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Press review: Navalny upsets Moscow-Berlin ties and West aims to sap Russia’s Balkan clout

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, September 10
Russian flag is seen on top of the embassy with the central building of the Charite hospital in the background in Berlin Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP
Russian flag is seen on top of the embassy with the central building of the Charite hospital in the background in Berlin
© Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP

Kommersant: Navalny case triggers new crisis in Russia-West ties

The scandal surrounding Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who is undergoing treatment in Berlin, is morphing into a new fundamental crisis in relations between Russia and the West. After the G7 joined a campaign to pressure Moscow at Germany’s request, accusing Russia of poisoning Navalny and violating the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russian-German ties have turned sour. Berlin is demanding that Moscow carry out an investigation, while Russia is accusing Germany of refusing to hold dialogue and stepping up an anti-Russian smear campaign. The looming breakdown of Russian-German relations means that Moscow will lose hope of resuming dialogue with the EU and will be engaged in new confrontation with the US, Kommersant writes.

Obviously, this new campaign initiated by Germany, who until recently tried to keep the window of opportunities for dialogue with Russia and refused to meet Washington’s demands on halting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline’s construction, came as a surprise for Moscow, which had expected to cooperate with Berlin.

Russian experts questioned by Kommersant believe that the Navalny uproar resembles the 2014 standoff triggered by the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea’s reunification with Russia. Director of the Center for Political Studies Andrei Fedorov told the paper that the situation has reached a deadlock and both sides aren’t planning on backing down. "The Navalny case is becoming a bomb laid under the last bridge of Russian-EU cooperation," the expert said.

On a different note, Vladimir Batyuk, chief researcher at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies said, "The Alexei Navalny incident will lead to the ironing out of differences and contradictions, which have been seen in the cooperation between the US and its European allies in NATO, who had a dispute on the allies’ Russia policy." This is confirmed by the fact that not only President Donald Trump but even Chancellor Angela Merkel now are not ruling out sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 project.

"Now Russia’s critics in the West have focused on the fate of the Nord Stream 2, which has turned from a major but still a local commercial project into the symbol of Russia’s presence in Europe," said Sergei Utkin, Head of the Strategic Assessment Section at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

Meanwhile, Trump’s political opponents blame him for "having a soft spot for Putin" and against this background he will be forced to react to the Navalny case. The US president will have all grounds to join the forming Euro-Atlantic consensus on Russia, Batyuk noted.


Izvestia: US, EU seek to weaken Russian influence in the Balkans

Brussels hosted talks between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo under the EU's auspices on normalizing bilateral relations. As a result, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti agreed on solving three challenging issues and picked three new issues for further talks. A couple of days ago Vucic and Hoti inked an agreement on economic normalization, which could result in a political settlement. Brussels anticipates that Serbia and Kosovo will be able to normalize political relations and agree on mutual recognition by next year, Izvestia writes.

Under the deal signed in Washington, Serbia and Kosovo undertook commitments on diversifying the sources of energy supplies. Washington apparently seeks to reduce Serbia’s dependence on Russian gas and weaken Moscow’s political influence in the region, the paper says. According to Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University-Higher School of Economics Dmitry Suslov, the EU and the US view Moscow as a rival in the Balkans.

Besides, more opportunities are emerging for Serbia’s cooperation with NATO. "Membership in the North Atlantic Alliance is also not ruled out. The agreements with Washington create preconditions for boosting Serbian-NATO cooperation. This will certainly weaken Russia’s influence," the political commentator said.

Pointing to the consequences for Russia, Suslov noted that they are unfavorable since they create stronger preconditions for Serbia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. "The unsolved Kosovo conflict was one of the reasons hindering Serbia’s rapprochement with the EU and NATO. The gradual ironing out of this conflict will speed up this process. In turn, this weakens Russia’s influence in the region," he pointed out.


Media: Crackdown by Belarusian authorities only adds fuel to protests’ fire

Out of seven members of the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council presidium only Nobel-Prize winning Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich has not been arrested and has not fled abroad. After the August 9 presidential election, the Belarusian authorities started clamping down on peaceful protesters and sought to intimidate them in order to discourage people from taking to the streets. However, the reaction was the opposite and these harsh steps by the authorities only strengthened the protests.

