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Press Review: What caused Russian air crash in Syria and how two Koreas new ties affect US

Top stories in the Russian press on Wednesday

Izvestia: Technical malfunction seen as possible cause of Russian transport plane crash in Syria

A Russian An-26 transport plane crashed during its landing approach at the Hmeymim airbase in Syria on Tuesday, killing all 39 people onboard. The aircraft hit the ground when it was about 500 meters short of the runway. Experts interviewed by Izvestia daily assume that a technical malfunction that had occurred shortly before the landing could have been the cause of the crash.

Former commander of Russia’s frontline aircraft Nikolai Antoshkin told the publication that any aircraft in operation in Syria is a combat flight. "The service and flight conditions are extraordinary in the country. Pilots fulfill combat tasks there. All types of aviation - reconnaissance, strike aircraft, transport - have their own assignments, but all flights are regarded as combat," he said, adding that "the psychological stress is higher as pilots have to consider more factors than in civil aviation flights." Antoshkin added that he considers the An-26 to be a reliable aircraft, despite the fact that it has been exploited for a long time.

Decorated military pilot Major-General Vladimir Popov suggests that technical malfunction or weather conditions could have been the cause of the crash. "I think that technical malfunction should be considered the main version," he said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said earlier that the weather conditions during the landing of the An-26 plane were good, while the pilot had accumulated over 3,000 logged flight hours and performed landings at the Hmeymim airbase on numerous occasions.


Izvestia: Seoul eyes cutback of joint drills with US to keep upbeat dynamics with North Korea

South Korea is considering an initiative to roll back the scale of annual joint military maneuvers with Washington, Izvestia says with reference to sources in the country’s defense ministry. This year joint military drills organized by South Korea and the US were going to become the most sweeping in the history of military cooperation between both countries, with 17,000 and 300,000 servicemen from South Korea and the United States, planning to participate, respectively.

However, the recently announced meeting between North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in scheduled for April, may change those plans, the paper says. A source in South Korean defense ministry told Izvestia that Seoul is mulling a reduction of the upcoming joint drills with the Americans to make them "less provoking." "However, we should wait for the results of the South Korean delegation’s trip," the source said, adding that "prior to that no final decisions are expected."

On Monday, a South Korean delegation arrived in Pyongyang on a two-day visit in an effort to bring the two Koreas closer and foster dialogue between North Korea and the US. Among the delegation members were Chung Eui Yong and National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon. Upon arrival to North Korea, they had a four-hour meeting with Kim Jong-un at the headquarters of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The delegation ended the visit and returned to South Korea on Tuesday. Sources in Seoul’s political circles told Izvestia that the country’s key short-term task is to prevent a collapse of the dialogue between the two Koreas.


Vedomosti: Putin’s approval rating dips in big cities

The rating of incumbent presidential candidate Vladimir Putin in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s two biggest cities, has lost over 12 percentage points in one month - from 69.7% on January 10 to 57.1% on February 18, Vedomosti says with reference to a survey conducted by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center. In other cities that have over one million people, a similar drop was recorded before the New Year holidays, which later rebounded only 2 percentage points. The pollster also notes similar trends in towns with 100,000 to 500,000 people and up to 100,000 residents, the paper writes, adding that the president’s rating only remains stable in cities with population from 500,000 to 950,000 people and small-scale communities. Conversely, the number of voters still on the fence and supporters of Pavel Grudinin of the Communist Party has risen in big cities.

Valery Fedorov, the pollster’s chief explains that the bigger the settlement is, the lower the voter turnout and the approval of the incumbent candidate is. "Residents of big cities also have a higher level of demands and more information sources available, which is why they are more critical of the authorities," he said. Fedorov considers a drop in Putin’s approval rating to be a factor of the pre-election campaign just about to be launched. "People recall that there are other candidates, and naturally, the influence edges back a bit, while opposition candidates make gains," he explained.

A source close to presidential administration told the newspaper that in cities with over one million people, the voter turnout would slightly exceed 50%. Another source added that the difference between turnout in big cities and towns might reach 20%, with average regional voters’ participation being 10-12% higher than in cities.

