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Putin’s End-of-Year Media Conference

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In his wide-ranging annual media conference held Dec 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin expects the newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration to build back better relations with Russia and further to cooperate in resolving a number of pressing regional problems around the world.

Russia and United States relations have slipped downward, many issues have still remained unresolved during the past years. Russia is, currently slapped with Western and European sanctions. Russia has also stepped up confrontation with Western and European powers over many of these issues.

“The Russian-U.S. relations have become a hostage of the U.S. domestic policy. In my opinion, it’s bad for them but it’s their choice, let them do what they want. We believe the U.S. president-elect will sort things out due to his domestic and foreign policy experience and hope that all arising problems, if not all then at least some of them, will be resolved during the tenure of the next administration,” Putin said at his annual press conference.

For example, speaking about new arms race, the president made it clear that this race has been going on for a long time – since the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002. The only arms control agreement that is still in effect is the New START Treaty, and even that, according to Putin, will end in February 2021. That however, Moscow is ready for dialogue on this topic with the new US administration.

The other issues of international relations focused on Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan. Touching on the steps by the Ukrainian leadership to resolve the conflict in Donbass, Putin noted that Russia will not only continue, but will bolster its support for Donbass. As for Nagorno-Karabakh, Putin said that the situation there erupted not as a result of outside interference.

Referring to interference in each other affairs, Putin explicitly pointed in his comments at the conference attended by both local and foreign reporters that Russian hackers did not help the Donald Trump campaign and did not interfere in the U.S. electoral process.

“Russian hackers did not help the incumbent U.S. president get elected and did not interfere in internal affairs of that great nation. That’s mere hearsay aimed to spoil relations between Russia and the United States and to deny recognition to the legitimacy of the incumbent U.S. president for U.S. domestic political considerations,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russia knows that there will be attempts to interfere in the elections to the State Duma in 2021 from the outside, but it is capable of countering them. “Of course, there’ll be attempts to interfere; they always act this way, and not only in our elections but virtually around the world. This is global politics, both as concerns bases around the world and interference around the world. We know this and are preparing for this,” Putin said.

During the conference that lasted for about four and half hours, and intended to round up or summarized activities of the year, Putin also discussed at length various important questions both internal and external, particularly the economy and health central to Russians. Some of the domestic issues are discussed as follows.

Coronavirus Pandemic and Vaccine

On the current situation with coronavirus, Putin reminded efforts that are being taken inside Russia, called to global cooperation in the fight against the pandemic. While Russia claims to be the first in the race for vaccine, Putin said that cooperation between the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, and that of AstraZeneca on a coronavirus vaccine is particularly important for the whole world.

“There are a lot of rumors indeed, but I wouldn’t like to talk about this to the whole country and the whole world, especially considering that we don’t see any evidence confirming the accusations leveled at anyone. We should focus on something else, not look for culprits but combine efforts to fight the problem, and this would be the right line of our cooperation,” he said

The Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca is ready to work with Russia, and is in the process of signing a corresponding agreement. This is very good especially top-notch specialists – this is a large and good company with a global reputation – join forces, including with their Russian partners.

“Thank God, our foreign colleagues turned their faces towards us too and are ready for cooperation, they’re struggling with something, and the AstraZeneca company is ready to work with us, a relevant agreement is signed now. It is excellent, I am happy when experts of such a high level, – and it’s a good major company that’s internationally renowned – when they join efforts with Russian partners among others, I am sure the results will be a very good thing not only for our citizens, but the whole world,” he said.

Putin explained that as the pandemic ranges on, millions of coronavirus vaccine doses will have be produced in Russia at the beginning of next year. The primary objective is to vaccinate the Russian population. “Production of this vaccine requires relevant plants, enterprises, and hardware – all that will be scaled up. I expect all of these plans to be fulfilled and production of millions of vaccine doses to be ensured next year, at the beginning of the year,” he said.

With regard to cooperation with other countries, it will boost the technological capabilities, enterprises to produce the vaccine, foreign countries will invest their own money into expanding their production capacities and purchasing the corresponding equipment.

Foreign countries will be investing in these projects: the enlargement of production facilities and the purchase of equipment. “As for cooperation with foreign countries: nothing is stopping us from manufacturing vaccine components at facilities in other countries precisely because we need time to enhance technological capacities of our vaccine manufacturing enterprises. This does not hinder vaccination in the Russian Federation in any way,” he said.

