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Press review: Chinese envoy sees consensus on Ukraine talks and Israel plans post-war Gaza

Top stories from the Russian press on Monday, April 1st
Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui Mikhail Metzel/TASS
Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui
© Mikhail Metzel/TASS

MOSCOW, April 1. /TASS/. Beijing’s ambassador to Moscow has underscored that a consensus exists on the need for peace talks as the only viable path to settling the Ukrainian conflict; Israel is considering a potential framework for a future, post-conflict Palestinian enclave; and Romania and Bulgaria partially join the Schengen visa-free zone 17 years after joining the EU. These stories topped Monday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.


Izvestia: Consensus sees peace in Ukraine only via negotiations — Chinese envoy to Russia

While sharp differences continue to exist in the positions of the parties to the Ukraine conflict, everyone agrees that peace will ultimately be achieved through negotiations, Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui said in an interview with Izvestia. He stressed that China supports convening an international conference in which all parties, including Russia, would participate equally. Zhang also covered Beijing’s priorities of support for expanded economic cooperation with Russia and the future development of BRICS.

"Two years have passed since the Ukraine crisis escalated, and now that the fighting is dragging on, the most urgent task is to restore peace. Over the past two years, China has maintained close contacts with a number of countries, including Russia and Ukraine, to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis," he said, stressing that, "China supports the timely convening of an international peace conference with the approval of both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, with the equal participation of all parties and honest discussion of all options for a peace plan. China is willing to continue to play its unique role in promoting a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis."

Speaking about the status of Taiwan, the ambassador noted, "Russia has always firmly adhered to the One China principle on the Taiwan issue, which China highly appreciates."

In turn, the expansion of BRICS membership "reflects the group's determination to cooperate with a large number of developing countries, meets the expectations of the international community and serves the common interests of emerging market and developing countries," he noted.

"China will actively support the Russian [BRICS] chairmanship in 2024, and is also ready to work with all parties to maintain the spirit of BRICS," Zhang said.

"Under the strategic leadership of the two heads of state, China-Russia trade and economic cooperation has been moving forward in recent years, demonstrating strong stability and complementarity," the ambassador said, commenting on the status of bilateral economic cooperation. "Bilateral trade is growing at a rapid pace. In 2023, trade turnover grew by 26.3% year-on-year to $240.11 bln, ahead of schedule and exceeding the target set by the leaders. China has maintained its position as Russia's main trading partner for 14 years in a row, and Russia has become China's eighth-largest trading partner," he added.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Potential outline of future post-conflict Palestinian enclave emerges

Negotiations between Israel and Hamas, suspended a week ago, resumed on Sunday, March 31. The upcoming visit of an Israeli government delegation to Washington can also be seen as a part of this negotiation process. The fate of those sections of the Gaza Strip still under the control of Hamas will be discussed, as well as the plan for the post-war organization of the enclave, which was announced in general terms in the media on Saturday. It was reportedly presented to the United States by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. In particular, the plan includes the deployment of military personnel from three Arab countries in the Gaza Strip.

Axios reported, citing two Israeli officials, that Galant, during his recent visit to Washington, proposed a plan to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip. The plan calls for the US to build a temporary port in Gaza, which would be used to deliver humanitarian aid to the enclave. At the same time, Gallant and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin explicitly stipulated that construction of the port would be carried out by civilians and not US military personnel. For a certain transitional period, protection of the port and aid convoys, as well as the enclave’s security, will be handled by international forces, including troops from the three Arab countries.

The Axios report did not specify which countries would participate in the peacekeeping mission. However, Israel can only allow troops into the region from countries with which it has diplomatic relations, which could mean that military personnel only from Egypt, Jordan, or one of the signatories to the Abraham Accords would be deployed to the enclave, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

Lyudmila Samarskaya, researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO RAS), told the newspaper that in any case there is no plan for a post-war arrangement that suits everyone, and it is still very difficult to say whether an agreement will be reached between Hamas and Israel. "These negotiations lasted throughout March. At times it seemed that an agreement was close, but then everything fell through. For the time being, we can say that Israel is generally aiming for a military operation in Rafah. If it is possible to achieve the removal of Hamas from the city without [such] an operation, then it will not happen, but as far as I understand, this is unlikely," she said.


Vedomosti: Baku threatens decisive response to deployment of Armenian troops to border

Armenia is moving military equipment, artillery installations and personnel to its border with Azerbaijan, but Baku will respond firmly to any provocation, the press service of the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry reported on March 31. The day before, Armenian Telegram channels published footage of the alleged movement of Armenian forces to the border near the village of Yeraskh in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, which Yerevan denied, Vedomosti writes.