As reported earlier a survey held by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center on February 19-22 and 24-26 showed that almost 70% of the respondents are ready to support incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin in the upcoming March 18 presidential election. That said, the approval ratings of the other presidential candidates are as follows: Pavel Grudinin of the Communist Party garnered 7.8% (up by 0.3 percentage points since the previous survey), LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky got 5.9% (up 0.6 percentage points), TV socialite Ksenia Sobchak took 1.6% (up 0.7 percentage points), while Yabloko party co-founder Grigory Yavlinsky received 0.9% (down 0.5 percentage points), and Sergei Baburin of the Russian All-People’s Union - 0.3% (down 0.1 percentage points). Meanwhile, the ratings of Boris Titov (Party of Growth) and Maxim Suraikin (Communists of Russia) remained unchanged, at 0.3% and 0.1%, respectively.


Vedomosti: OECD says Russia’s economy stuck in slow gear

Russia is one of a handful of countries, which is expected to see real GDP per capita to decline against the ‘yardstick’ economy of the United States by 2060, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said in a draft version of its global economic report, Vedomosti writes. Without reforms, GDP per capita will only inch up by 0.7% within the next 12 years, the OECD’s experts think, citing low workforce productivity and a negative demographic trend as the main culprits.

This comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged in his State of the Nation Address to the Federal Assembly earlier this month to boost GDP per capita 50% by 2025. According to the OECD, without reforms, Russia and other BRICS countries will slow down the growth of global GDP within the next four decades starting 2019. In order to trigger growth, they need to enhance labor productivity, the authors of the report stress, adding that government reforms, increased length of schooling and commercial tariff cuts are necessary. The government reform point is considered to be a more important factor for Russia than for its BRICS peers, the report said, because now state management currently rests on the existing political system, which implies centralization and a lack of political competition, Vedomosti says citing head of the analytical department at Loko-Invest Kirill Tremasov.

Alfa-Bank’s Chief Economist Natalia Orlova agrees that labor productivity is the key obstacle to economic growth in Russia, but in order to raise it, more investments are needed. In 2017, the mineral production sector accounted for around 50% of the country’s investment gain, though the bulk of GDP comes from other sectors. Investment in agriculture only edged up 1.3%, while investment in the processing industry, construction and trade even decreased. Orlova also stated that economic and geopolitical uncertainty hinders investment growth, adding that the government is finding it increasingly difficult to overcome it given the sanctions.


Kommersant: Rosneft lobbying for fiscal incentives to the tune of $2.5 bln per year

Cabinet members and industry players failed to agree on new measures to prop up oil producers at a meeting headed by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich on February 27, Kommersant says with reference to sources. The Energy Ministry’s requirement to slash the oil export duty to zero has become a stumbling block, with both oil companies and the Energy Ministry opposing the term. Instead, the ministry suggests measures of targeted incentives - to support ‘strategic’ refineries that provide fuel to the Russian market, as well as measures to sustain the current revenue level of road funds and the ‘customs subsidy’, meaning the difference between duties on oil and petroleum products of refineries without putting pressure on fuel prices.

Meanwhile, industry players are trying to use the situation to their own advantage, the paper writes. For example, Igor Sechin, Chief Executive Officer of Rosneft, the country’s biggest oil producer, has asked the president for tax incentives worth an unprecedented 145 bln rubles ($2.5 bln), saying that refineries close to the borders and inside the country are on a different level of playing fields. He suggested launching the reform, which envisions taxes on oil sale revenues instead of production volumes, and on 35 pilot projects starting in 2019. According to Kommersant’s sources, President Vladimir Putin has already assigned the government to study Sechin’s ideas, while the Energy Ministry has said it had objected to them.

The earn-back mechanism for petroleum products production is a measure to support refineries that has long been discussed in the industry, though the sides have not yet reached a consensus. Particularly, Surgutneftegaz has been against the move, saying that it is too early to enact this mechanism. An analyst Mikhail Turukalov does not expect it to be introduced in 2019, taking into account the fact that no compromise has been reached between the Finance Ministry and oil companies regarding the completion of the tax maneuver.


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