Domestic politics, Employment and Living Standards

He spoke extensively about domestic economy and measures that are needed to improve the situation. “We all know that this was a challenging year, to an extent that I can hardly find the right words to describe it. It is a matter of concern for all of us: the coronavirus pandemic. However, not only Russia, but also the entire world has been hit by this scourge,” he stressed.

What is a pandemic? It means lockdowns, curbed production, declining passenger and cargo traffic and all that goes with it. Unfortunately, it also means fewer jobs, and lower incomes. This has all become a reality.

“As I have said at the outset, this is a challenging situation. When I said that the pandemic caused the shutdown of several manufacturers, rising unemployment and a decline in disposable incomes, these were not empty words, and not something that can be overlooked. This means that we see and understand what is going on,” he said.

Unemployment rate in Russian was 4.7 percent at the beginning of 2020; now, as you know, it has grown to 6.3 percent, he pointed out, and added, “Everything we do to support the economy, to support the affected industries, is aimed at maintaining employment. We have [unemployment at] 6.3 percent now, but I hope that over the next year, we will be able to bring it down to the earlier figures. A positive trade balance be considered as a good indicator. It creates conditions for good macroeconomic development.”

Some statistics have shown that in 2000, 29 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Almost one third of the country earned less than the subsistence level. One person out of three lived below the poverty line earning less than the subsistence level. In 2017, it was 12.3 percent of the population below the poverty line. Unfortunately, today this level increased to 13.5 percent, due to internal problems. Of course, 20 million people is still too many.

Of course, there is a plan, according Putin. Reducing the number of people below the poverty line is one of our key priorities. First, here is the plan: by 2030, the need to bring down the share of the population living in poverty from the current 13.5 percent to 6.5 percent. Having 6.5 percent of the population earning less than the subsistence level is still not good, but the need to be realistic. This is a far-reaching, but feasible goal, according Putin.

He, however, offered an elaboration on what should be done. “But the main point, is that we need to develop the economy, reach the national development goals and implement national projects that contain these goals, create new jobs, raise the economy to a new level meeting the latest requirements, as well as develop artificial intelligence, digitization and modern production lines that would allow people to have interesting jobs and receive decent incomes. The entire package of our measures envisaged by the national projects aimed at reaching these goals.”

Domestic Tourism

Putin used the platform to promote Russia’s domestic tourism. He urged the media, those who work online to support the development of domestic tourism, show and talk more often about the opportunities that the country and its various regions offer for Russian citizens and guests from abroad. In general, it would be great if Russian nationals explore domestic tourism opportunities more. They can benefit from the related government support measures and go to St Petersburg. There is no need to open borders for this.

Air travel has been among the affected sectors. “In this sense, it is definitely important to enable airlines to serve Russian destinations and for our companies to operate overseas routes. We have 32 million people flying abroad every year. Let’s redirect this passenger flow to St Petersburg. These people spend $35 billion abroad every year. If we can attract them to domestic destinations and thus promote domestic tourism, this would be great. St Petersburg deserves it. I am certain that we will succeed. It will happen as soon as it becomes possible,” he said about domestic tourism.

“The government should provide the necessary support, of course, infrastructural primarily. We will allocate appropriate funds for this; money has been earmarked. As I have said, we will support business in general, including regional businesses, and an agency is being created that is responsible for domestic tourism exclusively,” he informed the conference participants.

Putin’s first news conference in 2001 was also the shortest one lasted for one hour and 35 minutes. In 2019, Putin spent 4 hours and 18 minutes on the podium in front of the audience to answer questions from 57 mass media outlets.

As usual, the news conference was broadcast live by Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24, Channel One, NTV and MIR television channels, as well as Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii radio stations. According the official document, a total of 774 journalists were accredited at the news conference, including 237 at the International Trade Center.

Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, there were special platforms set up in all federal districts (Tula, St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, Stavropol, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok), where representatives of regional media participated and asked questions, while some representatives of federal and foreign media representatives worked at the World Trade Centre in Moscow.

