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Press review: Syrian peace process resumes in Sochi and despite lows, Germany needs Russia

Top stories in the Russian press on Wednesday, February 17

Kommersant: Astana Syrian peace talks resume in Sochi

The quest for a political settlement on Syria and the fate of the Syrian Constitutional Committee were among the main issues discussed during the first talks within the Astana peace process in over a year. Due to the pandemic, the talks were moved from Kazakhstan to Sochi, Kommersant reports.

"We plan to give momentum not to the work of the Astana process, but to the process of Syrian regulation," Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev said in the run-up to the two-day Astana negotiations between Damascus and delegations from the Syrian armed opposition, mediated by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan are acting as observers during the talks. Delegations from the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are also taking part in the session. Russia traditionally invites the United States to attend the talks, however, Washington has refused to participate in the Astana process since mid-2018.

Over a year has passed since the signing of the agreement between Ankara and Moscow on the situation in northeastern Syria, in the zone of contact between Kurdish forces and the Syrian armed opposition, and almost a year has gone by since the bilateral agreement on stabilizing the Idlib de-escalation zone was clinched. Both sides have mutual claims over both documents. The main issue for Moscow is disengaging the Syrian armed opposition and terrorist groups.

The Syrian opposition is balking at giving a definitive answer on its readiness to fight the terrorists. The moderate opposition suffered the most from the terrorists, Ahmed Toma, who heads the Syrian opposition’s delegation told Kommersant, adding that the opposition is against the terrorists and wants to minimize their ideological presence and their presence on the ground.

However, the main issue that the Syrian opposition came to Sochi to discuss is not the situation on the frontlines, but politics, namely the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee held under the auspices of the UN. In late January, the fifth session of the committee was held in Geneva, however, the parties have still not started discussing the document, focusing on the so-called national principles on the initiative of Damascus instead. The opposition thinks that the Assad government is stalling the conversation. Toma told Kommersant that the Syrian opposition wants Damascus to change its methods and set some time frame for the committee’s work. He insisted that the opposition is interested in the work of the committee. A statement on the failure of the Constitutional Committee would be a bad outcome for everyone, Toma cautioned, adding that the opposition intends to continue its work and hopes for pressure from the international community, especially Russia, on Damascus. The delegation from the Syrian government has remained tight-lipped on the situation so far, waiting for the talks to conclude.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Germany still pursuing business with Russia despite soured relations

The Navalny case has seriously undermined Russia’s relations with Germany and all of Europe, however, the record-setting cold weather pummeling Germany this year and a sharp increase in Gazprom’s gas supply to the country show the importance of a guaranteed energy supply and the need for economic cooperation despite the existing differences, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports.

Russian-German relations have sunk to a new low, nevertheless, the EU and Berlin are strategically interested in dialogue with Moscow and think that there is no alternative, Germany’s Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Peter Altmaier said during an online conference on strategic cooperation between Russia and Germany.

The conference’s participants focused on the role of natural gas as a transition energy source on the path towards a decarbonized economy. Russia hopes to retain its role as the supplier of clean energy to European countries in the future.

"The relations between Russia and Germany that have always remained stable, even after the Crimea events in 2014, have taken on a brand-new dimension after the Navalny case. Many experts say that Russia has lost Germany and its only partners among major EU states. However, so far, we see that the Germans are not ready for political differences to affect economic projects, namely Nord Stream 2. However, this situation may change under the influence of [US] President Joe Biden and the pre-election domestic policy pressure within Germany itself," Valdai International Discussion Club Program Director Oleg Barabanov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Moscow has traditionally underestimated the green transformation and the decarbonization of energy and the economy on the whole, while the EU and Germany are starting to implement this strategy actively, Barabanov added. This may create two negative factors for Russia: the introduction of a carbon tax and the general drop in demand for oil globally and in the EU.

Political analyst Andrey Suzdaltsev is confident that in the near future, nothing will endanger Russian-German projects, however, there may be some changes in the long term. "Our contracts tend to be medium-term, and on many positions, Russia cannot do without German imports, especially when it comes to hi-tech production. However, the situation may change in the future, and harsh statements by Russian officials regarding the EU and Washington’s ongoing pressure upon Germany may cause Russia to actively search for safeguards in the form of new markets and other partners. Import substitution will develop more actively. Namely, German companies will be more actively stimulated to move production to Russia, and political instability will stimulate this process," he said.


