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Press review: Belarus arrests dozens of Russian ‘mercenaries’ and Turkey curbs tech titans

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, July 30


Media: Belarus arrests dozens of Russians ahead of presidential election

The arrest of 33 Russians in Belarus, who were allegedly linked to PMC Wagner, a Russian private military company, dominated Thursday’s newspaper headlines across Russia. This scandal could seriously whip up tensions between Moscow and Minsk, as Belarus is due to hold its presidential election on August 9.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stressed that the country’s authorities had no goal of defaming their neighbor. Meanwhile, political scientists note that the Russians’ detention could serve as a political card played during the final stage of the Belarusian presidential campaign.

During this election campaign, Russia has repeatedly been branded “the bad guy,” Kommersant business daily writes. Belarusian political scientist Alexei Dzermant attributed the events to "heightened anxiety" among security forces ahead of the election. However, in his words, this incident cannot be called a new low in bilateral relations. "The Belarusian authorities have already requested explanations from their Russian colleagues and everything should be clarified soon," he told the paper. "I doubt that the Wagner private military company could have meddled in the domestic affairs of Belarus and most likely, this is a false alarm." The expert does not expect that this detention will be followed by the introduction of a state of emergency and the cancellation of the election. "The situation is rather stable and rumors of large-scale rallies after the August 9 vote are unjustified. So, the authorities don’t have any reasons to take extreme measures."

Artem Shraybman, a Minsk-based political analyst, shared this opinion saying: "The first reaction of the Belarusian authorities does not show that they are planning to cancel the election or opt for a head-on confrontation with Moscow."

First Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma’s (lower house) Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots, Viktor Volodatsky, told Izvestia that Moscow had not meddled in its neighbor’s domestic affairs and had no plans of doing this. The arrests could have been plotted by certain circles in the republic, who are trying to mislead Lukashenko, he noted. Someone seeks to show that ahead of the August 9 election some foreign elements had planned to intervene in the domestic affairs of Belarus, the analyst said. "I’m sure that the Russian citizens will be soon released and the situation will be ironed out. It won’t have any negative impact on the solid relationship between Russia and Belarus, and Moscow and Minsk will keep building the Union State because both parties are interested in this," the MP stressed.

Meanwhile, the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has called on Russians to refrain from trips to Belarus following this incident, the paper writes. The route to third countries via Minsk became popular during the pandemic and any tourist could face arrest now, Volodatsky cautioned.

Kirill Koktysh, an associate professor of political theory at MGIMO University, ruled out the scenario that Moscow could have plotted any military intervention in Belarusian affairs, stressing that this runs counter to Russian doctrine and politics as well as its interests. All this seems to be "a set-up," the expert noted.


Izvestia: Dollar losing luster as safe haven currency

July 2020 became one of the worst months for the US dollar in all the past years. The greenback lost 5-7% against most national currencies of developed countries in less than four weeks. By July 27, the dollar plunged to a minimum in the currency basket (of US key trade partners) in the past two years. The euro reached $1.18 to the US currency, a maximum level since September 2018.

The first and foremost reason why the dollar is weakening against other currencies now is related to the coronavirus pandemic’s unequal spread, which is having a major impact on the stock market, Izvestia writes. The United States has the world’s highest coronavirus caseload and death toll and market players believe that America is coping with the crisis far worse than other countries. So, the restrictions around the US economy are bound to remain in place or even be tightened, thus worsening the crisis.

"At the moment, amid bad data on the US labor market and the ongoing growth in the number of COVID-19 cases, global investors are raising doubts over the quick restoration of US economy," Sergei Drozdov, an analyst at Finam, told the paper. "Moreover, ahead of the upcoming Federal Reserve meeting, set for this week, players believe that Jerome Powell’s agency will stick to a mild monetary policy for a long time and once again assure markets of boosting upbeat measures should it be necessary. These factors create pressure on the US currency, and major beneficiaries of this weakness are the euro, the Japanese yen, the Swiss franc and the British pound."

Meanwhile, the EU has a positive outlook because its members managed to adopt a joint plan on restoring the economy, said Arseny Dadashev, director of the Academy of Finance and Investment Management.

