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Russia Set To Unveil Cultural, Orthodox Jewel On The Seine

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A massive Russian “spiritual and cultural center,” crowned by a golden-domed Orthodox cathedral, opens its gates in downtown Paris this week, thrusting Russian religious and political outreach to the fore in one of Europe’s most prestigious and influential capitals. The complex is widely seen as a grand expression of Moscow’s quest to project the image of a powerful, religious Russia, and assert itself as a champion of traditional values.

Its construction has been marred by architectural, financial, and political disputes and shadowed by fears that it could help an increasingly assertive Russia spy on French officials or sow division within an already quarrelsome European Union.

Highlighting its symbolic importance, the October 19 unveiling was due to be attended by President Vladimir Putin until the Russian leader last week nixed his planned visit amid a row with France and Western powers over the continuing war in Syria.

The cathedral was reportedly first proposed in 2007 by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church at the time, the late Patriarch Aleksii II, during his historic visit to the French capital.

It is part of a Russian campaign to gain control of churches and graves dating from tsarist times and reassert control over the Russian diaspora, including in France, where there are an estimated 200,000 followers of Russian Orthodoxy.

In Paris, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral broke with the Russian church hierarchy after the 1917 revolution, transferring its allegiance from Moscow to the rival Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly intervened personally to ensure that Russia could buy and develop a plot near the famed Eiffel Tower and Alexandre III bridge.

In 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev signed the deal on behalf of Russia to purchase the prized property by the banks of the Seine River — a UNESCO-protected site — for 73 million euros ($80 million). Reports said other countries seeking to buy the plot included Saudi Arabia and Canada.

An initial request to build the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center was filed in January 2012, but opposition to architect Manuel Nunez Yanowsky’s design quickly mounted in the French capital, where preserving the integrity of the city’s famed architecture is taken seriously.

Then-Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe described the architecture — five golden onion domes, white limestone, and glass — as “pastiche,” “mediocre,” and “utterly inappropriate for the site.”

After Francois Hollande succeeded Sarkozy as France’s head of state in 2012, French cultural and heritage officials issued unfavorable opinions before Russia withdrew its first application for a building permit.

The project was then redesigned under the supervision of architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, and a building permit was issued in December 2013.

Sensitive Site

The 4,800-square-meter complex includes four distinct entities: Holy Trinity Cathedral, capped with five gilded domes and its highest cross reaching 35 meters into the sky; a parish center comprising an auditorium and foyer, offices, and apartments; a French-Russian primary school for 150 pupils; and a cultural center, including a book shop, exhibitions spaces, and a coffee shop.

Construction finally began in 2014 against a backdrop of deteriorating ties between Moscow and the West over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where it occupied and annexed Crimea and has lent support to armed separatists who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The golden main dome, an 8-ton structure made of composite materials, was winched into place in March with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko in attendance.

The cost of the construction work, by French company Bouygues, has been estimated at around 100 million euros ($110 million).

From the start, French officials have expressed concern that the building is just a stone’s throw from a sensitive government compound. As well as housing France’s supreme magistrates’ council, the neighboring Palais de l’Alma contains the Elysee Palace’s postal service and the private apartments of senior presidential advisers.

French media reports say that country’s counterespionage services have surrounded the building with jamming devices to prevent the Russians from using it for electronic surveillance.

There were also unsuccessful attempts by former shareholders of the now-defunct Russian oil giant Yukos to suspend work at the site and get the property seized to help settle a multibillion-dollar battle for compensation for the Russian state’s seizure of the firm and its assets in 2003.

But in April, the High Court of Paris ruled that the object could not be seized, saying it a was considered a diplomatic good protected by sovereign immunity.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky is to attend this week’s opening ceremony of the center, which officials have described as a symbol of friendship between Russia and France.

Cold War Redux

The event comes with relations between Russia and the West at levels unseen since the Cold War following Russia’s military seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and an ensuing war between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 9,600 people.

