MOSCOW, June 2. /TASS/. BRICS signals readiness to expand its membership roster; Europe’s political elite gathers for expanded forum summit in Moldova; and relations between the United States and China go from bad to worse even as potential for reconciliation lingers. These stories topped Friday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.
On Thursday, South Africa hosted a meeting of foreign ministers from the BRICS member states, who discussed a wide range of issues, including expansion of the bloc and the Ukraine crisis.
Speaking with the press before the meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who serves as Russia’s BRICS "sherpa," said that Moscow was not against an expanded BRICS, but that it was in no hurry to disclose the names of potential candidates. The senior Russian diplomat underscored, however, that countries seeking to join the bloc should refrain from imposing or supporting anti-Russian sanctions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said later that the admission of new BRICS members, including Saudi Arabia, whose foreign minister participated in a BRICS Friends meeting, was still being discussed. Apart from Saudi Arabia, delegations from Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are not members yet, also arrived in Cape Town.
On May 28, the Financial Times reported, citing the New Development Bank, also known as the BRICS bank, that Riyadh was currently engaged "in a qualified dialogue" with them. Admitting Saudi Arabia as a new member of the bank may have been a key, albeit undeclared, issue at Lavrov’s talks in Cape Town with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Kirill Semyonov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Vedomosti. "We can definitely say that Riyadh wants to join the BRICS bank and strengthen relations with this group of nations," the expert said.
The BRICS summit, slated for late August in Johannesburg, is expected to discuss who will be admitted and how. Among other countries, the list of potential candidates includes Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Turkey, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In general, South Africa supports the expansion of the BRICS, as it views the intentions of other countries to join the organization as support for the political and economic policy course of its members. The admission of Saudi Arabia, the UAE or other resource-rich countries would serve to weaken the dollar and give a boost to national economies, several experts in South Africa said. However, Irina Filatova, professor at the Higher School of Economics (HSE University), told Izvestia that any further expansion of BRICS would, on the contrary, serve to reduce South Africa's economic clout in the bloc.
On Tuesday, Moldova hosted the second summit of the European Political Community, an expanded intergovernmental forum encompassing both EU member states and countries outside of the EU. The heads of state and government from 47 European countries gathered to discuss security, energy, and other critical issues they are facing. Although no specific decisions were made at the summit - and none were expected - the high-profile forum gave the leaders of Moldova and Ukraine an opportunity to lobby for their interests.
Moldova hosted the summit almost a year after it was granted EU candidate status jointly with Ukraine. News came on June 1 that the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development would give Chisinau a $211 million package. Ahead of the summit, Moldova itself did its "homework," holding a "national assembly" meeting in Chisinau on May 21, which adopted a resolution stating that Moldova’s path toward EU membership may be enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Top European politicians do not appear perturbed by the existence of a territorial dispute in Moldova; Transnistria has made it abundantly clear that it stands against the country’s European integration. According to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, since Cyprus, with its seemingly intractable, longstanding territorial dispute, joined the bloc, Moldova can also do so.
"Europe takes any opportunity to emphasize its consolidation, although it has many internal differences, and not only concerning Russia and Ukraine. However, the presence of a threat, the existence of a conflict, or the need to close ranks with the United States are all factors that enable the bloc to keep its internal strife at least under control," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, told Izvestia. "Therefore, it needs to make certain gestures, and the European Political Community is a way of demonstrating unity with countries outside of the EU, by encouraging them while making no specific promises to them," he added.
However, experts agree that the conflict in Ukraine has mostly facilitated the dialogue between Chisinau and Brussels. The EU is likely to launch accession talks with Moldova, because now that Ukraine has been granted candidate status, not encouraging Moldova’s EU aspirations would appear awkward, Lukyankov added. Yet, the fact that negotiations have begun does not mean that they will be wrapped up quickly. The expert concluded by saying he sees a possibility that Moldova could be admitted to the EU by 2030, albeit with the proviso that everything will depend on the outcome of Russia’s special military operation.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has convened the first meeting of the National Security Commission under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since he was re-elected for a third term as the CCP’s general secretary. At the meeting, he called for the urgent modernization of defense capabilities amid the aggravated international situation. Beijing media outlets pointed the finger at the United States, claiming Washington was ready to use nuclear weapons to protect its allies. Dismissing these accusations, the Pentagon suggested discussing differences at a security conference in Singapore. Although China’s defense chief declined to meet with his US counterpart, Beijing left the door open to communication through other channels, which provides some optimism in assessing the longer-term prospects for bilateral relations.
According to Xie Maosong, a senior research fellow at the renowned Tsinghua University in Beijing, the speech delivered by the general secretary [Xi], who incidentally is also a graduate of Tsinghua University, showed that China has no illusions about its relationship with the United States. The worst-case scenario, as noted by Xi, could be a nuclear war that would destroy the country's coastline, where China’s advanced industries and high-tech centers are concentrated.
