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Press review: US peddles more Russia meddling tales and Moscow beefs up military on Kurils

Top stories in the Russian press on Friday
Kuril Island of Iturup  Vladimir Sergeev/TASS
Kuril Island of Iturup
© Vladimir Sergeev/TASS

Kommersant: Mexican election ‘interference’ accusations hurled at Russia

US lawmakers once again are gripped by baseless fears of Russia allegedly planning to ‘meddle’ in the upcoming elections in Mexico and Colombia. US Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez asked US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as he headed off to Latin America to meet his counterpart, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso, to raise the issue of ‘Russian interference’ there. Experts say talk about the Kremlin backing one of the candidates is unsubstantiated. Victor Kheifets of Saint Petersburg State University, who specializes in Latin America, told Kommersant that such accusations have no rationality.

"We have trade interests in Mexico, but trade interests do not require meddling. The trade turnover is smaller than it could be, but this is not connected with a particular government in Mexico, it simply happened that way. Political reasons are needed for involvement, but they do not exist," he said.

Earlier US Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez urged Rex Tillerson to assume steps to deter alleged Russian interference in the upcoming presidential election in Mexico. In a letter addressed to Secretary of State, they wrote that Russia is reportedly using sophisticated technology to meddle in Mexico’s election. The issue is about Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a candidate considered as a front-runner for the July 1 election. Experts in Mexico told Kommersant that the accusations against Moscow are first of all directed against the candidate himself, since he is on track to take a 32% share of votes. A similar strategy was used against Obrador in 2006 when he ran for presidency for the first time. Back then, rumors swirled that then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sponsored his campaign, though this claim had no obvious evidence, the newspaper says. Experts interviewed by Kommersant also say that the majority of Mexicans do not take these accusations against Russia seriously.


Kommersant: Russia beefs up military presence on Kuril Islands

The Russian government has given the Defense Ministry the green light to use the airfield on the Kuril Island of Iturup to deploy combat jets, Kommersant writes citing a decree signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on January 30. A military source told the publication that the move does not mean the deployment of combat aviation in the area on a perpetual basis. "But this measure demonstrates that the airfield is prepared for any deployment of fighter aircraft to monitor (the nation’s) borders."

The Kuril Islands have remained a sticking point between Russia and Japan since the end of World War II when they were handed over to the Soviet Union. However, Japan has laid claims to the four southern islands, with Iturup among them. Since then the two neighbors have been holding consultations in order to reach a peace treaty. The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated many times that the country’s sovereignty over the islands is beyond any doubt. Last February Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that his ministry planned to deploy new divisions to the area as part of efforts to protect the Kuril Islands. After that, Japan issued a protest to Russia over the plans.

A source in Tokyo told Kommersant that the reaction of the country’s leadership to the recent move is expected to be moderately negative. "This is sad, of course, but is it no big surprise that the Kuril Islands are being militarized. If we manage to balance the militarization with the some progress on joint economic activities, both sides will be satisfied," he said, adding though that Russia’s recent actions might also be a follow-up on tougher positions. "We think this may result in Russian strengthening its military force on the four islands, which contradicts Japan’s stance," a source in the Japanese embassy in Moscow told the paper. "We assume that it is necessary to solve the territorial issue itself for tackling this problem. We will continue our work on talks with Russia in order to reach a peace treaty by solving the issue of those islands’ identity," the source said.


Izvestia: Russian religious delegation to visit Syria, Lebanon in February

A delegation of the Interreligious Working Group of the Russian Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Communities plans to visit Lebanon and Syria on February 3-9 to provide humanitarian assistance to locals in those countries, Izvestia writes on Friday. The paper cites the Moscow Patriarchate’s Secretary for inter-Christian relations Stephan (Igumnov).

"We are going to visit Syria and Lebanon to meet leaders of Christian and Moslem communities. "A huge batch of humanitarian aid, including products for people in need will be distributed in both countries. Packages containing flour, grits, sugar, canned fish and meat, vegetable oil and other products will be distributed among most needy people regardless of their religious identity," he said. This is going to be an unprecedented trip, as "no such visits to Syria by representatives of Christian and Moslem confessions have been paid so far," he added.

