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Press review: The ‘all or nothing’ New START bid and Lukashenko’s hush-hush inauguration

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, September 24
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko Andrei Stasevich/BelTA/TASS
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
© Andrei Stasevich/BelTA/TASS

Izvestia: Strategic ultimatum - US insists on involving China in New START

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which now remains the only tool of control over strategic armaments, is expiring this coming February. The attempts by Moscow and Washington to agree on the terms of extending the treaty or signing a similar deal have not yielded any results. The US insists that the future treaty should become multilateral and involve China. Meanwhile, Washington absolutely rejects Moscow’s stance that two more countries from the "nuclear club" - the United Kingdom and France - should become parties to the nuclear arms reduction treaty, Izvestia writes.

Moscow was up in arms over the ideas recently voiced by US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea. However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia was ready for any scenario on New START, stressing that "all systems have been created" to ensure national security and the security of allies. Members of the Russian parliament were emotional in their assessments of the so-called Billingslea plan. Chairman of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev said Washington was deliberately complicating the negotiating process and putting forth its ultimatums.

Konstantin Bogdanov, a senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Izvestia that the US demand on China’s participation was aimed at encouraging Russia to persuade Beijing "to make a decision, which it does not need." However, Moscow reiterated the idea that the disarmament talks should involve five nuclear powers, while stressing that it’s none of its business to draw China to these talks.

"In general, this can be roughly described as "all or nothing": we either preserve the bilateral format of talks on nuclear and strategic weapons for a certain period, or we take a powerful step forward and immediately proceed to multilateral framework negotiations, or we find ourselves in a deadlock and remain without any nuclear arms reduction treaties at all," Bogdanov noted. "The first scenario is more realistic from a political point of view (it would be a reasonable compromise), the second is more promising in terms of developing arms control itself, but in reality the third option is most likely." The expert is not predicting any crisis after New START expires, recalling that several times before, the world remained without any nuclear arms reduction treaties.


Vedomosti: Lukashenko holds secret swearing-in ceremony

Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in as president of Belarus for the sixth time on September 23. The date and time of the inauguration ceremony, held in the Palace of Independence in Minsk, was kept in secret until the very last moment and no foreign ambassadors had been invited. According to the Belarusian Ministry of Justice, inviting envoys is not compulsory and the inauguration was held in line with the law, Vedomosti writes.

According to Valery Karbalevich, an expert from the Strategy think tank in Belarus, Lukashenko’s secret inauguration can be attributed to the complex political process in Belarus. The public does not recognize the results of the election or the president’s legitimacy. Lukashenko faced a serious dilemma. A public inauguration ceremony would have been marred by clashes between protesters and security forces and would have created a bad media image for the president.

"But this secret inauguration also looks very strange. An inauguration is a public process and a way to prove legitimacy. The state is not a Masonic lodge. But in this situation, Lukashenko chose the lesser of the evils," the expert noted.

The ongoing political strife in Belarus will continue regardless of the ceremony, Karbalevich asserted. "The mere fact of a secret inauguration shows that Lukashenko does not hope very much to have society’s support. He relies only on force and Russia’s backing," the expert noted.

Nikolai Mezhevich, who heads the Center for Belarusian Studies at the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences and an expert at the Valdai International Discussion Club, believes Lukashenko’s choice to hold a secret inauguration ceremony allowed him to avoid any further confrontation. According to him, Lukashenko made the right decision because the current situation demands an unconventional solution.

However, Andrei Suzdaltsev, a senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, warned that Lukashenko’s secret inauguration would only stimulate more street protests.


Kommersant: Navalny discharged from Berlin hospital

On Wednesday, Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny was discharged from Berlin’s Charite hospital after undergoing treatment there for more than a month. Doctors say Navalny’s condition after the alleged poisoning is satisfactory and he is now receiving physical therapy and later plans to return to Russia. Meanwhile, European politicians demand that Russia conduct investigation into the incident.