Meanwhile, judging from recent statements by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Japanese Defense Minister Yasukuza Hamada, the worst-case scenario is not mere fiction. At any rate, this scenario cannot be discounted. The two defense ministers said at a news conference in Tokyo that they could strengthen Japan's defense capabilities as they did not rule out the use of nuclear weapons.
Commenting on these warnings, Valery Kistanov, head of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of China and Modern Asia, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, "Japan itself has renounced nuclear weapons. In their joint statement, the two ministers said that America will defend Japan in an extended format using all means, including nuclear weapons. Fundamentally, this contradicts the position of Japan, which calls for a world without nuclear weapons."
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida prioritized this at the recent G7 meeting in Hiroshima. At the same time, he accused Russia of allegedly resorting to nuclear blackmail over the conflict in Ukraine. But the main threat, Tokyo believes, is being posed by China, which is building up its nuclear capabilities, and by North Korea, as well.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met on the sidelines of the second European Political Community summit on June 1 in Moldova. They first met in a trilateral format, with EU Council President Charles Michel, and later they were joined by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The meeting yielded neither any documents nor even a joint statement.
According to Nikolay Silayev, senior research fellow of the Institute for International Studies at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), a key obstacle to the conclusion of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been the problem of determining the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although Pashinyan has repeatedly acknowledged the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in public, Yerevan insists that there should be a certain international mechanism for negotiations between Baku and representatives of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. "The problem around the region’s status will remain in limbo for some time. So far, the situation has been in favor of Azerbaijan's attempt to complete the ethnic cleansing of the region, i.e. by expelling Armenians from Karabakh," the expert said. "All the more so since the US and the EU have revised their attitudes to this problem: previously, they viewed such manifestations as unacceptable, and now they can close their eyes to these actions for political reasons," he added.
Silayev believes that the West is seeking to put an end to this conflict as soon as possible, to be able to oust Russia from the Caucasus later on, while "they don’t give a damn about the fate of Karabakh," he says. "They would even be pleased if the entire Armenian population was ousted from the region, for all the consequences of a potential humanitarian crisis would fall on Russia," he insists.
Alexey Fenenko, professor in the Department of International Security at Moscow State University’s Faculty of World Politics, sees another sticking point in negotiations between Baku and Yerevan in the delimitation and demarcation of the border, as well as the issue of Azerbaijani and Armenian exclaves. Authorities in Armenia have been deliberately delaying the conclusion of a peace agreement, Fenenko argues. First of all, Yerevan fears a repeat of the fate of the post-Soviet republic’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was overthrown in 1997 by the Karabakh clan, led by Robert Kocharyan, for his readiness to compromise in negotiations with Azerbaijan. "Revanchist sentiments are quite strong in Armenian society and there is a demand for a strong opposition leader capable of restoring the nation’s military power. Pashinyan has to reckon with this, and therefore Yerevan somehow holds the keys to the settlement of the conflict," the expert concluded.
Despite the thicket of anti-Russian sanctions, Russia counted among the EU’s ten largest trade partners in the first three months of 2023, the Russian Permanent Mission to the EU told Izvestia. In value terms, Russian exports to the EU market grew by 24.3% to 203.4 billion euros. However, exports of European goods to Russia declined by 38.1% to 55.2 billion euros. For comparison: in the pre-sanction year of 2021, Russia-EU trade stood at 247.8 billion euros.
"As we expected, a tangible decline in trade between the EU and Russia occurred in the first quarter of 2023, as the delayed effect of the EU sanctions on key Russian exports began to manifest itself more acutely," the mission said. "Due to a sharp decline in trade in January-March 2023, our country sank to ninth place among the EU’s largest counterparties," it added.
Members of the European Parliament interviewed by Izvestia acknowledged that Russia has weathered the storm of strong sanctions pressure from the West, despite Brussels’ intention to strike a major blow to the Russian economy. German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Gunnar Beck said inflation in Russia continued to fall, going from 17.1% last May to 2.3% in April 2023. Thierry Mariani, a French MEP, said that France has fared no better, as the country is experiencing inflation at high levels, especially in energy and food prices.
"In mathematical terms, it is objectively difficult to assess the losses incurred by the EU as a result of the sanctions pressure on our country," the Russian Permanent Mission in Brussels said. "But, then, the European institutions which were behind the introduction of anti-Russian restrictions do not need this analysis. Their task has been to weaken Russia’s industrial and export potential at any cost, no matter how high the associated costs for the economies of the member countries, or for local businesses and consumers of Russian products would be," the mission concluded.
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