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Press review: Syria braces for presidential election and Ukraine steps up focus on Crimea

Top stories from the Russian press on Monday, March 15th

Izvestia: Syria gears up for presidential election, seeks to rejoin Arab League

March 15 will mark a full decade since the beginning of the war in Syria. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), out of 18 mln people in the country, 13.4 mln are in need of humanitarian aid, with 36% having lost their homes. Head of the ICRC's delegation to Syria Philip Spoerri told Izvestia that 2020 was one of the most difficult years for the country due to Western sanctions, the collapse of the national currency, and the crisis in neighboring Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Syrians themselves have high hopes for 2021, as the country’s presidential elections are set to be held in May-June.

The Syrian crisis is far from over, although full-scale hostilities in most parts of the war-ravaged nation have already ceased, Spoerri told Izvestia. At the same time, the living conditions of Syrians have deteriorated significantly during 2020. Chronic economic problems were worsened by the collapse of the financial system in Lebanon, which affected the Syrian pound, and restrictive measures amid COVID-19 were introduced, he said. Spoerri clarified that the West's sanctions have also made the situation in the country difficult.

Nevertheless, the process of rebuilding Syria under the Assad government continues. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, about 2 mln refugees have returned to the country since the beginning of the conflict. According to estimates by President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s reconstruction now requires over $400 bln, and the recovery period will take over 10-15 years.

With the presidential elections just around the corner, Syrian members of parliament told Izvestia that the voting would be transparent, and international observers would be invited. Damascus also expects to restore its membership in the Arab League by the end of the year, given that the organization recognizes Syrian sovereignty over the entire territory of the country.

Kommersant: Ukraine doubles down on Crimean issue

Kiev made the issue of the ‘annexation of Crimea’ by Russia and the topic of its return to Ukraine a key point in its foreign policy efforts. Its "Crimean Platform" summit, rolled out by the Ukrainian authorities, seems to be conceived as the main foreign policy event of the year for the country. It will be held in August, timed to coincide with the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's independence. There are two reasons for this, sources close to Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky told Kommersant. First, this is a beneficial event amid the deadlock in the Donbass negotiations, and second, this is an opportunity to attack internal political opponents.

The debate around Crimea hides the failures on the Donbass issue, Kommersant writes. Zelensky promised to stop the war and return the uncontrolled territories. But two years later, the negotiations have grinded to a halt. "Last year, it became obvious that there would be no progress on Donbass," Head of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies in Kiev Vladimir Fesenko told Kommersant. Therefore, a new track was needed to portray Zelensky’s energies, the expert added.

Fesenko noted that the latest Crimean initiatives are dictated not only by foreign policy, but also by Ukraine’s domestic political needs.Verkhovna Rada MP from the Opposition Platform - For Life Oleg Voloshin believes that this may be due to Bellingcat’s new investigation that promised to look into Ukrainian intelligence’s failed operation to lure employees of private military company PMC Wagner to Ukraine from Belarus.

A source close to the Ukrainian leader told the newspaper: "We believe that the issue is broader than just Donbass, and belligerence does not only mean Donbass. There was a whole chain of events. So, we ask the world for support and we want the world to recognize the whole chain [of events], starting with the fact that having lost [our] nuclear status we were defenseless and eventually lost our territories". The August summit, the source believes, will be attended by representatives of Europe, the United States, and Turkey.

Kommersant: India joins Washington's anti-China alliance

Washington took a decisive step towards creating an anti-Chinese military-political alliance by holding the first summit of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which, in addition to the United States, included Japan, Australia, and India. The Biden administration is assigning the most active role in the alliance to India.The unresolved territorial dispute with China (with 50,000 troops having been deployed on the Chinese-Indian border) is pushing the South Asian power towards closer rapprochement with the United States, Kommersant writes. In early April, the Quad will hold military exercises in the Bay of Bengal against the "Chinese threat".

In the summit’s final press release, which reaffirmed a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, the Quad members pledged to cultivate security cooperation to strengthen order based on international law and meet the challenges in the East China and South China Seas.

Despite the fact that formally India adheres to the principle of "strategic autonomy" and emphasizes not entering into any military alliances, and does not have very close relations with the United States as do Japan and Australia, and together with Russia and China is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the RIC triangle (Russia, India, China), the South Asian power is increasingly moving closer to the United States and is starting to set the tone for Quad, the newspaper writes.

Against the background of New Delhi's intransigence on the acquisition of Russia’s S-400s and the development of military-technical cooperation with Russia, the US is sending India more and more active signals that the leading democracies in the region should be on the same side of the barricades in the face of the "Chinese threat".

Meanwhile, India's continued rapprochement with the United States and its allies based on the Indo-Pacific concept is causing growing concern in Moscow, which hopes to smooth over the contradictions between India and China. "We will do our best to ensure that India and China - our two great friends and brothers - will live in peace with each other," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Diplomatic spat between Minsk and Warsaw gaining momentum

Belarus and Poland exchanged notes of protest and expulsion of diplomats. Minsk is accusing Warsaw of glorifying Nazism, but experts believe that the real reason is different. President Lukashenko of Belarus needs an external enemy to ramp up internal repression, and Poland, which takes a principled position on the Belarusian issue, is best suited for this role, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

The public and experts are unanimous in their view that the event in Brest, dedicated to the anti-Soviet and anti-communist Polish resistance movement, visited by Jerzy Timofeyuk, the Polish consul in Brest, was just a pretext for a conflict with Warsaw. "This is a clumsy attempt to use the event in Brest in order to once again create an image of an enemy out of Poland," political analyst Valery Karbalevich told the newspaper. "The image of an external enemy is formed in order to intimidate society. Now, once again, they have come up with an artificial reason to aggravate relations," the expert added.

Belarusian expert Valery Karbalevich also believes that Minsk is not interested in establishing relations with the West, therefore it will "periodically initiate some conflicts" with both Poland and Lithuania, possibly with Ukraine and the collective West in general, "because an external enemy is needed. " However, in his opinion, this won’t lead to a severance in diplomatic relations. "Warsaw is quite pragmatic and would not like to bring the matter to a complete breakdown. I think that Minsk does not intend to completely radically break off relations with Warsaw," Karbalevich told Nezavisimaya Gazeta

Izvestia: Russian business showed record 12-year decline in revenue

The revenue of Russia’s medium and large businesses in 2020 compared to the previous year decreased by 23.5% or 3.82 trillion rubles ($52 bln), showing a record drop on par with the results of the 2008 crisis, Izvestia wrote citing a study by the FinExpertiza international audit and consulting network. The negative dynamics were primarily due to market factors, but without government support measures, the loss would have amounted to at least 50%, experts told the newspaper.

The most significant drop came in the spring due to the coronavirus restrictions, the study indicated. In the summer, as these restrictions eased, the decline slowed, but still turned out to be worse than in 2019. The recovery of indicators began only in October. The financial performance of businesses at the end of 2020 deteriorated in 48 out of 85 constituent entities of Russia.

The decline in profits for mid-size and large businesses was mainly due to market factors, such as the fall in oil prices, Co-chairman of Delovaya Rossiya Anton Danilov-Danilyan believes. Therefore, most likely, these are temporary difficulties and given the current oil prices, in 2021 company profits will rebound.

The 23.5-percent drop in profits is not at all critical. It happened mainly among inefficient enterprises, Director of the Center for Business Tendency Studies at the Higher School of Economics Georgy Ostapkovich told the newspaper. In his opinion, the business sector was protected from more significant losses by support measures and without them, the margin would have halved.

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