Press review: Russia votes for president and EU three nix iced Russian funds for Kiev arms

MOSCOW:  Russia kicks off three-day voting period for presidential election; three EU member states come out against using investment return...

MOSCOW:  Russia kicks off three-day voting period for presidential election; three EU member states come out against using investment returns on frozen Russian assets to buy weapons for Kiev; and the US is attempting to reach out to the Houthis via Iran. These stories topped Friday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.

Izvestia: Presidential election kicks off across Russia with three-day voting period

Russia’s presidential election - the country’s biggest political event of the year - has kicked off with the start of voting on March 15, the first of three voting days. Polling stations will be open across the country’s 89 regions and 11 time zones and voters will have three days to cast their ballots to choose among four candidates to serve as Russia’s head of state for the next six years. This election campaign is being closely followed by Russians as well as observers from around the world. Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) is geared up to ward off the significant cyberattacks that are expected on voting systems as well as various manifestations of fake news and disinformation aimed at interfering with and discrediting the country's electoral procedures, Izvestia writes. However, CEC officials have issued assurances that the system is fully prepared and well protected.

As usual, poll watchers will be out in force, with over 156,000 people present at 94,000 polling stations nationwide to help ensure that voting proceeds fairly, transparently and smoothly. At the same time, observers from over 100 countries will be monitoring the process, the CEC told Izvestia.

Russian voters will be choosing from among four candidates: State Duma (lower house of parliament) Deputy Speaker Vladislav Davankov, nominee of the New People party; incumbent President Vladimir Putin, who is running as a self-nominated candidate; Leonid Slutsky, nominee of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR); and Nikolay Kharitonov, nominee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). This is the first large-scale election in which Russian voters will be able to make their democratic choice over several days, from March 15 to 17, in any format that suits them: at designated polling stations, at home, and online in one-third (29) of all Russian regions.

As of the beginning of 2024, the country had 112.3 mln registered voters, including in the new regions: the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Lugansk People's Republic (LPR), Zaporozhye Region and Kherson Region. At the same time, more than 2.3 mln citizens, mostly people living in remote areas, particularly in the Far North, Far East and Siberia, have already had the opportunity to vote through the early voting process.

Moreover, even before the election, since the beginning of the presidential campaign, 12 mln external hacking attacks on the CEC’s website have been recorded, compared to 1.2 mln last year.

In light of this, the CEC has made every effort to firmly protect all electoral processes from any possible interference, experts told Izvestia.

"Our work was dictated precisely by being prepared for such circumstances, such risks were included in the work plans, which we fully understood. We see this as an attack on Russian democracy because it involves the direct participation of [outside] intelligence services," Maxim Grigoriev, head of the Russian Civic Chamber's working group on public control of elections, told Izvestia.

The international community is also paying close attention to Russia's election campaign. The Central Election Commission told Izvestia that observers from over 100 nations have been accredited this year. In addition, the observer mission of the Commonwealth of Independent States sent about 200 people to 28 Russian regions. Through the Federal Assembly, the Russian parliament, delegations from 36 countries are participating as foreign observers of Russia’s presidential election.

Vedomosti: Three EU members oppose spending returns on frozen Russian assets on Kiev arms

Representatives of EU member states Hungary, Luxembourg and Malta expressed doubts during a meeting of EU ambassadors on March 13 about the proposal by European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen to use interest earned on Russian assets frozen in the EU to buy ammunition for Ukraine, Politico reports, citing an unnamed European official. According to critics of the initiative, it complicates further discussion of the issue of the use of frozen Russian assets and investment returns from them. At the same time, it was previously agreed within the EU that the funds should be used specifically for the restoration of Ukraine, Vedomosti writes.

There is still no legal basis for the confiscation of such frozen Russian assets, but since the end of last year laws have taken effect in the European Union on the use of income earned from them, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Director Ivan Timofeev told Vedomosti.

These revenues could be transferred to Ukraine, but in practice this has not happened yet. According to the expert, if decisions on the use of the revenues are made, they will be enshrined in law, and the banks and other financial institutions where these assets are being held will have to comply with them.

