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Press review: Armenia, Azerbaijan up the ante and Putin slaps export ban on timber

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, October 1

Kommersant: Armenia, Azerbaijan up the ante in battle over disputed region

Fierce battles continued in Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday with the use of tanks, aviation and artillery weapons. The fourth day of fighting showed that Azerbaijan’s forces are not going to stop their counteroffensive until they achieve a decisive triumph. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev vowed that the war would end only after the country’s territorial integrity was restored. Meanwhile, Armenia is defiantly resisting and is not ruling out such a crucial step as the official recognition of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. After that any mediating missions, including that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken up a peacekeeper’s role, will be doomed to failure, Kommersant writes.

Sources in Baku told the newspaper that Azerbaijan was not going to stop combat actions without additional preconditions. "If Armenia’s political leadership declares its readiness to withdraw its forces, this will mean establishing a lasting peace," said Azerbaijani MP Rasim Musabekov, stressing that Baku had all financial and military resources as well as manpower to continue the war much longer than Armenia. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani political scientist Ilgar Velizade noted that Armenia’s forces were not going to cede ground. Farhad Mammadov, an expert at the Valdai International Discussion Club, suggested that the sides could sign a new ceasefire deal, thereby invalidating the 1994 agreement. "But the new ceasefire deal should include new terms and it is extremely crucial to agree in due time on an exact schedule of withdrawing Armenia’s forces from the occupied territories."

Meanwhile, Armenia keeps insisting that on September 29 the country’s territory, namely the towns of Vardenis, Mets-Masrik and Sotk, was attacked by the forces of Turkey, a NATO member-state. On Wednesday, Yerevan disclosed the name of a pilot, who was killed in an alleged strike by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet and published photos of his Su-25’s wreckage. However, according to Baku’s version of the event, the Su-25 had just hit a mountain and there were allegedly two planes. Expert at the Russian International Affairs Council Ilya Kramnik explained that in fact there was no real evidence that the F-16 fighter jet had been involved in the incident or in combat actions. However, Yerevan is making fresh accusations against Turkey.

Ankara’s policy irritates both Armenia and neighboring Georgia, where ethnic Armenians blocked traffic on a highway claiming that Turkey was supplying its weapons to Azerbaijan while Georgia’s authorities were "turning a blind eye." Meanwhile, Armenia has secured the support of a stronger ally - French President Emmanuel Macron. The French leader said Paris was backing Armenia and announced talks on Nagorno-Karabakh with the Russian and US presidents. Obviously, unlike the conflicting sides the French president is not losing hope of solving the crisis through diplomatic means.


Izvestia: Moscow ready to attend Contact Group’s meetings in Minsk

Moscow and the self-proclaimed Donbass republics are ready to resume face-to-face meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group on settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine in Minsk, the Russian Foreign Ministry told Izvestia. According to European diplomatic sources, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the talks have been held via video conferencing since March and the issue on moving the negotiating venue from Belarus was not on the agenda. Earlier, Deputy Head of Ukraine’s delegation to the Contact Group Alexei Reznikov stated that Kiev did not recognize Alexander Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus and it would be senseless to go to Minsk. Reznikov stressed he would not do that "even if the pandemic ended," noting that other members of the Ukrainian delegation would not attend these talks either.

Meanwhile, European diplomatic sources confirmed that there was no discussion on holding the Contact Group’s talks in a more politically stable venue. There were no plans to resume face-to-face meetings either, they said. Earlier, Austria confirmed its readiness to host the talks if Russia and Ukraine made such a decision. However, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky said it was premature to discuss this matter. "We are waiting for the challenging situation in Minsk to stabilize," he stated, noting that amid the coronavirus situation, it was not important where the talks were held.

Still, despite the ceasefire in Donbass, a peace deal is not on the horizon. The recent meeting of political advisers of the Normandy Four (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany) in Berlin did not bring about any breakthroughs and the Contact Group’s talks were apparently stalled. According to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, who heads the country’s delegation at the Contact Group, there was a real danger that the Minsk deal would not work at all. If the Ukrainian parliament did not amend the law on local elections in 2020, which bans holding a vote in Donbass and thus runs counter to the Minsk agreements, any further work of the Contact Group would be stonewalled, he explained.

In turn, Moscow notes that Kiev was not even trying to hide its reluctance to meet its commitments under the Minsk peace deal and called on Ukraine to comprehend that the path to peace in Donbass did not lie in rewriting previous agreements. According to Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center of Political Studies and Conflictology, if Ukraine de jure pulled out of the Minsk talks, then the EU would not have further grounds to extend sanctions against Russia. But Kiev could not let that happen, the expert noted.


