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Press review: Putin cruises to landslide victory and Russia-UK feud strikes cultural ties

Top stories in the Russian press on Monday, March 19


Media: Putin clinches fourth term with landslide victory

Russia’s incumbent President Vladimir Putin has won 76% of the vote in the race for the nation’s highest public office on March 18, observers and experts noted a high turnout this time. Head of the ISEPR Fund Dmitry Badovsky explained to Vedomosti that Putin’s campaign was strong in the end - ranging from the Address to the Federal Assembly to the campaign tour across the country and meetings with the public. However, even more important was the international environment of recent months, including the situation around the Olympic Games and the spat with Britain, the expert said. "There was a sharp increase in the perception of the election as a referendum process and the need to unite around a leader, which affected both the turnout and the candidates’ results," he added. Andrei Kolesnikov, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center thinks that a high mobilization of voters was the result of the unprecedented publicity, as "the feeling of civil duty arose." Political expert Alexander Kynev assumes that this all coincided with the fact that other candidates had very dull election campaigns. "There were no heroes among them, their campaigns were awful. One cannot say that someone had a skilled campaign," he noted.

Sources close to the Kremlin told RBC that the turnout of 65%, which is in line with 2012 election, would have been considered as a good result. Political consultant Dmitry Fetisov told the newspaper that he expects the Kremlin to be satisfied with the turnout this time. He added that the high turnout has to do with a high politicization of Russian society now, in addition to mentioning the Olympic Games, and the Skripal case. Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov views the massive information campaign to be the main reason behind the high turnout. "Without that, it would have not exceeded 50%. After all, the election was not interesting from a content perspective," he told RBC. "The election campaign and the vote itself didn’t have any intrigue since the candidates failed to offer anything substantial and not standard, while the winner was known beforehand," he added.

The 2018 election is going to set a record in terms of international observers. The Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) invited 250 foreign parliamentarians from Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, France, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and a great many other countries. European parliamentarians interviewed by Izvestia said that the atmosphere at polling stations was very calm. Most of them were also favorably impressed by the high turnout and new technologies being used across the country.

With 99.79% of the ballots counted, Putin has chalked up 76.65% of the vote in the March 18 election, the Central Election Commission said. Director of the Lenin State Farm Pavel Grudinin, nominated by the Communist Party of Russia, has come in second with 11.82% of the vote, while leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky took third place with 5.68%.


Media: Russian-UK ‘Skripal’ spat strikes cultural ties

The Russian press is closely following the events surrounding the Russia-UK spat over the poisoning of ex-Colonel Sergey Skripal formerly from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. On Saturday, Moscow announced its response to a set of measures made public by British Prime Minister Theresa May last week. Moscow’s response was not limited to a tit-for-tat expulsion of 23 British diplomats within one week. Russia said it would terminate the operation of both the Consulate General of the United Kingdom in St. Petersburg and the activities of the British Council in the Russian Federation - a non-for-profit organization involved in educational and cultural programs. Its activities in Russia have been up in the air since the murder case of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2007 when 13 out of its 15 regional branches were closed.

Experts interviewed by Kommersant suggest that Moscow’s tough response means both that there is no longer any hope of maintaining dialogue with the current cabinet headed by Theresa May, and a reluctance to demonstrate any weakness, which may be interpreted as a confirmation of justified accusations against Russia. "London has left Moscow with no other choice. A mild reply on the eve of the March 18 vote would have seemed strange. Moreover, any response of this sort would have been perceived as an indirect admission of guilt by Moscow," Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, told the newspaper. Head of the European Political Studies Department at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations Nadezhda Arbatova is sticking to this opinion, saying that "Moscow’s tough stance is a protective response." "Russia could not have afforded a milder response as it could have been considered indirect proof of its guilt," she said. However, the expert does not expect the spat between the two countries to trigger a wide-scale escalation in the relationship between Russia and the European Union. "Europe is tired of confrontation and is not ready to worsen relations with Russia, despite certain tough statements against Moscow," she told Kommersant.

Former Russian Ambassador to London and Honorary President of Association for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation Anatoly Adamishin considers Russia’s response to the British PM’s sanctions to be wider than London’s actions, but more moderate from a political perspective. "From our side, we see the consulate’s operations and cultural cooperation being hit. But the British also took a number of very unpleasant steps," he said in an interview with RBC. Adamishin points to the breakdown of political contacts as the most sensitive outcome, since it may affect diplomatic ties and cooperation in the security arena, which prior to the Skripal case "was only going to recover."