Russian authorities and law enforcement agencies are still waiting for solid proof from Germany and France that Navalny had allegedly been poisoned.

Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, confirmed that Navalny would continue living in Russia because it would be difficult to carry out political activity outside the country. However, neither Navalny, nor his allies have announced the exact date of his return.

Russia’s Interior Ministry is continuing its probe into the incident although formally its 30-day deadline has expired. Some 200 people have been questioned in connection with the case, including Navalny’s allies. Director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation Ivan Zhdanov noted that the organization’s members would not agree to be questioned anymore because this procedure "was just for show." Zhdanov noted that since the deadline of the probe had expired, a criminal case should be either opened or the investigators should refuse to launch it. Zhdanov also alleged that the probe was extended in order not to return Navalny’s clothes because traces of poison could be found there.

EU member-states continue demanding that Russia carry out the investigation into Navalny’s alleged poisoning. In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry insists that the West should provide evidence of Navalny’s alleged poisoning by a supposed Novichok nerve agent.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Uzbekistan unveils new approach to settling Afghan crisis

Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made a sensational speech at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, outlining a new approach to the problem of bringing peace to Afghanistan. Diplomats from the world’s powers have been struggling to iron out the crisis for more than 40 years. But the greater the efforts they take, the more chaos the war-torn country comes under, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

The Uzbek leader stressed that Afghanistan is part and parcel of Central Asia. The key message of Uzbekistan’s president was that "It’s time to stop the war in Afghanistan and start building there." This approach is not selfish, like that of other extra regional powers, which focus on their geopolitical interests, and is purely pragmatic, the paper writes.

Mirziyoyev did not only manage to preserve the continuity of the country’s foreign policy on Afghanistan but also brought new ideas, which make it possible to translate those words into practical steps, giving a real chance to establish peace in the long-suffering country.

Afghanistan should be considered not as a source of threats but as a source of opportunities for the region, according to Tashkent. The March 2018 International Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan, initiated by Mirziyoyev, was the first important step in this direction. Its major significance was to draw the global community’s attention to the ongoing bloodshed in the Islamic Republic.

According to Mehmood Ul Hassan, an expert at Pakistan’s Center for Global & Strategic Studies (CGSS), "Tashkent’s policy in Afghanistan from the very beginning has been based on a workable formula: winning Afghan citizens’ hearts by ‘intensive economic cooperation’ with Kabul, the successful implementation of transport and logistic projects and also expanding educational programs."


Izvestia: Russians’ debt burden drops for the first time since 2015

Amid the coronavirus pandemic the Russians’ debt burden declined for the first time since 2015, Director of the Central Bank’s Financial Stability Department Elizaveta Danilova told Izvestia. In the second quarter, the debt load dropped by 0.2 percentage points to 10.7%. This is related to both the reduced lending opportunities for the public and the declining key rate.

However, analysts predict that the falling debt burden is unlikely to become a trend. There is a risk that those Russians, whose applications for loans were rejected, could turn to shady creditors.

After the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March and citizens started panic buying food, Russian banks issued loans to the tune of 1.4 trln rubles ($18.1 bln), according to the Central Bank. However, in late March many regions introduced self-isolation measures and the situation drastically changed. In April, the total volume of new credits reached 755 bln rubles ($8.7 bln) and in May the figure stood at 852 bln rubles ($11 bln).

"When estimating the debt burden, we consider not a single loan like banks do, but the situation in the economy in general. The estimated credit payments are compared with all citizens’ revenues. This is "the average temperature in hospital" because only 42 mln citizens have loans, but this is a useful figure at the macro level," Danilova explained.

Nearly 40% of borrowers work in fields that were the hardest hit by the pandemic - the service sector, non-food sales, hotels and the restaurant business, President of the National Association of Professional Collection Agencies Elman Mekhtiyev said. The revenues of these citizens declined 10-70% depending on their profession. Many of them still don’t have the revenues, which they used to earn before the crisis, the expert noted.


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