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Time to invest in Russia despite sanctions threat?

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The 10 most important things you need to know on Caspian Sea Region for Thursday, June 11:

1Time to invest despite sanctions threat? “Despite this uncertainty, however, some market participants argued there were “bargains” in Russia.”There is significant opportunity here. The one thing with Russia is that it generally goes from being the worst (performing) stock market to the first stock market in a very rapid rate,” Simon Fentham-Fletcher, chief information officer of Freedom Asset Management, told CNBC Europe’s “Squawk Box” Wednesday. His company specializes in investment in emerging markets, such as Russia. Certain sectors – such as retail and real estate – were thriving, Fentham-Fletcher said, speaking from Moscow” writes Holly Ellyatt for the CNBC.

2Duqu 2.0: computer virus ‘linked to Israel’ found at Iran nuclear talks venue. “The security company Kaspersky discovered the virus, which it said was a new variant of the Duqu worm, itself a variant of the state-sponsored computer virus Stuxnet, used to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in 2010. Known as Duqu 2.0, the new worm was, Kaspersky said, used to attack three European hotels where the P5+1 talks involving the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia, and China with the EU concerning Iranian nuclear capabilities were held over the last 18 months. Kaspersky did not identify the hotels or say who was behind the attack. However, Israel is thought to have deployed the original Duqu worm to carry out sensitive intelligence gathering” writes Samuel Gibbs for the guardian.

3In his opening speech at the Fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions Wednesday in Kazakh capital Astana, President Nazarbayev said the trust that has been built in the decades since World War II has been lost. Describing Islam as a “tolerant” religion, Nazarbayev said that it was “blasphemous” to use it as an excuse for extremism and terrorism.”The destruction of centuries-old cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria cannot be called anything else but anti-humane acts,” he said. Kazakhstan can be a model for religious freedom, added Nazarbayev, “The key foundation is tolerance and openness.” Attended by 80 delegations from 42 countries, the two day inter-religious meeting, which takes place once every three years, is aimed at shaping resolutions for global threats and challenges through communication among religious leaders.

4Azerbaijan blocks Amnesty visit ahead of European Games. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the crackdown by authorities “only highlighted their desperate attempts to create a criticism-free zone around the games”. He added that the legacy of the event would be to “further encourage repressive authorities around the world to view major international sporting events as a ticket to international prestige”. In its new report, the London-based group said the government’s campaign against activists had left Azerbaijan “without independent voices”.”Behind the image trumpeted by the government of a forward-looking, modern nation is a state where criticism of the authorities is routinely and increasingly met with repression,” said the report, which was released on Wednesday. [BBC]

5Kazakhstan has finished negotiating the terms of a deal to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), capping 20 years of efforts to take part in the world of mainstream commerce. The country’s WTO accession package will go for final approval before WTO members on June 22.”I congratulate WTO members and the government of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the historic step taken today,” WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo said on June 10. “I look forward to welcoming Kazakhstan to the WTO.”Ambassador Vesa Himanen of Finland, who chaired the WTO working party that negotiated the deal with Kazakhstan, said it was “one of the most challenging negotiations in the 20-year history of the organization.” [TASS]

6Russia has no contract with Iran to import its oil, but may help resell it on the world market, according to Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak. Already the two countries cooperate in a variety of commercial sectors. One key aspect is Russia supplying fuel for Iran’s nuclear power reactor at Bushehr in central Iran on the Persian Gulf coast. Last August’ deal could be essential for Iran, whose crude exports have plunged by more than half – from 2.5 million barrels per day to about 1 million barrels per day – since 2011, when the international community tightened sanctions. Any company trading with Iran is forbidden under the sanctions from doing business with the U.S. and Europe. Iran recently has expressed hope and even confidence that the sanctions imposed on it may be lifted soon” writes Andy Tully for the Oilprice.

