MOSCOW, December 1. /TASS/. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s traditional televised Q&A session will be combined with his annual press conference on December 14; the Russian Supreme Court has designated the international LGBT movement as extremist; and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is attending an OSCE meeting in North Macedonia, his first visit to a NATO member country since 2022. These stories topped Friday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to focus primarily on the course of the special military operation in Ukraine, economic sanctions, labor market concerns and the consolidation of Russian society during his traditional televised call-in Q&A program, Direct Line, which is to be combined with the head of state’s annual press conference, according to experts interviewed by Izvestia.The Kremlin announced on Thursday that the combined event has been scheduled for December 14, while the presidential staff will start gathering questions for Putin posed by ordinary citizens from across Russia already today. This year’s presidential Q&A session and press conference will be the first since Russia launched its special op in Ukraine.
Putin will personally select the questions that he will field during the Q&A session, said Mikhail Kuznetsov, head of the executive committee of the People’s Front organization. "Certainly, questions about the special military operation, particularly concerning the timeframe for its conclusion, will be paramount, together with questions about [anti-Russian] sanctions and the development of [Russia’s] domestic market, especially labor market shortages and the related issue of bringing in immigrant workers," Pavel Danilin, director of the Center for Political Analysis and Social Research, noted. In addition, some questions may be focused on the upcoming presidential election in 2024, he added.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, is expected to officially announce the start of the presidential election campaign on December 13, on the eve of Putin’s Q&A session. Experts interviewed by Izvestia declined to make predictions on whether Putin may announce his intention to run for another term on December 14, although they did concede that such an announcement by Putin is within the realm of possibility.
According to Oleg Lyakhovenko, senior researcher in the Political Science Department at Lomonosov Moscow State University, a large portion of questions will be devoted to social issues, with demographic concerns to feature high on the agenda. As well, Putin is likely to field questions on the Russian economy’s recent performance and the achievements of the government’s economic policies in the face of Western sanctions pressure and outlays for the special military operation.
Gleb Kuznetsov, head of the expert council at the Social Research Expert Institute (EISI), agrees. He, too, expects that Putin will mostly dwell on the political situation both in Russia and globally as well as the effects of economic sanctions. Finally, he added, social issues and Russia’s system of guiding core values are certain to receive healthy attention from the Russian leader.
The Russian Supreme Court has ruled to prohibit the activities of the international LGBT movement, which does not formally exist in Russia, as extremist. Although the Justice Ministry, which initiated the relevant legal action, had identified signs of incitement of social and religious hatred in the movement’s activities, it did not clarify them publicly, as the court hearings were held behind closed doors.
Vladimir Voronin, managing partner of the Altavista law firm, commented that the Supreme Court has outlawed the "international LGBT public movement" but "without giving a clear-cut legal definition of what is meant by the term." "There are no specific indicators of [an individual] belonging to the banned community given that no such LGBT organization exists in a [purely] legal sense," he said. Therefore, according to him, law enforcement agencies may feel free to adopt "a broad interpretation of the law." Hence, "any manifestation of a sexual orientation that they deem non-traditional, including using certain symbols or wearing ‘rainbow-colored’ clothing, may be equated with engaging in extremist activities," he maintained.
As the text of the court ruling will not be published, "we will not be able to find out exactly what activities the court considered extremist," Maxim Olenichev, an LGBT rights lawyer, told Kommersant. Constitutional law expert Ivan Brikulsky concurs. Without access to the court’s arguments, it will be impossible to gain a clear understanding of "what exactly comes under the restrictions: participation in the movement; a given individual’s public sexual self-identification; or simply posting rainbow flags on social media," he said.
Brikulsky expressed concern that the rights of individuals who do not identify with the LGBT movement may also be restricted based on the formal criteria of the court ruling, which, he says, "may negatively affect an unlimited number of citizens." "Sooner or later, this issue must be taken before the Russian Constitutional Court, which has repeatedly stressed that the government may not interfere in issues of sexual autonomy or sexual self-identification," he concluded.
The meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is taking place in Skopje, North Macedonia, on November 30-December 1, is being attended by a Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The meeting marks the first time Russia’s top diplomat has taken part in an event hosted by a NATO country since February 2022. However, in light of the arrival of the Russian delegation, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia decided to boycott the OSCE summit.
