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Press review: Afghan talks and Rosneft becomes Russia's largest independent gas producer

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, February 16

Kommersant: Serbia’s presidential race may replace Russian ally with pro-EU premier

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is expected to be confirmed on Friday as the candidate of Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party for the April presidential elections. The decision seriously undermines the plans for the country’s President Tomislav Nikolic, who was expected to run for a second term after securing Russia’s support, Kommersant writes. If Vucic wins the bid for the presidency, Serbia’s alignment towards the European Union will escalate. However, Moscow may expect some compensation, the paper says.

The premier’s plans to run for president were expected: today he is the most influential and popular politician in Serbia. Belgrade’s analyst Vladimir Vuletich told the paper that Vucic is expected to be victorious in the first round. The politician earlier said that his key foreign policy goal is integrating Serbia into the EU along with maintaining good relations with Russia. However, over the past months, Belgrade has come under fire from Brussels over Serbian politicians’ radical rhetoric towards neighbors, the paper writes.

The latest such example was the recent worsening in Serbia’s relations with Kosovo, which could have deteriorated into an armed conflict. Nikolic even threatened to deploy forces to the former province, but only the EU’s interference and a reserved stance by the Serbian PM stopped the potential confrontation. After becoming president, Vucic will be able to keep foreign policy under his control, avoiding the current collisions in the republic’s leadership, according to the paper.

Another important issue is who will replace Vucic as the country’s prime minister. The Belgrade-based Blic newspaper writes that Ivica Dacic, who is Serbia’s foreign minister and the leader of the Socialist Party, is the key candidate. This scenario, according to journalists, would strengthen the ruling coalition’s unity. It is noteworthy that Dacic is considered to be a pro-Russian politician and if he becomes prime minister, this would compensate Moscow for the departure of the current Serbian president, Kommersant writes.


Izvestia: Rosneft emerges as Russia’s largest independent gas producer

Rosneft has become the country’s leading independent gas producer, for the first time outperforming Novatek in terms of production volume, the company said in its report for 2016 obtained by Izvestia. The oil giant achieved this outcome four years earlier than expected thanks to its launch of new deposits. Gazprom’s market monopoly served as the driving force, which motivated Rosneft to become more resourceful, experts say.

Rosneft’s gas output grew 7.3% last year to 67.1 bln cu m. Production by Novatek, Russia’s largest private gas company owned by the country’s richest man Leonid Mikhelson, reached 66.1 bln cu m in 2016.

Gazprom, the largest company on the gas market, produced 419 bln cu m of gas last year. Other gas companies are traditionally called independent and Rosneft was the biggest producer among them, owing its success to the launch of its new deposits - Chayvo on the shelf of the Sakhalin Island and Khadyryahinskoye in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region.

Dmitry Lukashov, an analyst at IFC Markets, told the paper that Novatek gave up its leading position, as the company is now investing funds it its largest project - the Yamal LNG rather than in production, which had slightly decreased last year.


Izvestia: US plans to beef up military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq

US President Trump’s administration intends to send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, sources in the US Republican Party told Izvestia. Several thousand servicemen may be deployed there in the coming months, they said. The plans were confirmed by high-ranking sources in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leading US military officials called for an increase in troops to these countries and the new Defense Secretary Jim Mattis backs this plan, the paper said.

Franz Klintsevich, a member of Russia’s Federation Council Defense Committee, told Izvestia that the surge in the US contingent is a fully expected scenario and it will be implemented. "If US troops enter some territory, they never leave it. Iraq and Afghanistan are key countries in geopolitical terms. The US presence there may exert significant influence on many developments in the region," the senator explained.

Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told the paper that Baghdad is mostly interested in additional training for its security forces by US specialists. "Today, advisers and instructors from the US and also other members of the international coalition fighting against the IS (terrorist group, outlawed in Russia) are operating in Iraq."

"The US contingent in Iraq and Afghanistan will gradually increase," President of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov said. "The US military won’t fully leave these countries since they have a huge influence on the development of situation in Eurasia." "At a meeting with the CIA’s leadership, Donald Trump harshly criticized Obama’s decision on withdrawing forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s why the new administration will gradually boost military contingents to these countries," he said.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Moscow steps in as mediator in Afghan crisis

Moscow hosted a six-nation meeting on settling the Afghan crisis on Wednesday, bringing together representatives from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, India and Iran. This is not Moscow’s first attempt to boost its diplomacy with the goal of bringing an end to the bloodshed in Afghanistan, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

In late 2016, consultations were held between Russia, China and Pakistan. This stirred up discontent in Kabul and New Delhi, while Washington accused Russia of supporting the Taliban. Given this criticism, Russia’s Foreign Ministry convened a conference in a broader format inviting regional actors, the paper writes.

Director of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA), Omar Nessar, said the latest round of talks may boost chances for success. "One of the key factors in the Afghan crisis is the contradiction between the neighboring countries. Approaches to the issue by Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India differ. They could not find common ground, or develop a common stance. There is hope that these talks may help bring their positions closer." However, the attempt to create a sort of a regional alliance may be opposed by Western partners who interpert these moves as a challenge to their leading role, he said.

Western mass media reports stated that Russia planned to provide assistance to the Taliban, but this was an attempt to rein in Moscow’s growing influence on Kabul. "There was no such assistance," the expert said.

After Donald Trump took office, Russia eased its stance by inviting Kabul to the talks. "I think this is a signal to Trump calling for an agreement on the Afghan issue," he stressed.


RBC: Chinese company plans to sell ‘drink of diplomacy’ to Russia

China’s Kweichow Moutai Co., which owns the world’s most expensive alcohol brand, plans to sell up to 150,000 bottles of Moutai to Russia in 2017, Director General of the company’s Russian branch, Natalya Rytova, told RBC. The price tag for half-liter of Moutai, a strong clear liquor served at diplomatic parties, will be at least 17,000 rubles (around $300).

The Chinese beverage producer demonstrated interest in the Russian market back in 2015, but "only now can we talk about a genuine entry into the market," she stated. Moutai will be sold in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and talks are also underway with the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, the Far East and Siberian regions.

Kweichow Moutai Co. exports its products to more than 100 countries. Moutai tastes like vodka, but has a specific aroma. The beverage is distilled from grains of wheat and sorghum. The most expensive liquor is aged up to 80 years and the price tag can go as high as $2,000 per bottle.

During Mao Zedong’s rule, Moutai was the official drink at government parties in Beijing and abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin also did "some advertising" for the beverage in 2014 during a press conference with foreign journalists, according to the paper.

However, experts in the alcohol market interviewed by RBC have expressed doubt that China’s diplomatic beverage will be in demand among Russian consumers. Well-known marketing specialist, Stanislav Kaufman, creator of the Putinka vodka brand, said Moutai will be mostly popular among Chinese businessmen in Russia as their number is growing.


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