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Press review: Turkey’s imminent assault on Syrian Kurds and Gagarin’s bust in Palestine

Top stories in the Russian press on Tuesday


Kommersant: Turkey gearing up for military operation against Syrian Kurds

The Turkish army is beefing up its presence on the border with Syria, deploying military equipment to the area and shelling the Kurdish Self-Defense Forces in the north of the war-torn country, Kommersant writes. Military preparations on Syria’s border began after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put forward an ultimatum to the Kurds: either leave their positions within a week or be prepared for an operation to eliminate them.

"The Syrian Kurds are backed by the United States. During the war in Syria, it provided weapons, including armored vehicles, artillery and mortars, to the Kurds. In the event of large-scale hostilities in northern Syria, the Turkish army will face a carnage rather than a cakewalk," Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told the paper.

The experts interviewed by Kommersant stressed that President Erdogan’s plan is a continuation of his consistent and tough policy towards the Syrian Kurds, while none of the external players have any real leverage to make Ankara abandon it.

"One of Erdogan’s conditions while joining the alliance with Russia on Syria was the demand that Moscow give up support for Syrian Kurds. Ankara also insisted that Moscow should not admit the possibility of establishing a Kurdish state in official statements. In light of that, the most Russia could do in case of a new Turkish operation is to express concern about Ankara’s actions and warn that such steps can freeze the peace process in Syria," Andey Fyodorov, Director of the Center for Political Studies, explained in an interview with the paper.

Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, likewise believes Russia’s ability to influence the situation is limited. "The Kurdish issue has every chance of becoming the most difficult one for Russian-Turkish relations, even more difficult than the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," he said.

Director of the Russia-East-West Center for Strategic Analysis Vladimir Sotnikov is even more skeptical. "Turkey is actually taking the first step towards divvying up Syria into the leading players’ areas of influence, which can effectively bury any plans to launch a peace process, or preserve an independent single Syrian state," he said in an interview with Kommersant.


Izvestia: Yuri Gagarin bust to be unveiled in Palestine

A bust of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, will appear in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. The solemn ceremony to unveil the bronze statue attended by politicians and religious personalities will take place on January 19, Irina Shamgunova, a spokesperson for the Dialogue of Cultures - United World international foundation told Izvestia.

"The goal of our projects is bringing together people of different cultures. The first person who travelled to outer space is known perhaps in every corner of the globe. His personality is the embodiment of human ideals and a symbol of serving the people," she said.

"It is a great honor for the Palestinians to have a monument dedicated to him (Gagarin) on their soil. This testifies to the attention Russia gives to Palestine," said Daud Matar, a representative of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society, said talking to Izvestia.

Deputy Chairman of the Association of the Russian-Palestinian Friendship and lecturer at the Al-Quds Open University in Ramallah, Mohammed Assad al-Eveivi, expressed confidence that unveiling a monument dedicated to Yuri Gagarin who ushered in a new era in space exploration will help bolster cultural ties between the two countries. "Bethlehem is a city that is of special importance to Russia. It accommodates a number of organizations, which promote the development of bilateral ties, including the Russian Science and Culture Center," the Palestinian public figure noted.

The Dialogue of Cultures - United World international foundation implements its projects with the support from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Council of Young Diplomats together with the Bethlehem branch of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society (the oldest non-governmental organization in Russia established in 1882 by a decree of Emperor Alexander III) and the Russian Political Science Association.

The foundation supported by UNESCO, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Culture has implemented more than 500 projects in 50 countries since it was set up in 2005.


Kommersant: North Korea’s fate discussed at ‘coalition of the willing’ in Vancouver

The second day of a summit between top diplomats focusing on security and stability on the Korean Peninsula is beginning in Vancouver on Tuesday. The event is attended by those countries that fought against North Korea in 1950-1953. The participants are expected to discuss new steps to crank up pressure on North Korea, the key one being organizing a naval blockade of the country without the relevant UN Security Council resolution, Kommersant writes.