7BRICS Bank Could Change the Game. “There are challenges to overcome. Researcher Wood thinks that “the bank’s short term challenges will be logistical, completing basic things like hiring staff, building internal operational procedures, and so on. Once this is completed, two larger challenges will present themselves. First, making a decision on what projects to fund, which will involve answering difficult questions on what type of projects the bank prioritizes, where it most wants to operate, and what role political priorities might play. Second, would be in building relationships with existing funders, like the World Bank and AIIB, to assure the BRICS bank doesn’t have to bear all the risk of the projects it gets involved in” writes Kester Kenn Klomegah for the Modern Diplomacy.

8Why Almaty should get the 2022 Winter Olympics. “In contrast with the grassroots opposition that scuttled Norway’s bid, Kazakhstan’s bid has overwhelming public support. Two polls were conducted to gauge national opinion on the Games. A poll that the International Olympic Committee commissioned showed 87 percent support. A poll that the Almaty 2022 organization conducted showed 79 percent support. One reason Almaty’s cost proposal is so reasonable is because it’s already built or renovated most of the facilities needed for the Olympics. A lot of the work was done for the 2011 Asian Winter Games – the building of a ski jump and the renovation of the Medeu skating rink, for example. Almaty will build additional facilities for the 2017 Winter Universiade, an Olympic-caliber event for student athletes 17 to 28” writes Hal Foster for the Tegri News.

9Iran and Azerbaijan are two neighbor countries and friends with lots of cooperation in various sectors which has grown in recent years and can go further, Jalil Eslami, deputy director of ports and special zones affairs of Iran’s Ports and Sailing Organization told Trend June 10. The official stressed that maritime cooperation can help Iran-Azerbaijan relations. There are agreements on cooperation in the maritime sector and there are sisterhood pacts between Iranian and Azerbaijani ports, he said. Eslami in particular pointed to maritime transit and tourism as one of the sectors with great development opportunities. Having in mind the growing tourism attractions, it is necessary to provide the infrastructure for transporting over 25 million passengers by 2025, and improving the quality and quantity of maritime transportation services, he noted.

10Russia’s Unending Balkan Intrigues. “Russia’s Leninst-style foreign policy egoism as well as its historical efforts to oust the West from the Balkans and create a sphere of influence there go hand in hand; together, they represent Moscow’s unending efforts to control the Balkan region. One of the most practical regional issues for Moscow is the transmission of Russian energy through the Balkans to Central Europe. Russia aims to cement a monopoly on providing this energy; yet, it neglects to do the practical things necessary to build pipelines or win local governments’ willing assent to its plans. In seeking to eliminate rivals to its regional energy strategies, Russia is obstructing Azerbaijan’s efforts to buy a 66-percent stake in the Greek gas grid operator DESFA. Moscow has long coveted not only the Greek grid but also other distribution networks throughout Europe” writes Stephen Blank for the Jamestown.

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine.

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Human Rights

Millions in Yemen ‘a step away from starvation’

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Mobile health clinics are distributing nutritional supplements to children in Yemen. WFP/Saleh Bin Haiyan

The crisis in Yemen, now in its seventh year of war, continues unabated, with thousands of people displaced and millions “a step away from starvation”, the UN Humanitarian Relief Coordinator said on Wednesday during a high-level side event on the margins of the 76th General Assembly.

“The country’s economy has reached new depths of collapse, and a third wave of the pandemic is threatening to crash the country’s already fragile health-care system”, Humanitarian Affairs chief Martin Griffiths told world leaders at the meeting: Yemen: Responding to the crises within the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Underscoring that the most vulnerable always “bear the highest cost” of the crisis, he said that females were more likely to be hungry, sick or exposed to gender-based violence and, with little access to essential services, millions of internally displaced people face “a daily struggle to survive”.

Cause for hope

In a positive development, the UN official credited the international community for stepping up support to the country’s humanitarian aid operation.

Thanking the world leaders, he said that Yemen’s Humanitarian Response Plan is “among the most well-funded”, with 98 per cent of the pledges made at an event in March fulfilled.

With over $2 billion received, the UN and its partners were able to “prevent famine and pull people back from the brink of despair”, delivering assistance to “every single one of the country’s 333 districts”.