Besides, the trade war between China and the United States is gaining steam. Beijing is increasing trade tariffs on American goods, and China is expanding sanctions and even banning certain items from America. "Certainly this policy has a negative impact on the dollar rate," said Yuri Mazur, who heads data analysis department at CEX.IO.


Kommersant: Turkey cracks down on social media, following Russia's footsteps

The Turkish parliament approved a bill imposing serious restrictions on the work of social media in the country. Now foreign tech giants, such as Twitter and Facebook, will be forced to open local representative offices in Turkey and store domestic user data on Turkish servers. The opposition is sure that the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to "make the Internet part of a totalitarian regime." The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned Ankara about negative consequences of this move.

The new provisions practically follow in the footsteps of Russia, Kommersant writes. For example, this concerns the requirement to store domestic user data in the Russian Federation. On July 16, a bill was submitted to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which allows the authorities to delete information. However, Turkish law is harsher, especially in terms of fines, the newspaper notes.

In particular, the representatives of a foreign social network are required to respond to a complaint within 48 hours, otherwise they will face a fine of 5 mln liras ($717,000). The companies could also face penalties of up to 10 mln liras ($1.5 mln) if they fail to open a representation office within 30 days after notification. In the event of a repeated refusal, the fine will climb to 30 mln liras ($4.3 mln).

This is not the first attempt by the Erdogan administration to curb foreign media and Internet companies, the newspaper writes. "The polarization of political issues in Turkish society has reached such a scale that the authorities understand: this won’t generate anything good," Head of the Center for Modern Turkish Studies Yuri Mavashev pointed out.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Iran missile launch near US Persian Gulf base warning over airliner incident

The active phase of annual drills by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Strait of Hormuz, which fired a missile targeting a mock US aircraft carrier, forced the United States Armed Forces Command to put troops on combat alert at its bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The reason behind the move was that Iranian missiles had landed in close proximity to the military facilities. Experts believe that this incident was a response to a recent dangerous situation, when American F-15 fighter jets buzzed an Iranian airliner, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

The Pentagon has branded these maneuvers by Tehran as dangerous behavior. The drills also coincided with the shelling of US positions on Iraqi soil. Meanwhile, experts noted that the ‘Great Prophet’ drills in the Strait of Hormuz did not come as a surprise. "The exercises in this region are held regularly and are on the one hand, an inevitable part of military training, and on the other hand, a warning to potential enemies in the event of a flare-up," military expert Yuri Lyamin told the newspaper. "However, the launch of ballistic missiles during the drills, which landed in the Persian Gulf next to US bases in Qatar and the UAE, could be viewed as a response to the recent incident with the Iranian passenger plane."

According to Lyamin, the Iranian leadership took this incident hard. "Iran viewed the incident, when a US F-15 flying in Syria’s skies intercepted an Iranian passenger jet, headed to the Lebanese capital, as a new element of US pressure and intimidation. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani labeled it aerial terrorism," the expert noted.


Izvestia: Second COVID-19 wave in Russia could start at universities

Russian scientists predict a second wave of COVID-19 in September, linking it to the start of the school year. They fear that students from other cities, who will resume studies at universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, could bring the disease. Experts say that students coming from the regions with an unfavorable epidemiological situation should self-quarantine for two weeks and undergo compulsory tests. If these measures fail to yield a result, a return to distance learning is not ruled out, Izvestia writes.

According to forecasts relying on math modelling methods, made by the Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, by September 10-14, COVID-19 cases in Moscow and St. Petersburg could rise 15-20%. Meanwhile, a potential second wave anticipated to be set off by the start of the school year won’t be that massive as the March outbreak, said Alexei Borovkov, vice-rector for advanced projects at the university. However, the dangerous epidemiological situation at universities will deal a heavy blow to their staff, he warned.

"Most teachers at the universities are in the risk group: they are above 65 and we will face greater risks of losing a significant group of teachers unless we take measures," Borovkov said, noting that senior lecturers at universities should stick to distance learning.

Professor at Skoltech (the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology), virologist Egor Bazykin points out that the key problem is that the number of contacts will sharply rise with the start of the school year. Earlier, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science said educational institutions nationwide were preparing for standard learning, but other options were also possible. Universities are free to delay the start of the school year for up to two months if the situation in their region does not allow launching classes earlier.


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