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Press review: Kremlin scores points on ECHR’s meddling and what’s on Biden’s G7 agenda

Top stories in the Russian press on Friday, February 19
A view of the Moscow Kremlin Valery Sharifulin/TASS
A view of the Moscow Kremlin
© Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Kremlin gains domestic policy points after ECHR intervenes for Navalny

On February 18, the Russian government continued to provide negative assessments of the decision by the European Court of Human Rights demanding the immediate release of Alexey Navalny. On the whole, this decision is seen as a blatant act of interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, however, the details vary. The Russian State Duma is already discussing the consequences of not adhering to the ECHR’s claim, and the Foreign Ministry does not want to hear anything of the kind. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is already gaining domestic policy points after Strasbourg’s decision, since this puts Western hostility in the spotlight once again. Experts quizzed by Nezavisimaya Gazeta warn that Russia may have to pay out a hefty sum to the ECHR in compensation for Navalny if it refuses to release him.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta asked Anton Ryzhov, an international lawyer and an independent expert on ECHR matters, for his opinion on the situation.

The ECHR demands that Russia immediately release Navalny based on Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. When asked how often this rule is used, Ryzhov said: "If we take all the claims arriving to the ECHR from Council of Europe states, then of course, the use of Rule 39 is extremely rare. We need to understand that this rule is actively used in strictly defined categories of cases, and within these categories, the court does offer interim measures to these states rather often."

When asked whether a country must release a detained person based on the ECHR’s insistence, and whether there are consequences of non-compliance, the expert stated: "The ECHR’s demand is obligatory to the extent that the state is ready to deal with the consequences of its non-adherence. As a rule, in this case, European judges state that Article 34 of the Convention ("The application is incompatible with the provisions of the Convention") was violated. <…> What effect does the finding of this breach of the Convention have on a country? There are two aspects. Firstly, compensation to the person in question increases, and sometimes, rather significantly. Secondly, the government will lose some of its reputation points, provided that anyone cares about this now, as this is considered a gross violation (otherwise, why hold yourself under the jurisdiction of an international court?)."

Nevertheless, the Kremlin continues to profit off the current legal scandal domestically, as, according to the Russian government, Navalny supporters have shown themselves to be a means of carrying out Western interests, and state propaganda will use it to explain the situation to citizens using rather convincing facts, the newspaper noted.


Kommersant: Russian political guru weighs in on US agenda at upcoming G7 summit

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Director General Andrey Kortunov analyzed the foreign policy priorities of the Biden White House in an op-ed written for Kommersant. The 3C formula is often used to describe Biden’s foreign policy priorities: coronavirus, climate and China. All these matters are likely to be addressed during the virtual summit of G7 states set for February 19. This event will be a serious challenge for Biden to reaffirm Washington’s renewed leadership in the Western world and its readiness to follow the principles of multilateralism in international affairs.

If the US aims to cement itself as a global leader in the fight against COVID-19, cooperation within the G7 and Washington’s return to the World Health Organization (WHO) are not enough, the expert said, adding that the US will need to launch mass aid programs to the poor countries of the Global South and to coordinate its actions with Russia and China, taking into account their significant experience in developing and producing effective means of vaccination.

Things are not easy as far as US climate policy is concerned as well, Kortunov noted. Supporters of green policies state that unlike the Trump administration, the US has never exited the Paris Agreement. Indeed, many American companies, municipalities and even entire states voluntarily adhered to or tried to adhere to the norms and standards stipulated in the accord even during the Trump presidency. However, the American energy sphere is the issue here, the expert stressed. Refusing to support national producers of shale oil and gas or even rolling back this support, freezing new pipeline projects, or shifting the focus on to renewable energy sources cannot be done without significant domestic policy losses, he stated.

Finally, China is the most complicated and sensitive topic of discussion at the G7 summit, as each member state has its own relations with Beijing and few are ready to join Washington in the fight between Western liberalism and Eastern authoritarianism, the political analyst writes.

In recent years, G7 summits have not been seen as life-changing historical events. Due to many factors, including Russia’s pullout and the establishment of the G20, the G7 has lost some of its splendor and influence in many ways. Nevertheless, the upcoming summit, the first one with Biden’s participation, is worthy of attention, Kortunov pointed out. It will demonstrate the balance between what Washington wants and what it can expect from relations with other Western states.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Syrian militants hide behind US and Turkish troops

The Russian Defense Ministry reported on stepped-up activity of illegally armed groups of militants in southern Syrian provinces of Homs and Deir ez-Zor, stating that "one of the possible reasons for the formations freely roaming in deserted areas is the ability to hide on the territory of Al-Tanf, controlled by the international coalition led by the US and armed formations of the former Free Syrian Army under its command", a Russian armed forces representatives stationed in the Arab Republic stated, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports. At the same time, Turkey has bolstered its influence on the Syrian territories of Idlib and Afrin, essentially turning them into Turkish provinces, the newspaper added.