On March 4, ex-Colonel of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate convicted for spying for the United Kingdom, Sergey Skripal, and his daughter Yulia were exposed to a nerve agent. They were found unconscious on a bench near a shopping center in Salisbury. On March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack on Skripal and his daughter. She identified the substance used in the attack as the Novichok nerve agent, developed in the Soviet Union. PM May accused Russia of "an unlawful use of force" against her country. Later she announced that London would expel 23 Russian diplomats and take other measures against Moscow.


RBC: Targets of ‘Kremlin List’ appeal to US lobbyists

Russian businessmen Yury Shefler and Valentin Gapontsev included in the so-called ‘Kremlin List’ generated by the US Department of Treasury have hired American lobbyists to estimate the implications for their business, RBC writes. Another blacklisted businessmen Farkhad Akhmedov plans to sue. The Department of Treasury has stressed that the specified list is not a sanctions list and no restrictions have been imposed automatically against those on the roster. However, Yury Shefler, the owner of the SPI Group alcohol company, turned to Covington & Burling lobbying firm to explore the estimated effect of the report on SPI and its main owner. Valentin Gapontsev’s IPG Photonics based in Massachusetts in early March hired another lobbying firm, McLarty Inbound, to assist on matters concerning the enforcement of the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) Section 241.

Farkhad Akhmedov, ex-owner of Northgas gas company, turned to lawyers to draft potential court claims against the US authorities. "I am the first Russian businessmen to contest the so-called Kremlin list. So far, the list has been copied from the Forbes magazine, but in any case I will be upholding my honor and reputation in an American court," he told RBC.

"Currently my lawyers are collecting required documents requested by Williams & Connolly (law) firm regarding the damage incurred. This matter requires not one week and not even one month to (draft the claim - TASS)," he added.

However, experts polled by RBC doubt those lobbying efforts will be efficient. "It is unclear what lobbyists can do in a situation like that," Alexei Panich, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills said. He thinks that lobbying efforts to prevent getting listed could have been successfully, but it "has not happened to anyone yet." Apart from the potential threat of real sanctions, being included in the ‘Kremlin list’ may have indirect implications, he explained. "A certain air is being created around this person, as the issue of imposing sanctions is likely to be considered regarding him, so American partners are becoming increasingly cautious towards cooperating with him," Panich added.

At the beginning of 2018, the US Department of Treasury released an open version of the so-called Kremlin List that includes all members of the Russian government, along with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, chiefs of the presidential administration, heads of some state corporations and state banks, as well as businessmen which have, according to American sources, no less than $1 bln. The list in total includes 210 people. It is divided into several parts: the presidential administration, the cabinet of ministers, political leaders and oligarchs.


Kommersant: New fees to be added to Russia’s Tax Code

Part of non-tax payments will be included in the Tax Code, Kommersant writes. First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said late last week, the government will come up with a decision on regulating non-tax payments in the near future. He added that the option proposed by the Finance Ministry to include those payments in the Tax Code in a separate article is under consideration.

A source in the government told the newspaper that six non-tax payments close to taxes are planned to be added to the Tax Code, among which are the scrappage and environmental fees. Some of them may become part of legislation by this year, the source said, adding that this decision will bolster predictability for businessmen. A resort fee is also being considered as one "close to taxes," he said. "So far it is levied only in certain regions, which is why the decision to include it in the Tax Code will be based on the results of the pilot project," the source added.

Entrepreneurs are still opposing the integration of non-tax payments in the Tax Code, as in this case, the administrative burden will soar, and criminal liability for non-payments will follow, Kommersant writes. Meanwhile, the very idea of non-tax payments inventory was submitted to the government as a way of holding them back from increasing, and to provide business with guarantees that the burden would not swell in a crisis period, the paper adds.


Kommersant: Chinese fast food to enter Russian market

Panda Express, a fast food chain specializing in Chinese cuisine, plans to enter the Russian market in partnership with the main owner of Russia's largest coffee-bar chain Shokoladnitsa Alexander Kolobov, Kommersant says with reference to sources familiar with the company’s plans. One of them said that the plan is to open five to seven outlets this year and the same number of restaurants next year. He added that several rent agreements have already been signed. Kolobov confirmed these plans to expand Panda Express in Russia, though he did not provide any details.

Panda Express’ Russian business will become part of the Shokoladnitsa Group. Experts expect the company’s expansion to Russia may be relevant since Chinese food is becoming increasingly popular, though there are a few Chinese concepts in food courts now. Also, there are no serious competitors in this segment, which means there are vast opportunities in this niche.


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