Ties have further deteriorated over the war in Syria, which hosts a Russian military base and where Russia announced a bombing campaign in September 2015 to support President Bashar al-Assad and fight “international terrorists.”

Paris and Moscow butted heads last week in the UN Security Council over competing draft resolutions on the Syrian conflict, where French and other Western officials have said Russia and Syria could have committed war crimes.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill has strongly supported Putin politically, even offering thinly veiled backing in the controversial 2012 election that returned the former KGB officer to the presidency.

Some analysts suggest that Putin, on the other hand, regards the Orthodox Church and its leadership as a channel for communication with the West.

Kirill met with Pope Francis for about three hours in Cuba in February in the first meeting between the heads of Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches since the Great Schism divided Christendom in 1054.

Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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Russia’s key to Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On July 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly received two African leaders, Gabonese Ali Bongo Ondimba and Sudanese Omar al-Bashir, within the framework of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The two were on a three-day working visit part of which was to attend in the FIFA World Cup final match between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Together 12 presidents, prime ministers and many high-ranking representatives of foreign states attended the final match.

While meeting them separately in the Kremlin, Putin reaffirmed Russia’s role in and support for solving endless conflicts specifically in Central African Republic (CAR) and in Sudan, and other regional conflicts in parts of Africa. The meetings were also to consolidate the existing diplomatic relations.

Despite its significant mineral deposits and other resources, such as uranium reserves, crude oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, lumber and as well as significantly large arable land, the CAR is among the ten poorest countries in the world.

Nearly 90% is among the most impoverished of the estimated population of around 4.6 million as of 2016. CAR has been engulfed in political and ethnic conflict.

“There is naturally a lot of work to do for us, including the regional settlement in Central Africa. We know that Gabon takes the most active part in this, making a significant contribution to this joint work,” he stressed at the meeting with Ali Bongo.

In this context, Gabon is now chairing the Economic Community of Central African States and this community or regional organization is directly involved in settling the conflict in the Central African Republic.

Gabon bordered by Equitorial Guinea to the west, Cameroon to the north and Republic of Congo on the east and south, and the Gulf of Guinea to the west. Since its independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had three presidents.

Abundant petroleum and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Sahara Africa. Gabon’s economy is dominated by oil. Oil revenues constitute roughly 46% of the government’s budget, 43% of the gross domestic product (GDP), and 81% of exports.

During the meeting, Ali Bongo argued that “Russia is a huge country, which has enormous capabilities and which can, of course, contribute a lot to the continent. Everyone talks about Africa today, from most various angles. The continent is rich in resources, and we observe how many major states fight each other to gain access to these resources.”

From above statement, Ali Bongo was encouraging the Kremlin authorities, flex muscles to face risks and high competition, in order to raise Russia’s economic profile on the continent to match with its global status. As already known, African countries have seriously adopted “economic diplomacy” and are looking to find pragmatic solutions to issues relating to infrastructure development, foreign trade and investment cooperation.

The transcript posted to Kremlin official website did not say anything about oil business, but understandably, Russia seeks to cooperate in this sphere.

The Kremlin press service said that trade between Russia and Gabon doubled in 2017 to $47.7 (from $29.1 in 2016). Last October, Russia’s oil giant Rosneft signed a profile protocol of understanding with Gabon’s Oil and Hydrocarbon Ministry.

In June 2017, Zarubezhneft and the Gabonese oil company signed a Memorandum of Understanding – a framework agreement on key aspects of cooperation, including joint exploration of deposits and construction of oil and gas facilities in Gabon.

In his discussion with Putin, Al-Bashir noted that Russia and Sudan relations really demonstrated positive dynamics.

“As for the economic sphere, we are developing a programme to share information and opinions on how we can develop these relations. Russian companies, including those producing mineral resources, actively work in Sudan. There will also be a meeting devoted to the agricultural sphere in September,” the Sudanese leader said.