Thousands of people have been flooding the streets of Minsk and other cities calling for the release of political prisoners and conducting a re-run election, Russian expert Andrei Suzdaltsev told RBC. Since the very beginning, the Belarusian protest movement had no bright leaders because this is a "digital revolution" that does not need the public to concentrate around just one figure, the expert explained. According to him, the arrests only cement the protest and strengthen people’s desire to oppose President Alexander Lukashenko.

After the arrest of opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, the protests could become more massive this weekend, predicted political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko when speaking to the paper. According to him, Kolesnikova had shown leadership skills which neither Svetlana Tikhanovskaya nor other opposition members had demonstrated. Her actions on the border met the expectations of the pro-opposition crowd and many might support her.

The expert suggests that moves to quash the Council were a mistake. Kolesnikova sought a legal political struggle and the authorities could have played the "constitutional reform game" with her, but now Lukashenko’s range of maneuvers has been significantly diminished.

Experts told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that there are several factors, which prompted Lukashenko to resume the crackdown. First, the authorities managed to stop the strikes at the plants. Second, they secured Russia’s support. “Lukashenko received Moscow’s moral support and saw that the flashpoint, when it seemed that strikes would erupt and all state institutions would shatter, has come to an end,” political scientist Valery Karbalevich said, not ruling out that more ‘critical moments’ could re-surface in this standoff later on.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US wants to strip Xi of president’s title

A bill, called the "Name the Enemy Act," was introduced to the US House of Representatives that would prohibit the federal government from creating or disseminating any documents referring to the Chinese leader as anything other than General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, or as General Secretary. So, Xi Jinping, whom most Western governments and the English-language media call president, could be stripped of his title, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says.

The author of this bill, Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, took the cue from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other US officials, who insisted that the Chinese leader is not elected by the people and does not represent them. The goal of Perry and the legislators who back him as well as the Trump administration is clear: they seek to deprive the Chinese leadership of legitimacy, first and foremost in the eyes of the global community, the paper writes.

However, by launching this propaganda attack on Xi, Washington has set foot on a slippery slope because in China he is called chairman (zhuxi) rather than president. Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations Alexander Lomanov pointed out that Washington’s attempt to strip Xi of legitimacy is directly linked to the upcoming election. "Now, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are using the anti-Chinese card in their campaigns. But hoping that this propaganda will influence the Chinese population is an illusion," he explained.

The Chinese Communist Party is very different from the Soviet Union’s Communist Party because this is a flexible structure that has learned how to live under the conditions of a market economy and globalization, Lomanov pointed out.


RBC: Russian economy less affected by coronavirus than other countries

The Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) reviewed its estimates on the GDP drop in Russia from 8.5% to 8% in the second quarter of 2020, when the peak of the coronavirus pandemic was recorded. The economic slump in Russia was less than in other countries, RBC writes. For example, the annual GDP declined 9.5% in the US, 14.1% in the European Union, 22% in Spain, 19% in France and 17.3% in Italy.

In Russia, the service economy is less developed while the share of small and medium-sized businesses is much lower than in the United States and the European Union, said Sofia Donets, an economist with Renaissance Capital in Russia and the CIS. Small and mid-sized businesses in Russia make up just 20.2% of the GDP versus 80% in the US, she explained.

Besides, the lockdown restrictions were imposed in Russian regions at a different pace and production was not halted in industrial regions, chief economist at Alfa Bank Natalya Orlova pointed out. Developed countries doled out more financial assistance because they put their economy on hold on purpose in order to reduce the risks of the coronavirus spreading among the public. However, Russia’s anti-crisis program was smaller because the quarantine restrictions were not that long and harsh, Orlova explained.

Russia’s anti-crisis support volume (3.4%-3.5% of the GDP) was smaller than in other countries, according to the Institute of Research and Expertise at VEB.RF, while loan and guarantee measures were weaker. For example, anti-crisis support reached 54.6% in Italy, 45.5% in the US, 35.4% in Germany, 30.9% in the UK and 19% in France.

Russia will again see a 1-1.5% GDP growth like before the pandemic and quarantine restrictions, Orlova said. "Nothing has changed in the Russian economy," she noted.


TASS is not responsible for the material quoted in these press reviews.