Currently around 14 million civilians are stranded in Syria, and 5.5 mln people have been forced to leave the country, fleeing primarily to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, according to the information provided by the United Nations in late December 2017. Another six million of those who left their homes, still remain on Syrian soil. President of the Russian Institute of Religion and Politics Alexander Ignatenko believes that the visit by religions figures representing various confessions will play an important role in stabilizing Syria. "This is a multi-religious and multi-confessional country. Part of the problem is rooted in contradictions between followers of various religious movements," he told Izvestia. According to the expert, the upcoming visit will demonstrate that Russia may be some sort of a model, on the one hand, providing a helping hand to all regardless of religious identity, and on the other hand, showing that representatives of various religions may live in peace, cooperation and build a better future.


RBC: VTB buys EBRD loan for St. Petersburg highway

As part of its strategy to dump Russia-based assets due to sanctions, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has sold the rights on a loan to construct the Western High-Speed Diameter in St. Petersburg in 2012, RBC says citing a source in the government’s financial and economic bloc. "This is a mutually beneficial transaction for the EBRD and Russia," Russia’s representative at the EBRD's Board of Directors Denis Morozov told the newspaper. "It is a great asset, the biggest and safest one in the EBRD’s Russian loan portfolio, which is backed by future money flows from the project that has already been put into service," he added. The central section of the Western High-Speed Diameter spanning around 12 kilometers was launched in late 2016. The 12-year loan worth 194 mln euro was extended in 2012.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in which Russia holds a 4.1% stake, adopted a decree on a ‘temporary suspension’ of funding for new Russian projects at the initiative of the bank's shareholders from the European Union in July 2014 due to western sanctions against Moscow. It has also been cutting back its portfolio of Russian assets, which has shrunk from the 10 bln euros peak to 2.6 bln euro. Since then, Russia has pressed for a renewal of the EBRD's investments. However, according to the bank’s representative, it will "continue implementing (the remaining) projects in Russia as stipulated by initial agreements."

A source in the press service of VTB, which is Russia’s second-largest lender, confirmed the information about the recent transaction, but declined to provide details. "Such deals are a common practice on the secondary market of syndicated loans," the source said. Another RBC source said that the EBRD had sold the asset with a "small premium" to the bank, adding that the deal is also profitable for VTB since "the internal rate of return is very high." Experts interviewed by the newspaper assume that it is unlikely the EBRD would have sold the asset other than for political necessity.

In May 2017, Russia’s Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin criticized the banking institution for having set "an extremely dangerous precedent in global financial relations," after it restricted the rights of one of its members, "neglecting charter documents." In December 2017, the minister said that the EBRD is losing incomes and facing surging spending and will "go into oblivion unless it returns to Russia.


Izvestia: Russia, US to jointly develop medical supply standards for space pilots

Russia and the United States have agreed to set up a joint working group on research into space biomedicine and biology, Izvestia says. Director of the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems at the Russian Academy of Sciences Oleg Orlov told the newspaper that "as part of the group’s work, it has been agreed on to establish a joint commission on a medical and biological section of the moon (exploration) program." The issue was agreed on between Russia’s Institute of Medical and Biological Problems and a division of NASA Human Research Program in December 2017, Izvestia writes.

"The decision was made and put on bilateral record. The commission will start working in end-2018," he added.

"The agreement to construct a Deep Space Gateway station on the moon’s orbit was signed by the state-owned corporation Roscosmos and NASA in September 2017. The plan is to send months-long expeditions there," Orlov said. A source in NASA confirmed the information about talks to set up a new organization to Izvestia, adding that "the paperwork regarding the creation of a joint biomedical commission on Deep Space Gateway has not been completed yet." The major target of the new structure is to adjust medical supply and safety standards for lengthy expeditions to the moon.


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