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Press review: Who is behind the deadly blast in Beirut and Lukashenko rails against Moscow

Top stories in the Russian press on Wednesday, August 5

Izvestia: Who’s behind the deadly blast in Beirut

Terrorists seeking to do away with former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri ahead of a verdict in a trial of the killing of his father could be behind the blasts that rocked Beirut on Tuesday. According to another version, the cause of the tragedy lies in tensions on the border with Israel, said experts interviewed by Izvestia. The first explosion occurred in the Lebanese capital’s port, where, according to preliminary reports, explosives detonated at a storage facility. Fifteen minutes later, another, much bigger blast took place close to Hariri’s residence in the city center. Reports say that hundreds were killed and up to 3,000 people suffered injuries.

Political scientist Roland Bidzhamov believes that the blasts could have been carried out in order to frame the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group as it is what both domestic and foreign players - including the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel - are interested in. "The situation comes amid a deep political and economic crisis in Lebanon. In fact, the country has come to the brink of civil war, just like it was in the mid-1970s," the expert explained.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down last fall following mass protests in Beirut and Tripoli, and the country’s parliament backed Hassan Diab, a compromise candidate, for prime minister. However, once the coronavirus pandemic started to decline in mid-April, the Lebanese people took to the streets once again, protesting against economic reforms urged by the International Monetary Fund.

Meanwhile, the Al-Hadath TV channel has reported that the Israeli air force carried out airstrikes on military warehouses in Beirut port, which could have been used for storing Iranian weapons.

Israeli military expert Yakov Kedmi explained that Israel did not have a reason to carry out missile strikes on Beirut port because no benefit would come from an attack on a peaceful commercial port. "Beirut port's warehouses may pose a threat only if they are involved in weapons supplies from Iran. But even in this case, no one would have used such a method to destroy them," the expert emphasized.


Media: Belarusian president continues blaming Russians for election meddling

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has delivered his state-of-the-nation address ahead of the August 9 presidential election, lashing out at opposition leaders and actually threatening Moscow for its policy towards Minsk. He reiterated that 33 Russian nationals, arrested on July 29 on suspicion of planning riots, had been sent to Belarus with a purpose, Vedomosti writes.

According to Andrei Skriba, a researcher at Higher School of Economics’ Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Lukashenko can be expected to make more anti-Russian statements in the future. "First, it is always handy to have an external threat because it unites people - state officials - around their leader, the president in this case. Secondly, the Belarusian president has a monopoly on contacts with Moscow. By raising the stakes, he is sending a signal that there is only one partner - himself - with whom talks can be held on any issue," the expert pointed out. In his view, Russia seeks to reshape its relations with Belarus so that they don’t depend on who becomes the country’s leader. Uncertainty created by Lukashenko is the reason, Vedomosti writes.

Konstantin Makiyenko, an expert with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, points out that the arrest of such a large number of an allied country’s citizens on charges like these is unprecedented in international practice. According to him, actions like these will inevitably lead to a long-lasting setback in relations between the two countries.

However, head of the Minsk Dialogue expert initiative Yevgeny Preigerman believes that there is no reason to talk about a discord between Russia and Belarus. He pointed out that the Belarusian leader had reiterated strategic relations with Russia at the beginning of his address. "It is just an attempt to highlight the importance of this relationship and underline the issues that have emerged. And as for the shift from brotherly ties to partnership, it is something that Lukashenko has been talking about for years, particularly in relation to the protracted energy negotiations," the political scientist told Izvestia.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Saudi Arabia, Iran continue fighting for regional influence

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has said in an interview with Al Jazeera that his country contributed to the easing of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although Islamabad is not the only mediator between the two regional powers, experts are confident that they are unable to build meaningful dialogue at the moment, Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes.

"Iran tends to search for mediators to contact the countries it doesn’t have diplomatic relations with," Nikita Smagin, an Iran-based expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, pointed out. "There are permanent channels for communicating with the United States, which particularly include the Swiss embassy," he specified. "After Donald Trump launched the policy of maximum pressure, Iran decided that since there seemed to be little chance of an agreement with the US, it should at least try to force Saudi Arabia to settle the situation to some extent," Smagin added.

"This is the reason behind the support for Houthis in Yemen, who carry out attacks on Saudi Arabia," the analyst said. In his opinion, it points to Iran’s desire to prove that the US is unable to ensure Saudi Arabia’s security, and the only way to do it is to build dialogue with Iran and agree on zones of influence.

At the same time, even assuming that the two countries launch talks, Iran may put forward initiatives that will hardly satisfy Saudi Arabia, the expert noted. "Iran is unlikely to abandon the positions it has already achieved in the region," Smagin said. In this regard, the expert highlighted Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. "Yemen is probably the only area where Iran would be ready to make concessions but Saudi Arabia is not comfortable with its conditions and dialogue is unlikely to take place, though Iran keeps reiterating its willingness to settle relations," the expert concluded.


Izvestia: Russia plans to shift from fuel oil to LNG in the Arctic

The Public Council under the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment will submit an initiative to the ministry on August 5, calling to ban the use of fuel oil in the Arctic and shift to liquefied natural gas (LNG), Izvestia writes. The shift to LNG will eliminate the risk of fuel spills in the region, the document points out.

The May fuel spill disaster in Norilsk made it clear that it takes much money and effort to deal with the aftermath of such emergencies. However, shifting large entities to LNG will require huge investments, experts said.

Big mining, processing and energy enterprises are active in the Arctic. Finam analyst Alexei Kalachev explained that the refurbishment of hundreds of major containers used for the storage and transportation of fuel oil would cost between 200 and 500 bln rubles ($2.7-6.8 bln).

Director of the Operational Risks and Sustainability Group at KPMG Russia and CIS Ivan Barsola says that it is impossible to fully abandon oil fuel in the Arctic. There is a need to have stockpiles given the harsh climate conditions, he said. When it comes to LNG, even the slightest damage to storage tanks will lead to a total loss of fuel because gas quickly evaporates and, in most cases, it is impossible to promptly replenish stocks. Liquid fuel storage facilities are a more reliable option, particularly in extreme temperature conditions.

High LNG transportation costs are another factor to take into account, VYGON Consulting consultant Artem Lebedskoi-Tambiyev added. According to him, shifting Arctic industrial enterprises to LNG would be cost-effective only for companies that already have gas assets in the region.


Vedomosti: Russians beef up their spending

The business activity index calculated by the Russian fiscal data operator’s analytical center points to recovering retail sales. The index plummeted in the last week of March, when nationwide restrictions were introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic, but began to recover later and returned to the early January level by the last week of July, Vedomosti writes.

That said, in July Russians made four times as many purchases as they did in late March, though significantly less compared to July 2019.

"The most deep-pocketed of our fellow citizens stayed home instead of travelling overseas this year, so their spending has somehow helped to support retail sales," Director of Higher School of Economics’ Banking Institute Vasily Solodkov pointed out.

Retail’s return to last winter’s figures is the first sign of an economic recovery but high recovery rates are unlikely to persist, experts say. There has been a surge in retail sales lately, Associate Professor at the Plekhanov Economics University Ekaterina Novikova noted. "Consumers fear that the economic situation will radically change in the fall, and, unfortunately, not for the better. The trend will hardly hold in the fall, we are more likely to face an economic crisis in the near future," she added.

However, hopes of escaping a deep crisis are fueled by bankruptcy data. According to the FinExpertiza international audit and consulting network, while the number of newly registered enterprises increased in June, there were two shut down businesses for every new one. The rate is in line with the pre-lockdown level, analysts emphasize.


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