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Relegating the “Russia Problem” to Turkey

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Image credit: Prezident.Az

Turkey’s foreign policy is at a crossroads. Its Eurasianist twist is gaining momentum and looking east is becoming a new norm. Expanding its reach into Central Asia, in the hope of forming an alliance of sorts with the Turkic-speaking countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — is beginning to look more realistic. In the north, the north-east, in Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, there is an identifiable geopolitical arc where Turkey is increasingly able to puncture Russia’s underbelly.

Take Azerbaijan’s victory in Second Karabakh War. It is rarely noticed that the military triumph has also transformed the country into a springboard for Turkey’s energy, cultural and geopolitical interests in the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia. Just two months after the November ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey signed a new trade deal with Azerbaijan. Turkey also sees benefits from January’s Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan agreement which aims to jointly develop the Dostluk (Friendship) gas field under the Caspian Sea, and it recently hosted a trilateral meeting with the Azerbaijani and Turkmen foreign ministers. The progress around Dostlug removes a significant roadblock on the implementation of the much-touted Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) which would allow gas to flow through the South Caucasus to Europe. Neither Russia nor Iran welcome this — both oppose Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy hub and finding new sources of energy.

Official visits followed. On March 6-9, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Defense cooperation, preferential trade deals, and a free trade agreement were discussed in Tashkent. Turkey also resurrected a regional trade agreement during a March 4 virtual meeting of the so-called Economic Cooperation Organization which was formed in 1985 to facilitate trade between Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Though it has been largely moribund, the timing of its re-emergence is important as it is designed to be a piece in the new Turkish jigsaw.

Turkey is slowly trying to build an economic and cultural basis for cooperation based on the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency founded in 1991 and the Turkic Council in 2009. Although Turkey’s economic presence in the region remains overshadowed by China and Russia, there is a potential to exploit. Regional dependence on Russia and China is not always welcome and Central Asian states looking for alternatives to re-balance see Turkey as a good candidate. Furthermore, states such as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are also cash-strapped, which increases the potential for Turkish involvement.

There is also another dimension to the eastward push. Turkey increasingly views Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as parts of an emerging geopolitical area that can help it balance Russia’s growing military presence in the Black Sea and in the South Caucasus. With this in mind, Turkey is stepping up its military cooperation not only with Azerbaijan, but also with Georgia and Ukraine. The recent visit of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Turkey highlighted the defense and economic spheres. This builds upon ongoing work of joint drone production, increasing arms trade, and naval cooperation between the two Black Sea states.

The trilateral Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey partnership works in support of Georgia’s push to join NATO. Joint military drills are also taking place involving scenarios of repelling enemy attacks targeting the regional infrastructure.

Even though Turkey and Russia have shown that they are able to cooperate in different theaters, notably in Syria, they nonetheless remain geopolitical competitors with diverging visions. There is an emerging two-pronged strategy Turkey is now pursuing to address what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees as a geopolitical imbalance. Cooperate with Vladimir Putin where possible, but cooperate with regional powers hostile to Russia where necessary.

There is one final theme for Turkey to exploit. The West knows its limits. The Caspian Sea is too far, while an over-close relationship with Ukraine and Georgia seems too risky. This creates a potential for cooperation between Turkey and the collective West. Delegating the “Russia problem” to Turkey could be beneficial, though it cannot change the balance of power overnight and there will be setbacks down the road.

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The Future of the Arctic

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The harsh ecological conditions of the Arctic in the past have sustained economic activity in the region. Climate change, new technologies and innovations open new perspectives for the development of these territories. The Arctic has turned into one of the hotspots of geopolitics: global and regional players are striving to expand their borders. Watching the Arctic is a complex problem, so the solution can only be secured by integrating the forces of all parties in the Arctic.

It is impossible to discuss the development of the Arctic from the standpoint “whether we are going to exploit it or not”, as the industrial development of the Arctic started about 100 years ago. Today 10 million people live around Arctic, only about 10% of them are indigenous peoples. The main question is how we can make this development responsible and sustainable to ensure all three aspects – economic, social and environmental – in the long term and who should be a stakeholder in this activity.

Scientists from Russia, Norway and Iceland, despite the difficulties and deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, are conducting an active dialogue on the future of the Arctic. They call for enhanced cooperation and joint development of the Arctic for the benefit of humanity, not for geopolitical confrontation, because “Together we are stronger.” Scientists have also called for attracting the capabilities of space satellites to conquer the Arctic and solve various tasks and problems. They hope to strengthen public and private investment in human capital, for better education, to attract more talented people, to create high-paying  jobs for young people, to create and develop smart cities. The Arctic is an excellent opportunity for a clean and green economy, for Industry 4.0 and for the creation of new industries.