Izvestia: Navalny may face hefty fine for insulting war veteran

The third court session considering the charges brought against Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny for slandering a Russian WWII veteran ended rather abruptly before noon on February 16, in contrast, the previous two sessions carried on until late in the evening. This round was not the last one, with the court set to announce its ruling on February 20. The prosecution has asked the court to slap a 950,000-ruble ($12,891) fine on Navalny, while the defense is calling for the charges be dropped. Experts quizzed by Izvestia suggest that the blogger’s words are not as harmless as his lawyers want the court to think.

Previously, Navalny was sentenced to three and a half years behind bars after his suspended sentence in the Yves Rocher case was replaced with the real one.

"In Navalny’s case, we are talking about a combined punishment. It can be combined fully or partially. As a rule, the court tends to go lower than the prosecution’s demands. However, if they remain in force, the blogger will spend time in prison and pay a 950,000-ruble fine. This is practically the highest form of punishment under Article 128.1 Part 2 (Slander) of the Criminal Code (the highest is 1 mln rubles)," attorney Alexander Arutyunov told Izvestia.

The defense told the media that it does not expect the further hearings to have a positive outcome. However, if the court hands down a fine, Navalny’s supporters might crowdfund the amount, the blogger’s attorney Vadim Kobzev claimed.

For his part, Kirill Kabanov, who leads the nonprofit National Anti-Corruption Committee, said that Navalny’s behavior is a planned provocation. "By doing so, he is losing the number of supporters he has. Seniors do not agree with him and are beginning to distance themselves from him. However, his goal is to shake things up. He is trying to make people hate the government, society, while not offering anything else in return," he said. According to Kabanov, the opposition figurehead is trying to capitalize on public dissatisfaction caused by a number of economic and social issues.

The next court session on Navalny’s slander case will take place on February 20, with the appeal of the defense on the Yves Rocher case set for the same day.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Russian pharmaceutical industry gets record-high boost

Russia’s pharmaceutical production has topped the list of full industry leaders, with the production of drugs nearly doubling compared to last year’s figures, Nezavisimaya Gazeta informs. No other industry can boast such explosive growth. This boost may have been caused by the production of COVID-19 vaccines, however, according to the Federal State Statistics Service, in January, the production rate of various serums and vaccines was even 6% lower than last year. Experts quizzed by the paper are not in a rush to call the pharmaceutical industry a new growth driver, because once the pandemic begins to peter out, the industry’s ‘mobilization’ mode will come to an end.

Among industrial production spheres, the pharmaceutical industry has shown the highest growth in January 2021 compared to January 2020, climbing to nearly 75%. In December 2020, the production of drugs nearly doubled as well: with its growth 82% higher than in December 2019. As for the 2020 total tally, the entire industry has shown a 23% increase.

"The issue of the Sputnik V vaccine will serve as a key growth driver for the pharmaceutical industry in 2021," Freedom Finance analyst Yevgeny Mironyuk says. "Russian pharma could become an important export sector."

However, some experts think that the situation in the pharmaceutical industry will stabilize soon. "The reasons for the increased issue of drugs and medical materials are clear to everyone. The country is at war with the virus. The pharmaceutical industry has received an opportunity to increase its revenue," Sergei Tsukhlo, an expert with the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, said. "I am sure that with the full victory over the virus in a given country, the "mobilization" crisis mode of this sector will end."


Izvestia: Message from the boss? New phishing technique taking in many Russians

Over 70% of Russians open scam emails with the sender posing as their boss or business partner, experts with the Antiphishing company reported, cited by Izvestia. Personalization of emails and using the authority of higher-ups are the most powerful boosters behind these phishing attacks. Hackers realize this and begin to send personalized emails more often, specialists say, adding that security drills can help counteract phishing.

Specialists have noted that emails containing personal information of employees are much more effective than anonymous ones: 83% of addressees have opened personalized emails compared to 22% who were tricked by anonymous messages.

The research was held in 2020, with experts simulating about 100,000 phishing attacks and testing them on 20,000 employees from 48 companies. On the whole, 37% of employees opened phishing letters, and 74% of them clicked on links in their emails or downloaded attached files. Another 5% voluntarily gave their personal data to the scammers.

Businesses have come to realize the importance of protecting digital data, with companies purchasing new technical means of protection, the company stated. However, this does not guarantee security, noted Sergei Voldokhin, who heads Antiphishing.

"Cybercriminals continue to fine-tune their infiltration methods, often targeting their first attack on careless and trusting employees, who open harmful attachments or type in their passwords on phishing websites," he said. This is why companies need to hold digital literacy courses for their employees and stage training attacks, the expert stated.


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