Sudanese leader hopes to start tourist exchanges soon. He also encourages the participation of Russian oil and gas companies so that they would work in Sudan.

There are positive shifts in the military-technical sphere and in military cooperation. “We see big exchanges between specialists of Russia and Sudan. A big number of Russian specialists work in our country and this is why we highly praise the role that your country plays in preparing Sudanese military personnel,” Al-Bashir told Putin.

In fact, Putin and Al-Bashir last met and had a comprehensive business discussion November 2017 in Sochi. According to Kremlin website, the two sides have signed agreements and memos of understanding in the field of oil, gold mining, the peaceful use of nuclear power, higher education, external relations and agriculture.

In Sochi, Al-Bashir affirmed that Sudan is opening its doors for all countries and companies to invest in the country, indicating that Russian, Chinese and Arab companies are now operating in Sudan.

Interestingly, Al-Bashir has offered to help Russia in Africa. “Sudan has extensive ties in Africa and can help Russia develop relations with African countries. Sudan may become Russian’s key to Africa. We are a member of the African Union,” he promised Putin.

“We have great relations with all African nations and we are ready to help. We are also interested in developing relations with BRICS,” he concluded assertively. The BRICS group of emerging economies comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa will host a summit of BRICS countries on July 26-27.

Despite the fact that bilateral relations between Russia and with both Gabon and Sudan still below expectation, the three leaders Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir in their separate discussions expressed high optimism to take practical effective steps working towards its growth and sustainability.

It is worthy to note that Africa, indeed, has emerged as a playground for foreign powers especially Asian powers including China, India and Japan; each with its economic interests in the region and trying to expand its influence in strategic ways. In principle, all three leaders (Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir) have agreed that relations, in anyway, be developed in all directions between their individual states and Russia.

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The Art of Expectation Management

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship.

The current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin. Any far-reaching Trump-Putin agreement short of a complete and unconditional surrender of Moscow to Washington would meet with a fierce and not always fair criticism within the US foreign policy establishment. The odds are that the Congress would overrule or water it down, and high-ranking bureaucrats within the Administration itself would find a way to sabotage it.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies. It has always been tempting to go for a grand bargain with US above the heads of Europeans. There might be more personal chemistry between the US and the Russian leaders than between any of them and German Chancellor Angela Merkel or UK Prime Minister Theresa May. There might also be a shared Trump-Putin skepticism about the future of the European Union. Nevertheless, in many ways Europe remains indispensable for Moscow. Despite all the recent sanctions and counter-sanctions, EU remains the largest Russia’s trading partner, the prime source of FDIs and new technologies to the country. Moreover, on a number of important international matters – like the Iranian JCPOA — Russia and major European powers stand shoulder to shoulder against the revisionist US. From Putin’s vantage point, European leaders might look stubborn, boring and even antiquated, but most of them still appear to be more reliable compared to the flamboyant and unpredictable US President.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world. How can President Hassan Rouhani interpret it from Tehran? What should Bashar Assad think in Damascus? Nicolas Maduro in Caracas? Above all, how are they likely react in Beijing? The latter should be of particular concern to Vladimir Putin because the meeting in Helsinki takes place against the background of rapidly deteriorating US — Chinese relations.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship. If there is anyone, who might push hard for innovative, out of the box solutions in order to turn the Helsinki summit into an epic event, it should be Donald Trump rather than Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader is more likely to take a cautious approach, keeping in mind that any far-reaching deal between him and Trump would be a risky political investment for both, at least at this particular point.   The most important thing for Putin today is to change the overall dynamics of the US — Russian relationship, indicating the beginning of a new period of gradual normalization.