As part of the High North Dialogue Arctic 2050: Mapping the future, a panel discussion was held on April 23, 2021. The umbrella theme of all Arctic 2050 presentations: Mapping The Future of the Arctic and exhibitors tried to give their views on development and change in the Arctic over the next few decades from the standpoint of economy, trade and maritime transport, energy, ecology and social trends. During the panel Russian scientists from the Skolkovo School of Management, one of the leading research centers in Russia and their Norwegian colleagues discussed possible scenarios for the development of the Arctic in the next 30 years

Although almost all exhibitors were wary of more accurate predictions given the many factors that potentially determine the course of events in this area, the general impression that could be gained from different presentations is that greater importance is expected in this area in world economic and traffic flows. Development opportunities in mining, energy and maritime transport are great, but there are also great unknowns and potential temptations regarding the mutual rivalry of countries in this area, regulating legal and policy frameworks for the implementation of development policies and finally regarding climate change and risk environment.

The ability to think long-term, and to maintain a balance between all three dimensions, is what is called a ‘sustainable mindset’ and this is exactly what the Arctic needs from leaders now and in the future. A new leadership agenda emerges in each and every sector, reflecting the paradigm shift: policymakers will have to work towards creating an enabling environment, incentivizing more responsible investment in the Arctic, instead of trying to find a balance between economic activity and environmental footprint business needs to turn away from the cost reduction imperative and concentrate on creating innovation in technology and business models that together will make it possible to do business in the Arctic sustainably, which means both at the new level of productivity as well as in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. NGOs must concentrate on facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogs aimed at finding a balance of interests, rather than lobbying for limiting policies and challenging business activity in the region.  What is more important, is that, just as with the triple bottom line, these paradigm shifts should be synchronized and synergetic. The sustainable future of the Arctic tarts with the sustainable thinking of the leaders of today.

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Disagreements between States Should Be Resolved in a Peaceful Manner Based on International Law

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has appreciated the role of Pakistan in the peace process of Afghanistan. He said that Russia expects that the meeting of the extended ‘Troika’ will give a necessary impetus to the Intra-Afghan negotiation and active role of Pakistan in the preparation of this event is appreciable.

Visiting Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed these views during in an interview and its important points are shared below:

Q1.: Recently, another round of consultations took place in Moscow as part of the extended “Troika” on Afghanistan, which will likely to be followed by a session of talks in Doha. What are the prospects for an intra-Afghan dialogue given that the government of President Ashraf Ghani avoids such negotiations? How will peace and security in South Asia be affected by India’s unilateral actions in Kashmir, its active participation in the “Quad” (USA-India-Japan-Australia) and its dispute over the border areas with China?

Answer: We expect that the meeting of the extended “Troika” of March 18, 2021 will give a necessary impetus to the intra-Afghan negotiations. We note the active role of the Pakistani side in the preparation of this event. Moscow also hosted separate meetings between the Afghan delegation (headed by the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah) and representatives of the Taliban. We consider it important that both sides speak in favour of intensifying the intra-Afghan negotiation process.

As for New Delhi’s participation in the “Quad”, we proceed from the fact that India as a responsible world power determines its foreign policy priorities by itself. At the same time we are convinced that disagreements between states in any region of the world including, of course, South Asia, should be resolved in a peaceful, civilized manner based on international law. Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is ready to assist this in every possible way.

In principle we do not support the creation of divisive geopolitical structures in the spirit of the cold war. In modern conditions there is demand for such multilateral associations, initiatives and concepts which are based on the principles of inclusiveness, collegiality and equality. It is this philosophy that underlies the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Moscow, Islamabad and New Delhi are members, he said.

Russia is interested in building up cooperation with the Pakistani, Indian and other partners in Eurasia. We have common interests, above all, ensuring security and improving the quality of life of the peoples of our countries. A unifying agenda is being promoted by the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin to develop Greater Eurasian Partnership. Participation in it is open to all states of the continent, including the members of the EAEU, SCO, ASEAN, as well as, in case there is such interest, the European Union. Systematic implementation of the initiative will not only strengthen positive connectivity and improve the competitiveness of all participants but will also be a solid foundation in building a common continental space of peace and stability, he said.