‘Far from done’

Despite these important achievements, Mr. Griffiths acknowledged that the work there is “far from done”, as many sectors still face “alarming funding gaps” and humanitarians are working with less than one-fifth of the money needed to provide health care, sanitation, and shelter.

“Without additional funding, these and other forms of critical life-saving support – including food assistance – will have to be reduced in the coming weeks and months”, he warned.

Three requests

The UN relief chief asked global leaders to continue generously supporting Yemen’s humanitarian operation; respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians; and address the root drivers of the crisis, including restrictions on imports, which elevate the prices of essential goods.

He urged them to do “everything in our collective power to stop this war”, saying, “at the end of the day, peace is what will provide Yemenis the most sustainable form of relief”.

Children robbed

The war has robbed too many of Yemen’s children of safety, education and opportunities.

“Each day, the violence and destruction wreak havoc on the lives of children and their families”, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told the meeting.

She painted a grim picture of 1.7 million displaced youth, 11.3 million youngsters depending on humanitarian assistance to survive and 2.3 million under-five “acutely malnourished” – nearly 400,000 of whom are at “imminent risk of death”.

“Being a child in Yemen means you have probably either experienced or witnessed horrific violence that no child should ever face”, said the UNICEF chief.

“Quite simply, Yemen is one of the most difficult places in the world to be a child”.

Millions ‘marching towards starvation’

In his address, World Food Programme (WFP) chief David Beasley said that in a nation of 30 million people, food rations are needed by 12.9 million; while 3.3 million children and women need special nutrition, together with 1.6 million school children.

“We’re literally looking at 16 million people marching towards starvation”, he said.

With one thousand people a week dying from a lack of food and nutrition, the senior WFP official warned that if $800 million is not received in the next six months, the need to cut rations could lead to the death of 400,000 children under the age of five next year.

We have a moral, obligation, to speak out and step up”, he stated, appealing to the world leaders to “put the pressure on all parties…to end this conflict”.

“These are our children; these are our brothers and sisters we need the donors to step up immediately otherwise children are going to die. Let’s not let them down. Let’s do what we need to do”, concluded Mr. Beasley.

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Africa Today

South Sudan ‘determined to never go back to war’

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Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, Vice-President of the Republic of South Sudan, addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly’s 76th session. UN Photo/Cia Pak

South Sudan is “ready to turn a new page” towards greater peace, development and prosperity, Vice-President Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior said in her speech in the UN General Assembly on Friday. 

A decade after gaining independence from Sudan, the country remains “on a path of nation-building” and is working to implement a 2018 revitalized peace deal which led to the formation of a unity government last year.

 “I want to assure our friends and partners that we are determined to never go back to war,” said Ms. De Mabior.

“We must replace the destruction of war with the productive use of our vast natural resources and national assets for the good of our people.”

Prioritize nation-building

The Vice-President recalled that when South Sudan became independent, the international community pledged to build capacity in nation-building, establishing a UN mission in the country, UNMISS, to support this process.

“However, after the outbreak of the war, that vision was abandoned, and priority was placed on protecting civilians and providing humanitarian assistance. As a result, support for capacity building of the State was terminated,” she said.

Ms. De Mabior stressed that supporting a State’s ability to govern responsibly and effectively is essential.  It is also necessary to guard against what she called “the unintended consequences of dependency on humanitarian assistance.”

Given improvements in peace and security, she said it was now time to transition from emergency towards sustainable development.

“It is a painful and shameful situation for a country endowed with vast fertile land to be regarded as poor,” she added.  

“We must ensure peace and security in the country and double our efforts to support our people who want to return, and are returning, to their areas of origin, for them to participate fully in nation-building and contribute to building food security in the country.”

Support youth and women

South Sudan is also “a youthful country”, and the Vice-President called for continued efforts to develop the skills of its youth and women “to provide an alternative to picking up the gun again and engaging in destructive behavior.”

Encouraging developments have included joint efforts by the national security forces and their UNMISS counterparts to promote rural peace and security, while the Government is set to unveil a national youth service programme.

“To fulfill the vision of our liberation struggle, we must use our oil revenues to fuel economic growth through investment in agriculture,” she said.  