Early on February 18, a spokesman for the Russian troops informed that units of Assad’s army had eliminated a group of militants in the Homs province with the assistance of Russian air power. The illegal armed groups were supported from abroad, which is confirmed by a cache of weapons found near the battle site. Many weapons were NATO branded. The arsenal was big enough to equip a unit of up to 50 militants.

The incident took place during the Astana Syrian peace process in Sochi. The US refused to take part in it, while representatives of the Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army backed by the Pentagon, were present. Along with the US, Turkey, which positions itself as an active participant of the Astana process, supports many Syrian opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army. Pro-Turkish groups, mainly consisting of the Free Syrian Army forces, are the ones who control the Syrian province of Idlib and the Syrian-Kurdish city of Afrin, which Ankara occupied two years ago with Russia’s silent consent.

"Turkey has long acted as an aggressor when it comes to Syria. Damascus considers Turkey to be an occupier that is holding the country’s northern territories by force. And this is true," military expert Nikolai Shulgin told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "Look at who is active in Afrin and Idlib. These are pro-Turkish formations that have formed their own administration and police with Turkish money. The Turkish currency is used on [these] occupied territories and Turkish flags are hanging there. There is no sign of Syria there at this point."


Izvestia: Russia increases investment in US securities

The US Treasury published new data, which shows that Russia has increased its investment in US bonds and equities by over $1 bln, with the total sum coming up to $6 bln. This includes $1.2 bln in long-term securities and $4.8 bln in short-term highly liquid assets. Izvestia has quizzed experts on the situation to find out whether this stepped-up investment could mean a change in foreign policy.

In reality, this news does not come as a big shock, and the numbers are rather modest. For the past 13 years, Russia’s investment in US assets followed global economic trends, and investment served as one of the means to alleviate the consequences of the 2008 and 2014 crises.

In 2020, the overall situation changed, and despite the sharp global economic decline exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia decreased its investment in US securities from $12.6 bln in February 2020 to $3.9 bln in March 2020 (an all-time low) with a subsequent recovery reaching $6 bln for the rest of the year. One of the reasons for that is financial instability on global markets and the need to stimulate and support the Russian economy.

Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at BCS Global Markets, told Izvestia that short-term investments do not affect political discourse in any way, and the volume of Russia’s investment in the US economy coming up to $6 bln is an extremely low figure compared to its $100-bln investments some 10 years ago.

It is likely that the actions of Russia’s Central Bank are dictated by the lack of investment alternatives, Finam Strategy Director Yaroslav Kabakov told the paper. "The current situation with the surge of bond profitability does not allow the Central Bank to invest in high-risk assets, including gold. The currencies of developing countries have also found themselves under pressure recently. Considering that the Central Bank has directly highlighted that financial markets are overheated, the choice for investment means is obvious. Thus, there are no alternatives to US short-term securities, and the share of long-term assets is going down," he explained.


Izvestia: High oil prices still not affecting Russian ruble

Oil prices have surpassed $65 per barrel due to unfavorable weather conditions in the US that led to a decrease in production and the adherence of OPEC+ states to the deal on production cuts. However, in the near future, the prices for the black gold may decrease once the weather in the US improves and oil producing countries begin to increase production, experts quizzed by Izvestia suggest. So far, the high oil prices have failed to affect the ruble exchange rate. This is likely due to the fact that the Russian currency is affected by geopolitical factors. Investors, concerned about looming EU sanctions against the Russian Federation, have begun selling Russian shares and rubles.

In early January, OPEC+ states decided to increase production at an extremely low rate in order to avoid a surplus of the black gold on the global market, Izvestia wrote previously. During the January 5 meeting, OPEC+ agreed that in February and March 2021, only Russia and Kazakhstan can increase oil production by 65,000 and 10,000 barrels per day accordingly.

"In April, OPEC+ may decide to increase oil supply to the market. This will cause the prices to drop," Commodity Market Analyst at Otkritie Broker Oksana Lukicheva told the paper.

Despite the rising oil prices, the Russian ruble exchange rate against the dollar has dropped from 74.03 rubles to 73.81 rubles at the opening of the Moscow Exchange on February 18. Lukicheva noted that the ruble exchange rate is no longer directly affected by oil prices.

For his part, Mikhail Zeltser, a stock market specialist at BCS Global, told the paper that the ruble’s dependency on oil prices is fundamental, however, the global flow of speculative capital and the geopolitical factor affects the dynamic of the ruble exchange rate as well.

"Under normal conditions, with the current oil prices, the ruble may have reached about 70 per dollar. The sanctions risk premium remains," the expert said.

Investors are concerned by a possible introduction of sanctions against Russia’s national debt or Russian corporations, which causes them to sell Russian stock and the Russian ruble, switching to the dollar and the euro, Deputy Director of Alpari’s Analytical Department Natalya Milchakova explained.


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