On Thursday, Lavrov held a number of bilateral meetings in Skopje. At a meeting with his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Szijjarto, Lavrov "synchronized watches" on bilateral cooperation and the implementation of agreements reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Beijing on October 17. Later in the day, Lavrov also met with Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. He also held talks with Ararat Mirzoyan, his counterpart from Armenia, which is not an EU member country, and Murat Nurtleu, foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Kazakhstan, Russia’s ally in the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). With the latter, Lavrov discussed bilateral cooperation within international venues, including the OSCE, and the results of Putin’s visit to Astana in early November.
The very fact that Lavrov is visiting and that he has held talks with his Hungarian and Austrian counterparts shows that rejecting dialogue as a means of Western diplomacy has proven to be a non-viable approach, Artyom Sokolov, a researcher with the Institute for International Studies at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), told Vedomosti. Individual Western countries showed their readiness to revive communication, he noted, "even though it’s difficult to say that the OSCE has been effective in ensuring security in Europe."
Although Lavrov described the state of the OSCE on November 30 as deplorable and its prospects as vague, the organization remains one of the few bodies that still unites all European countries and Russia, Andrey Kortunov, research director at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Vedomosti. "If member countries exhibit the necessary political will, the OSCE could evolve into the format in which its predecessor (the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) functioned for 15 years during the Cold War era. There are prerequisites for that, as nobody is seeking an uncontrolled escalation, while increasingly more players have been showing an interest in maintaining channels of communication," the expert concluded.
Russia will be ready to restrict the movement of European Union diplomats if Brussels takes such a step against Russian diplomatic staff, Russian Federation Council member (senator) Vladimir Chizhov, said. In an interview with Izvestia, Chizhov, who serves as first deputy chairman of the Federation Council (or upper house of parliament) and was previously Russian permanent representative to the European Union, said that Russia would retaliate quickly.
The senior Russian senator called Finland’s latest move to close all crossings on the border with Russia "a shot in the foot," as he expressed his hope that this "frenzy" would end soon.
According to Chizhov, the EU, which already has 27 countries as its members, although, he said, it was designed as a narrower bloc, would hardly be able to expand anytime soon. "I doubt that it may do so soon, even though there are some countries in line [to join the bloc]. But the current EU cannot expand. Reform is needed for it to become more effective, and then it will be possible to discuss [any expansion]," he maintained.
However, Russia is cautious about the latest attempts on the part of Brussels to admit certain Balkan states as members, Chizhov said.
Commenting on whether he thinks relations between Russia and the EU may improve in the future, Chizhov said: "I no longer hope that under its current leadership the EU can [improve ties with Russia]. But I can say that the EU awaits changes next year," as he pointed to the recent centrifugal trends and the inability by supranational agencies to reconcile differences.
Media: OPEC+ agrees on deeper oil output cuts
At a meeting on Thursday, Saudi Arabia persuaded its OPEC+ allies to volunteer to make additional oil-supply cuts in the first quarter of 2024 alongside their official quotas. As a result, six oil producers will curb their oil production by 700,000 barrels per day (bpd), while Russia will lower the export of its petroleum products by 200,000 bpd. That reduction comes alongside Saudi Arabia’s voluntary pledge to extend its unilateral cut of 1 mln bpd for another three months through the first quarter.
The reduction announced by OPEC+ exceeded market expectations, Ronald Smith, a senior analyst at BCS World of Investments, told Vedomosti. According to him, the Saudis volunteered such a major cut as they might have seen something in global demand figures. "Riyadh is well aware of how things stand with the balance of oil demand and supply globally, perhaps, better than any other market player, and the fact that the country took such an extreme step makes one wonder what statistics the kingdom has reacted to," the analyst said.
Igor Yushkov, leading analyst at the National Energy Security Fund, sees global uncertainties. China may lower its oil imports, he said, citing IAE estimates, while Europe, where deindustrialization is currently underway, is on the brink of recession. All this may cause oil prices to fall, and against this drop, Yushkov said, Saudi Arabia may be seeking to err on the side of caution.
While Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak explained that Russia’s 200,000 bpd cut will mostly come at the expense of oil products, Russia mostly exports seaborne diesel fuel, naphtha and fuel oil, so experts interviewed by Kommersant do not expect any reduction in Russian oil refinery volumes.
"Given the nuances of the voluntary agreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia, the two countries will hardly reduce their production from the September-November volumes," Viktor Katona at Kpler told Kommersant. To him, the main result of the latest OPEC+ deal for Russia is that oil volumes will be redistributed in favor of the domestic market.
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