What does this approach mean for the US-Russian agenda? As for the strategic arms control, it is not evident that this issue is a top priority for the Kremlin these days. Judging by Putin’s March Address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian leader is confident that he can assure national security even in the absence of a US — Russian strategic arms control. However, politically strategic arms control is still important for the Kremlin; it gives Russia a very special status in the international system and puts Moscow on equal footing with Washington. This is one of not to many areas where Moscow can significantly contribute to global commons. The Russian military might lack enthusiasm about the New Start and, especially, about INF, but the political considerations can outweigh skepticism of the military provided that President Trump is also interested in salvaging INF and/or in extending the New Start.

It is impossible not to bring regional issues to the table in Helsinki, but here opportunities are limited as well. Looking from Moscow it is very hard to imagine any US — Russian ‘compromise’ on Ukraine, which would fly on the Hill and would be acceptable to the Kremlin at the same time. On the other hand, the predominant perception in Russia is that nothing significant can be accomplished in Donbas until the end of next year’s election cycle in Ukraine. Finally, the United States is not even a participant to the Normandy process and is not a signatory to the Minsk agreements. All the significance of the Volker-Surkov bilateral consultations notwithstanding, they can hardly be regarded as an efficient alternative to the German and French engagement.

Today, Russia has little to offer to US on the North Korean nuclear matter. It could have played a role of an honest broker on the Korean Peninsula when the relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were at historic lows. After Kim Jong-un’s trip to Beijing and the Chinese-North Korean reconciliation in spring, the window of opportunity shut fast for Russia. In the nearest future Moscow is more likely to follow the Chinese line on the North Korean problem rather than to advance its own innovative ideas.

A potentially more promising subject for conversation is Syria. At minimum, Trump and Putin can agree on future arrangements for the Syrian South-West and on a tactical deal regarding accommodating Syrian Kurds, at maximum — they can give a push to the Geneva process on political settlement. Does Trump intend to convince Putin to drop Russia’s current partnership with Iran and to shift to the ‘right side’ of the conflict? If so, the US President is likely to be disappointed: Iran is simply too important for Moscow in places like Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Caucasus to sacrifice this relationship in order to please Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi King Salman. One should also keep in mind that the ability to keep good relations with all major sides to numerous Middle East conflicts has been a key, if not the key Russia’s comparative advantage in regional politics; with this advantage removed the Russian role in the region is likely to decline sharply.

The US sanctions against Russia might also be a part of the conversation though the official Russia’s position is that it does not conduct any negotiations about sanctions and leaves it up to states-initiators to decide on their sanctions’ future. The last round of US anti-Russian sanctions announced in April included RUSAL, Russia’s largest aluminum producer, and had a substantial negative impact not only on this company, but also on the global aluminum market at large. Vladimir Putin should know pretty well about the US legislative process that makes it impossible for Donald Trump to lift the existing sanctions against Moscow. What he can hope for is some kind of informal pledge from the US executive not to initiate any further increase of the sanction pressure on Russia. Another issue that Russians might wish to discuss in this regard is the modalities of the extraterritorial dimension of US sanctions — a politely sensitive matter that can become a nuisance for both sides.

Vladimir Putin is also well aware of the importance that Americans attach to the “Russia’s interference” into the US political system. Under no circumstances will he confess that such an interference authorized by Russian authorities did take place. The odds are that he will stick to his standard narrative about some unspecified independent actors (“patriotic hackers”) who had nothing to do with the Russian state. Nevertheless, one cannot exclude Putin offering Trump to sign a US-Russian “non-interference pact” — a mutual commitment not to mess with domestic affairs of each other. The problem for the US side is that the term “interference” is likely to be interpreted by the Kremlin in the broadest sense possible — it might include international activities of American NGO, foundations, media outlets, think tanks, Universities and so on. It is not clear how the two leaders can possibly reach a compromise on such a divisive issue.

The last but not the least, the Russian side would like to unlock doors to intergovernmental cooperation or, at least, to intergovernmental communication at various levels and in various fields including more contacts between diplomats, military, state bureaucrats, and intelligence agencies. The Russian Embassy in Washington should stop being a besieged fortress, the paralysis in the visa services on both sides should be dealt with. A symbolic progress in resolving the diplomatic property problem would also be appreciated by Moscow. One of the positive outcomes of Helsinki would be a decision of the two leaders to start planning a next summit meeting — either on the margins of a multilateral gathering like the G20 summit in Argentina or another bilateral event later this year.