“We will invest in infrastructure to connect our rural communities to the markets. We need the public and private sectors, including foreign investors, to join hands in turning South Sudan’s potential wealth into a reality.”

Glass ‘half-empty’

Ms. De Mabior reported progress in implementing aspects of the Revitalized Peace Agreement, particularly in the creation of state and national bodies and public financial management reforms

However, “the glass remains half-empty” in implementing a permanent ceasefire and transitional security arrangements, she said, noting the urgency for a unified army.

“The security sector reform is the most challenging part of the Agreement as it contains elements at the center of the violent conflicts in the country,” she said, calling for continued dialogue.

“Building sustainable peace requires inclusivity, collective investment, determination, diligence, and patience.”

Meanwhile, relations with Sudan have also improved, though outstanding issues remain over the oil-rich Abyei border area.

Ms. De Mabior stressed her country is determined to learn from the past.

 “We must make the Revitalized Peace Agreement succeed, and we can only do that with the support of our regional and international partners. Simply stated, South Sudan desires and is ready to turn a new page,” she said.

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Health & Wellness

WHO backs Regeneron COVID-19 drug cocktail – with equal access, price cut

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A technician carries out an experiment in the Regeneron laboratory. © Regeneron

The Regeneron antibody drug cocktail – casirivimab and imdevimab – has been added to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of treatments for COVID-19 patients, the UN agency said on Friday, before underscoring the need for lower prices and equitable distribution. 

“This is a major breakthrough in the care of COVID-19 patients”, said Dr. Janet Diaz, WHO head of clinical care. “This is our first recommendation for a therapeutic for those patients with mild, moderate disease,” she said, because it reduces “the need for hospitalisation if they are at high risk”. 

Effective ‘reduction in mortality’  

WHO’s conditional recommendations are for use of the drug combination on patients who are not severely ill, but at high risk of being admitted to hospital with COVID-19, or those with severe cases of the disease and no existing antibodies.  

“Giving them this additional antibody seems to show an effect. And what effect is that? A reduction in mortality” Dr. Diaz told a briefing in Geneva. 

The antibody therapy was granted emergency use authorization in the United States November last year after it was used to treat former President Donald Trump when he was admitted to hospital with the virus. The United Kingdom has also approved Regeneron, while it is under review in Europe. 

‘Meaningful’ benefit 

The WHO recommendations were largely based on data from a British study of 9,000 patients in June which found that the therapy reduced deaths in hospitalised patients whose own immune systems had failed to produce a response. 

“We are taking the information (from the UK study) and generalizing it to other persons,” said Dr. Diaz. “We saw there was a benefit we thought was meaningful.” 

The treatment has been on the market for decades to treat many other diseases, including cancers. It is based on a class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies which mimic natural antibodies produced by the human body to fight off infections. 

Equity, price cut call 

Swiss drugmaker Roche, has been working in partnership with Regeneron, which holds the patent, to produce the antibody treatment. 

Dr. Diaz urged Regeneron to lower the drug’s price and work on equitable distribution worldwide: “We know that the life-saving benefits and the benefits for patients with COVID-19 is significant and requires action.” 

She added that WHO-hosted health agency UNITAID, has been negotiating directly with Roche for lower prices and equitable distribution across all parts of the world, “including low and middle-income countries”. 

WHO has also been in discussions with the company for a donation and distribution of the drug through UN Children’s Fund UNICEF, following an allocation criteria set by the health agency. “We are working together with the company so we can address these very important issues so we can have equitable access” she said. 

Call to manufacturers 

In a statement, WHO said in parallel it had “launched a call to manufacturers who may wish to submit their products for pre-qualification, which would allow for a ramping-up of production and therefore greater availability of the treatment and expanded access. 

ACT-A partners are also working with WHO on an equitable access framework for recommended COVID-19 therapeutics”. On that subject, Dr Diaz added that “there are bottlenecks and we are aware of those. 

WHO has launched the pre-qualification expression of interest call so that the manufacturing companies can start to submit their dossiers to WHO”. 

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