Q2.: Your comments on the global multilateral response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the issue of equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines. What role could the UN and other multilateral organizations play in resolving conflicts and ensuring the rule of law in relations between states?

Answer: Despite efforts to curb the coronavirus infection, unfortunately, the international community has not fully coped with this dangerous challenge. The current crisis not only reminds of the enduring value of a human life but also shows again that sooner or later most of the problems of our time become common. To tackle them efficiently we need to unite. Therefore from the very beginning we urged our partners to take joint steps. Now it is especially important to suspend trade barriers, illegitimate sanctions and restrictions in the financial, technological and information spheres.

The epidemic has demythologized the idea of superiority of the ultra-liberal model of development. It is obvious that self-sufficient countries with clearly formulated national interests demonstrate greater stress resistance. Those who took the path of ceding their independence, part of national sovereignty to others lost. We regard WHO as the main international platform for coordinating global efforts in the fight against the pandemic. We presume that, on the whole, the Organization is coping with its functions. We will continue to provide multifaceted support to it.

Russia is one of the leaders in the field of global health care. We will continue to contribute to international efforts to combat COVID-19. We will continue to help the affected states both in bilateral formats and within multilateral structures. Our accumulated potential for countering infections allowed us to develop and launch the production of the Sputnik V vaccine in a short space of time. To date two more Russian vaccines against the new coronavirus infection have been registered.

Now the priority is vaccination of the population. Of course, the issue of an equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines is very sensitive, especially for the poorest countries. In this regard we are ready to deliver safe and efficient Russian vaccines on a transparent basis. A lot of work is being done on this track. We have agreements on the supply of our vaccines with more than 50 states. A number of countries have launched the production of Sputnik V.

As for the second part of the question, the subjunctive mood is not entirely appropriate here. Same as 75 years ago, the UN is the “cornerstone” of the international legal architecture and its Security Council bears the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.

Despite the growing challenges, the UN on the whole successfully copes with its responsibilities to resolve conflicts. As an example, I can mention more than ten peacekeeping operations currently deployed in various parts of the world. Even amid the difficulties caused by the pandemic, the Blue Helmets continue to fulfill their duty with dignity.

Russia as a founding member of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council advocates strengthening the central role of the Organization in the world affairs. Our constant priority is to contribute to the formation of a more just and democratic, multipolar world order. It should be based on the UN Charter and not on dubious concepts such as the “rules-based order” promoted by Washington and its allies.

Q3.: How close are the views of Russia and Pakistan on the various regional and international issues such as Afghanistan, peace and prosperity in South Asia and the Middle East? What are the plans for the development of trade and economic cooperation between the two countries especially in energy and other sectors as well as in defense?

Answer: Moscow and Islamabad enjoy friendly, constructive relations which are based on the concurrence or similarity of approaches to the majority of topical issues of the international and regional agenda. Among them are the issues of strategic stability and of course Afghanistan. Suffice it to say that during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly the Pakistani partners supported all draft resolutions submitted by Russia and co-sponsored most of them. And, of course, we appreciate the contribution of Islamabad to the advancement of national reconciliation in Afghanistan, including through the mechanism of the extended “Troika” as mentioned above. I would like to note that our states are consistent proponents of settling conflicts including in the Middle East and North Africa solely by political and diplomatic means in compliance with the principles of the UN Charter.

In the area of bilateral relations our priorities are well known. These are, above all, cooperation in combatting terrorism as well as trade and economic ties. We will continue to provide assistance in strengthening the anti-terrorist potential of the Pakistani law enforcement agencies through joint exercises including “Druzhba” (Friendship) and the “Arabian Monsoon”.

In the field of practical cooperation we also have a lot to be proud of. The past year saw a record volume of bilateral trade: it grew by 46% and reached $790 million. We are making necessary efforts to start the construction of the North-South gas pipeline – the flagship project in the energy sector. We hope that all remaining technical issues will be agreed upon in the very near future. Russian companies are ready to participate in the modernization of the energy sector and the railroad system of Pakistan.

From our partner RIAC

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