies cooperating with them. Meanwhile, Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics National Research University Dmitry Suslov believes that the US could pass a milder bill that won’t impose sanctions on the Europeans. The expert noted that neither the Trump administration nor the Democrats would benefit from a tougher bill.

This bill emerged as a means of exerting pressure on Germany, but now the White House seeks to pressure Berlin by withdrawing some forces from German soil. "If a tougher version of the bill is adopted, then most likely the Europeans will primarily use mechanisms to protect their companies, as they did when the United States withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal and reinstated unilateral sanctions against Tehran. But it cannot be ruled out that they could take some kind of sanctions against the US, which are purely symbolic, although the likelihood of this is also very small," the political analyst told Izvestia.

It takes some time to impose restrictions and the Europeans hope now that Democratic candidate Joe Biden will win the presidential election, Suslov said, noting that Brussels was unlikely to take any steps ahead of the vote. Berlin hopes that the situation could improve in case of a Biden victory, leading researcher at the German Studies Center of the Institute of European Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Kamkin said. "However, Trump’s key rival choses even more anti-Russian messages and basically it can turn out that with Trump’s departure the sanctions pressure would not subside," the expert said.


Vedomosti: Wine sales could drop in Russia after new law comes into effect

New rules of producing and selling wine could result in a decline in sales in Russia, representatives of the Russian Retail Market Experts Association and the Retail Companies Association (consists of major retailers) told Vedomosti.

The law on winegrowing and winemaking entered into force on June 26. It outlines rules on labels, production and selling wine and measures of state support. Now, a Russian wine can be called only wine when made 100% from domestically-grown grapes. A Russian wine produced from foreign wine material can be only labeled as "wine-containing beverage" and the bottles and shelves in the shops should have a mark "It’s not a wine," producers said.

These new rules could disrupt production and supplies of wine and trigger a rise in prices, the Russian Retail Market Experts Association warned. Companies will have to give a different name to their products and some could halt production, Chairman of the Board at the association, Andrei Karpov, said. Besides, radical changes on the shelves frustrate customers, who may doubt the quality of even good wines and switch to other beverages, including strong spirits, he noted.

After the new regulations, wine sales could drop in Russia, a representative of the Retail Companies Association confirmed. Retail chains will not be able to purchase non-legally labeled wines (primarily imported), and suppliers will not be able to label the goods properly due to unclear provisions of the law. He believes that domestic wine sales could decrease 10-15%.


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