In sum, the current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia warns foreign football fans to voluntarily leave after the end of World Cup

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As the end of FIFA World Cup draws nearer, Russian authorities have reminded foreign football fans, including those from Africa, participating in the month-long event, to leave voluntarily or face deportation.

Head of Russian Federation of Migrants (RFM), Vadim Kozhinov, a non-government organization that deals with foreign migrants disclosed that “due to the simplified visa regime introduced for the period of the World Cup, some foreign citizens want to take advantage of the legal entry into the territory of the Russian Federation to stay in Russia.”

However, such foreign citizens should understand that, starting from July 26, they would be in Russia illegally and accordingly, such citizens would be deported from the country, he warned. “If among these citizens there are those who have previously been deported, they will be sentenced to imprisonment,” Kozhinov said.

The warning comes as both local and foreign media have reported a number of foreign fans, notably from Asia and Africa, attempting to cross borders illegally into Belarus, Poland, Latvia and Finland to Europe.

Kommersant Daily, a Russian newspaper, has reported that some foreign nationals from Cameroon, Pakistan, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Morocco have been arrested for illegal crossing near Poland border, last week.

Foreign fans have taken advantage of this opportunity to find work abroad or get political asylum. According to human rights activists, foreigners who found themselves in the Russian Federation without money, housing and the opportunity to return home, were turning to them every day with requests for all kinds of assistance.

Yulia Siluyanova, Coordinator of the “Alternative”, a human rights organization, said there had been complaints and requests for assistance from several citizens of Nigeria.

“Every day we take three or four people, but it is obvious that they are much more. The fact is that the Nigerian Embassy knows about us and immediately sends its citizens here for help.”

When GNA contacted, the Nigerian Embassy, the officials said, they were using all possible resources to help their fellow citizens. Nearly a hundred Nigerian football fans could not fly home due to scam, according to reports.

Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Ministry (MFA), said at a media briefing that “winding up with no money by the end of the World Cup is not something unique to Nigerians, but all foreign fans who have come to Russia for the World Cup.”

She said that “unfortunately, it is quite natural (and we can confirm this) that when this large and very long sporting event ends all of them must leave the Russian Federation, because the FAN IDs will no longer work.”

“Some fans might wound up without money or return tickets by the end of their stay. This is also natural. Unwanted, but natural. And this is really a problem to be solved by fans, first of all, together with their countries’ diplomatic missions and consulates,” she explained.

Zakharova finally gave a firm warning: “We cannot rule out that some foreign guests are hoping to cross the Russian border, one way or another, often illegally, into a European country during the World Cup. We cannot rule this out. If this action is deemed illegal, then corresponding agencies will take the necessary administrative measures.”

To enter Russia during the tournament, football fans needed to get a “Fan ID”, which was free of charge after buying a ticket for the match. “This document gives the right to multiple visa-free entry, from June 04, until July 15, inclusive, but one must leave the country before July 26.”

The easing of the visa regime had given cause for concern by countries bordering Russia. Lithuania, in June, officially announced the strengthening of border control for fear that the citizens of third countries, using the championship, would try to get into the European Union (EU), illegally.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, before the start of the FIFA tournament, said in his welcome video address posted to Kremlin website that he wanted the event to be considered as a global family celebration, filled with passion and emotions.

He expressed the hope that all participants and guests were going to have an unforgettable experience, not only watching the matches of their favourite teams and admiring the players’ skills, but also getting to know Russia, learning about its identity and culture, its unique history and natural diversity, its hospitable, sincere and friendly people.

“We have done our best to ensure that all of our guests – the athletes, the staff and, of course, the fans – feel at home in Russia. We have opened both our country and our hearts to the world.”

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