Armenia is trying to kill two birds with one stone by moving its armed forces to the border with Azerbaijan, Niyazi Niyazov, doctor of historical sciences and Azerbaijani expert on the military security of the South Caucasus countries, told the newspaper. On the one hand, the Armenian authorities are trying to convince the public of the need to return the Azerbaijani settlements by playing on fears of a resumption of hostilities with Baku. On the other hand, Yerevan is trying to gain military and financial support from Western countries by capitalizing on the threat of a new war, the expert added.

Tensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border occur from time to time when Yerevan tries to sabotage any agreements with Baku, according to Stanislav Pritchin, senior researcher at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO RAS). Although the Armenian authorities’ have shown rhetorically they are ready to conclude a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, in reality the parties have not even come close to this prospect, he added.

"The occupied villages on both sides [of the border] are the stumbling block in the issue of border demarcation. Although the parties have held several meetings to resolve this issue, these negotiations have taken place without any specific results. The demarcation process has not even started, and there are no guarantees that it will begin in the near future," the expert told Vedomosti.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Romania, Bulgaria partially join EU’s visa-free Schengen zone

On March 31, a historic event took place for Bulgaria and Romania as both countries officially joined the Schengen visa-free travel agreement. The citizens of both Balkan countries, 17 years after joining the European Union, are expected to have all the rights of EU members in the future; for now border controls have been removed only at entry and exit points for air and water travel. Removing them at Romania and Bulgaria’s land borders with other EU countries, however, will require a decision of the European Council, the timing of which is not yet clear. As for Russian travelers, it will most likely now be more difficult for them to enter Romania and Bulgaria than before, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Comments in the Romanian and Bulgarian press are not enthusiastic, however, noting that only the most difficult obstacle has been overcome, namely opposition from Austria, as Vienna has been the most consistent opponent of full Schengen membership for Bucharest and Sofia, and for a long time blocked the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen zone, fearing that this would lead to a massive influx of illegal immigrants. The measures taken by Bucharest and Sofia to combat illegal immigration were considered insufficient in Vienna. "Austria and the Netherlands, and a little earlier Finland, were against the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen zone, mainly because of problems with corruption in the two countries. Therefore, Romanians and Bulgarians have to go through a number of transitional stages before joining Schengen," Lyudmila Babynina, head of the Center for Political Integration of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the newspaper.

Until last year, the only thing Bulgaria and Romania were able to achieve was a visa-free regime with the EU in 2014 and the removal of all restrictions on their citizens' employment in the European Union.

In theory, citizens of third countries outside the EU should also benefit, but probably not Russians. In order to enter Bulgaria and Romania, a Schengen visa is currently needed, which is subject to stricter requirements. In addition, Russian citizens will no longer be able to enter these two EU countries with a Cypriot visa, as was previously the case.


Izvestia: Cross-border trade forex flows to impact second quarter ruble exchange rate

The ruble exchange rate has been quite stable since the beginning of the year, and at the end of the quarter fluctuations in it were close to zero. In recent weeks, however, the Russian currency has weakened noticeably against foreign currencies, especially against the dollar; since March 7, the dollar has added more than 2%, which happened despite the current tax period, as tax receipts serve to normally support the national currency. Foreign exchange flows from foreign trade activity will be the decisive factor in the future of the ruble rate, experts told Izvestia.

"We expect that the ruble will continue to trade near current levels in the coming quarter at 92-93 per dollar. In April the government is likely to announce a decision to extend the standards for mandatory sales of exporters' foreign exchange earnings, and the Central Bank will continue to conduct large sales of foreign currency at least until the end of this half year. In addition, the government recently revised the maximum allowable discount on the Urals oil for tax purposes, which means that oil and gas budget revenues will decrease, as well as currency purchases by the Ministry of Finance," BCS Forex analyst Anatoly Trifonov told the newspaper.

According to Mikhail Altynov, investment director at Peter Trust Investment Company, "inflation will not decrease as expected. In addition, we can note a decline in export revenues due to sanctions and a possible decrease in oil production - all of which are negative for the ruble." "The rate in mid-2024 is quite capable of approaching or exceeding 100 rubles per dollar," he said.

"The future of the ruble until the end of the first half of 2024 will be determined by currency flows from foreign economic activity. We believe that by the end of June the ruble will reach 93-97 rubles per dollar, 100-102 rubles per euro, and 13.3-13.6 rubles per yuan," Digital Broker lead analyst Daniil Bolotskikh told the newspaper.

"Our forecast for the dollar exchange rate until the end of the second quarter is in the range of 91-95 rubles. However, in the second half of 2024, the Russian currency will likely begin to weaken again and end the year at about 98-102 rubles to the dollar against the backdrop of rising government spending and continued sanctions pressure on Russia," Alexander Potavin, analyst at Finam Financial Group, told Izvestia.

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