Representatives of 16 countries, including Colombia, Ethiopia and Greece, came to Vancouver to demonstrate "international unity." China and Russia, which were not invited to the meeting, condemned it arguing that it could derail the emerging inter-Korean rapprochement ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

According to Georgy Toloraya, Professor of MGIMO University and Director of Asian Strategy Center at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, due to a thaw that is emerging in the inter-Korean relations, the meeting in Vancouver looks "strange and counterproductive." "There is every likelihood that that is seen by the United States as a step towards forging a ‘coalition of the willing’ to step up pressure," he stressed. "After the situation with Jerusalem (in December, 14 out of 15 UN Security Council member-countries voted against the decision to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem) the United States seems to have given up the hope of tightening sanctions against North Korea through the UN."

The meeting is being held behind closed doors, but some facts indicate that arranging North Korea’s naval blockade will be the chief tool to expand the sanctions pressure on Pyongyang.

According to Andrea Berger, Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Washington has repeatedly examined the opinion of other UN Security Council members on a draft resolution that would actually authorize the US Navy and Air Force to intercept any North Korean vessels suspected of transporting prohibited goods, contrary to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The resolution has not been passed, and it cannot be ruled out that this time the US will try to have its own way at least among its allies.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US State Department blackballs Uzbekistan as religious rights ‘violator’

Tashkent is perplexed by a statement made by the US Department of State, which accuses Uzbekistan of systematically violating its citizens’ religious freedoms. Bekhzod Kadyrov, an adviser to the chairman of the Committee on Religious Affairs at Uzbekistan’s Cabinet, said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the State Department jumped to conclusions, since the list of "violators" is published after the annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, due to be presented in April, has been made public.

Earlier this month, the US Department of State published a list of countries involved in what it described as flagrant violations of religious freedoms. The list includes three post-Soviet republics - Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Tashkent strongly disagreed with this assessment, as the situation in the religious sphere has improved by leaps and bounds over the past year.

When asked whether Uzbekistan is facing Islamization and radicalization, Kadyrov said that the current religious policy is based precisely on protecting people from extremist ideas. "The weakest spot is young people. To protect them from extremism, we need an idea, that is, enlightenment. Special attention should be given to labor migrants working in Russia and Kazakhstan who are susceptible to extremists’ influence. Losing part of the younger generation is inadmissible," he stressed.

According to Zurab Todua, an ex-Moldovan MP and an expert on post-Russian space, Uzbekistan has far-reaching experience in fighting religious extremists. "In the late 1990s, when the West, which had not yet encountered the September 11 terror attacks, was indulging in wishful thinking, Tashkent already went through clashes with extremists who were mulling the creation of the Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia. Taking into account Uzbekistan’s experience and its tough and consistent policy regarding radical Islamic groups, I see no internal preconditions for any problems in this area. They can emerge from the outside, if, for one, we assume that after the defeat of extremist groups in Syria, they withdraw their remaining units to those districts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are uncontrolled by the central governments. In that case, after regrouping their forces, extremists could set their eyes on northern areas, on Central Asia," the expert told the paper.

According to official data, 94% of Uzbekistan’s population profess Islam, 3.5% of its citizens are Orthodox Christians, while the rest of the population belong to other religious denominations.


Vedomosti: Russians open wallets wider for foreign trips

The number of foreign tourists around the world grew 7% in 2017 reaching 1.34 bln people, according to data provided by the World Tourism Organization. One of the reasons for that is Russians’ growing demand for tourism services. That happened due to the overhaul of the Russian economy and the strengthening ruble, the organization’s spokesman informed Vedomosti.

According to Russia’s Federal Statistics Service, outbound tourism in the country grew 27% from January to September 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

Russian tourists began to spend more, according to some indirect signs, said General Director of Pegas Touristik, Anna Podgornaya. They order more excursions and show bigger interest in shopping. She noted that the trend to travel twice a year is gradually returning now. Tourists more often combine vacations in Russia and abroad, but some of them opt for trips abroad only.

Early booking for the summer of 2018 has been going on successfully, according to Sergey Tolchin, Deputy Director of Intourist, with sales growing manifold. The most popular destinations for this coming summer are Turkey, Tunisia, Russia, Spain and Greece, Anna Podgornaya added.


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