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Press review: Can Italy’s spy scandal harm ties and EU leaders use pandemic for power grab

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, April 1

Izvestia: Espionage scandal unlikely to ruin Russian-Italian ties

The spy scandal and the expulsion of two Russian diplomats won’t affect Russian-Italian relations, experts interviewed by Izvestia said. Meanwhile, the Russian establishment notes that no matter how friendly Italy is, it is still part of NATO and maintains close allied relations with the United States. "The position of the US is well-known, the change of power in Washington has led not to a milder policy with regards to Moscow - and this was not expected - but to scathing and sometimes astonishing statements against it," First Deputy of Chairman the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Dmitry Novikov said. "Not a single EU country can ignore the position of the US and to one degree or another [each one] demonstrates its solidarity as part of the European-Atlantic bloc." However, according to experts, this incident is not going to ruin bilateral relations.

"We had cases of mutual expulsions of Russian and Western diplomats before, but this in no way affects Russian-Italian contacts," said Tatiana Zonova, professor at MGIMO University, Doctor of Political Science. "Certainly, these episodes don’t improve relations but basically the current situation won’t have any impact."

Experts also note that spy scandals - not only involving Russia - happen quite often in Italy. Given its geographical location, the republic "is at the intersection of all intelligence services" serving as NATO’s southern hub. Italy has become the alliance’s stronghold in the Mediterranean region.

Meanwhile, Elena Maslova, senior researcher at MGIMO, notes that the new government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi holds a more Euro-Atlantic position and his response could be harsher.


Kommersant: Kremlin experts point to EU’s descent into dictatorship using coronavirus as means for clampdown

The Social Research Expert Institute (EISI), which is closely linked to the Kremlin, has published a report on the violations of rights and freedoms in European countries amid the coronavirus pandemic. The authors of the study have accused Western politicians of running a ‘dictatorship’ in the executive branch, citing examples of breaching freedom of speech and the right to peaceful demonstrations.

The EISI specialists believe that the restrictions of the right to freedom of assembly and other public events, introduced in many European countries, are excessive. Experts spotlighted the daily news footage of police using truncheons to violently disperse protests across the EU, especially in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, Paris and other European capitals. The Russian researchers are also concerned over growing racism and xenophobia, violations of refugees’ rights and inequality demonstrated amid the epidemic in Europe.

The researchers note that in Russia the situation is more liberal despite the fact that most regions still have a ban on holding rallies and criminal liability was introduced for publishing fake news on coronavirus.

Head of the Institute’s expert council Gleb Kuznetsov notes that in Russia the situation is "incomparably more liberal and milder." "We have a huge difference in the situations with countries balancing between a prohibition on leaving one’s home and permission to gather with four people from two families. For a European, the situation in Russia today is unthinkable in terms of openness, rights and freedoms."

In response, outside experts insist a widespread clampdown against the citizens' rights can be seen in Russia, noting that the EISI report is aimed at showing that human rights violations are quite often the case for many countries.


Izvestia: China, Iran ink deal on cooperation amid US sanctions pressure

China and Iran have signed a deal on comprehensive cooperation for the next 25 years. The details of the agreement have not been revealed but it is known that it will cover not only such areas as the economy and culture, but also sensitive fields such as defense and intelligence. The decision of Tehran and Beijing to cultivate a strategic partnership coincides with the unprecedented sanctions pressure on both countries by the US and its allies, Izvestia writes.

China is expected to pour $400 bln into the Iranian economy and this cooperation will allow Beijing to strengthen its positions as Tehran’s key trade partner. China, which is set to become the world’s major economy, gets access to energy resources. In its turn, Iran, which has been targeted by international sanctions, will get a major buyer of hydrocarbons.

This bilateral deal has both economic and geopolitical effects. First of all, China is strengthening its positions in the Middle East. Iran will be able to feel more confident in its contacts with Washington on lifting sanctions imposed under the Trump administration. Beijing will also get another geopolitical stronghold in its global confrontation with the US.

"Step by step, China is building a new global policy in the Middle East, while in the past China used to play a minor role, which revolved more around trade than politics. Beijing is beginning to change its global policy, which is becoming more aggressive and offensive," said Acting Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies Alexei Maslov.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: How Lukashenko’s retaliatory sanctions will affect trade with EU, Russia

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is keeping his word to retaliate against any countries that imposed sanctions against Minsk. He signed a decree banning the imports of goods and the purchase of services from these countries. The tit-for-tat restrictive measures may target nearly 40 countries, yet according to statistics, in 2020 Belarus imported goods from 185 countries, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Lukashenko’s decree gives grounds to hope that finally this will put an end to the supplies of sanctioned goods from Belarus to Russia. However, some experts say this is unlikely. According to senior analyst at Alpari Eurasia Vadim Iosub, the Belarusian authorities are not going to introduce sanctions on the goods used in under-the-counter supply schemes to Russia - namely fish, seafood, fruits and flowers. According to him, no full ban on European goods, except for Poland and Lithuania, is in the cards.

Minsk and Moscow could try to unify their sanctions lists, but even in this case the goods, which are being successfully delivered to Russia via Belarus, will be exempt. In their turn, those goods, which were targeted by sanctions in Belarus and not in Russia will enter through the open Russian-Belarusian border.

Particular conclusions on the consequences of Belarusian counter-sanctions could be made when the lists of goods and countries are published. As far as the domestic market goes, the authorities are using the restrictive measures to reduce the volume of imported goods and replace them with domestic products. However, the ban won’t affect those goods, which are not produced in Belarus.

From a political standpoint, the sanctions will escalate the confrontation with the West. According to political scientist Andrei Kazakevich, Lukashenko could seek to "sell the conflict with the West to Russia." "This could be a form of blackmail in order to achieve some de-escalation of the conflict with the EU."


Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Russia to promote Northern Sea Route as rival to Suez Canal

Russia seeks to reduce the cost of shipping cargoes via the Northern Sea Route to ensure that it could compete with the Suez Canal, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev said on Wednesday. According to him, at present, cargo shipments via this route are 30% more expensive than through the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, the Northern Sea Route is shorter, Rossiyskaya Gazeta writes.

In his turn, Head of the Ministry for Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic Alexey Chekunkov announced that the government’s goal was to create a regular container conduit along the Northern Sea Route. According to him, this will make it possible to change the attitude of the market participants and "make it a standard mainstream route."

"In the light of developing Russia’s icebreaking fleet and prolonging the navigation period, as well as the measures taken by the government, the opportunity is on the horizon to launch competitive shipments of container cargoes and cabotage transportation via the Northern Sea Route," he said.

The minister noted that the incident in the Suez Canal, where traffic was paralyzed for several days after the Ever Given container ship had ran aground, showed that the Northern Sea Route is vital as a global transportation corridor.

Russia is now building a series of powerful icebreakers, which will make it possible not just to use the route but to switch to higher latitudes, approaching the North Pole and seriously shortening the route, said head of the Moscow branch of the Institute of Transport Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vladimir Tsyganov. Russia could get some $70 bln per year from this transit, which is quite on par with revenues from military exports.

Now all Russian transportation routes ensure just 3-4% of global transit, while the Suez Canal handles 13% of the world's cargo traffic.


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