Kommersant: Russia announces ban on round timber exports starting in 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to fully prohibit the export of round timber starting in 2022 has split the timber industry into two camps. If major corporations, which often face the lack of raw materials, consider the measure useful, those companies that don’t have processing capacities castigated it as a lethal blow. The Russian government pledges to support market players. However, experts doubt that the sharp halt of exports will be advantageous for the market, which in any case won’t be able to change in a year, Kommersant business daily writes.

The president’s decision will help increase the volume of deficient raw materials in the country, but will require the government’s assistance to numerous market players, especially in Russia’s Far East, participants of the sector interviewed by the newspaper said. Sources close to the Russian government said that this measure had been a long-awaited one and bringing order to the sector was one of key goals of the new cabinet.

Last year, Federation Council (upper house) Speaker Valentina Matviyenko called for halting the export of round timber, but temporarily until the new Forest Code was drawn up. Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources Dmitry Kobylkin suggested suspending supplies only to China, which accounts for up to 70% of Russia’s export.

One of major timber companies - the Segezha Group - positively assessed the export ban. Managing Director for Implementing State Programs and Forest Policy Nikolai Ivanov noted that the support of processing wood was necessary while the lack of raw materials was evident. The Ilim Group noted that the steps on bringing order to the timber sector were "definitely right." The prohibition on exporting unprocessed timber will enable domestic producers to increase the volume of raw materials.

However, many players in the sector described the total ban on round timber exports as a dangerous step, which could affect the sector in the Far East. Some sources believe that the blanket export ban would trigger an opposite effect: it is impossible to organize processing within such a short period and more shady schemes will pop up, while budget revenues will decline.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Lukashenko back to playing integration card with Moscow

Minsk and Moscow have resumed talks on deepening integration during this week’s traditional event, the Forum of Regions. The Belarusian authorities have announced plans on shifting transit flows from Baltic ports to Russia. Local experts believe this would jeopardize Belarusian national interests, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

The newspaper highlighted the fact that Russia’s government delegation was not present at the traditional Forum of Regions hosted in Minsk and this was explained by the coronavirus pandemic. Both presidents, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, sent their video messages to the forum participants. However, not everyone in Minsk believed the epidemiological explanation. Political scientist Valery Karbalevich noted that the Russian authorities’ decision not to come to Minsk was political in order to "downgrade the status of the event" and Lukashenko.

Russia has reminded Lukashenko that he should not have any illusions of having a ‘free hand’ nor forget about the Sochi agreements, the expert said. Moscow is dropping hints that his level is contacts with Russian governors. The official Belarusian media reported that the forum was productive like never before. According to official statements, the sides are again discussing joint projects.

The Belarusian pubic was mostly interested in a statement by Belarusian Ambassador to Moscow Vladimir Semashko that the allies had resumed talks on the roadmaps aimed at deepening integration. Experts earlier claimed that many of these integration roadmaps were disadvantageous for Belarus. They also voiced doubt over economic benefits of Lukashenko’s plans to switch trade transit flows from Baltic ports to Russia. The Belarusian leader suggested building a port in the Leningrad Region. Lukashenko did not hide that such decisions were mainly political rather than economic. The Baltic states have thrown their backing behind the protests in Belarus, refusing to recognize Lukashenko as president and they have imposed sanctions.


Izvestia: Oil prices to hit new lows, experts predict

In the coming weeks the price of Brent oil could plunge to $35 per barrel and fall to $30 next month, according to analysts interviewed by Izvestia. They believe the oil prices will hit new lows due to the rising number of coronavirus cases around the world and the insufficient demand for energy supplies.

Since early September, oil prices have lost 10.5% in value. The coordinated actions of OPEC+ now remain a containing factor, experts note. For Russia’s budget this situation won’t be a serious blow, according to their estimates. However, this could affect investment activity in the oil and gas sector.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is not the only factor exerting pressure on the global oil market, analyst at VYGON Consulting Ivan Timonin said. In the coming months, the supply is expected to rise: some 0.4 mln barrels per day will soon return to the market amid revived production in the US after Hurricane Laura. Global demand for oil, on the contrary, will resume slower than expected.

According to the head of the analytical department at AMarkets Artem Deyev, the market will be also affected by news from Libya on restored production. In general, the expert noted that the global oil market would see a global transformation. General consumption after 2020 will drop 10% (some 9 mln-10 mln barrels per day won’t be in demand).


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