Most foreign policy decisions in the EU are made unanimously. Therefore, at the current stage, the prospect for transferring or using income from Russian assets to purchase weapons and ammunition for Ukraine seems doubtful. However, Artyom Sokolov, a researcher at the Center for European Studies at the Institute of International Relations at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), noted that if such a decision has a critical mass of supporters within the EU and gains the backing of the United States, it will eventually be accepted. "The relations of Malta, Luxembourg and even Hungary with Russia depend on the general orientation of relations between the EU and Moscow," the analyst stressed. According to him, even Hungary's desire for a constructive approach to relations with Russia has its limits.

The reluctance of these countries to use revenues from Russian assets in this way can be explained by the fear of the reciprocal measures that Russia might take in response to the European Union's actions. "Such reciprocal measures will hit those who had active trade and economic relations with Russia especially hard. At the same time, there are still forces in the EU that are prone to escalation and believe that any Russian retaliation can be dealt with and overcome," Sokolov concluded.

Kommersant: US tries to reach out to Yemen-based Houthis through Iran

The United States is trying to influence Yemen's Houthis not only militarily, but also diplomatically. According to the Financial Times (FT), Washington held secret talks with Iran in January to persuade the Islamic Republic to influence the Yemeni rebels to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea. Iran did not deny that the meeting took place, but noted that it was about something else entirely. Iranian authorities insist that resistance groups in the region do not receive instructions from Tehran, but the facts suggest that Iran still has considerable influence over its proxy forces, Kommersant writes.

Washington, according to the FT, has asked Tehran to use its influence with the Yemeni rebels to restore the safety of navigation in Red Sea shipping lanes. Since last October, the Houthis have carried out more than 100 attacks in the Red Sea and surrounding waters. They have targeted 15 merchant ships, including four US vessels.

An unnamed US diplomat told the FT that Washington considers Tehran to be the principal architect of the current instability in the region. The war in Gaza has led to the activation of all pro-Iranian militias. Since October, Lebanon-based Hezbollah has been shelling northern Israel, and US military bases in Iraq and Syria have been attacked by forces of the Islamic Resistance of Iraq, which are linked to Iran.

Ali Alfon, senior researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Kommersant, Tehran is not interested in changing the current position of the US towards Iran. At the same time, he said, contacts on this issue can be considered a form of leverage that allows Iran to negotiate on other issues. One of the concessions could be the unfreezing of Iranian funds held in accounts in South Korea. Last September, Tehran and Washington agreed on a prisoner swap and the release of Iranian assets. The funds were transferred to an account in Qatar, but were not ultimately transferred to Iran due to the outbreak of the war in Gaza.

Izvestia: NATO may agree to Chinese mediation in Ukrainian crisis

NATO may agree to a mediation role for China in the Ukrainian crisis, but only if Washington gives it the green light, Chinese and German political scientists told Izvestia. This scenario will come to fruition if the United States wants to quietly withdraw from the conflict and the European members of the alliance would automatically agree, the newspaper writes.

Chinese officials have engaged in shuttle diplomacy with the immediate parties to the conflict, as well as with individual NATO countries. The latest tour by Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui began with a visit to Russia on March 2. Li then visited Belgium, Poland, Ukraine, Germany and France.

Li Xin, director of the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Academy of International Studies and board member of the SCO National Research Center, told Izvestia that China has always sought peace and promoted negotiations. According to the expert, if Russia, Ukraine, the European countries and NATO believe that China is capable of acting as a mediator in general, Beijing is ready to serve as such a mediator. The key question is whether NATO is actually ready for a ceasefire in Ukraine, because it has been hoping all along to use this protracted confrontation to weaken Russia, he added.

"Western countries not only rejected the Chinese peace plan, they did not even want to discuss it. That is, they clearly showed China its place, since they do not consider it an independent party to the conflict," Alexey Fenenko, political scientist and associate professor in the Department of International Security at the Faculty of World Politics of Moscow State University, told Izvestia.

German political scientist Eike Hamer told the newspaper he believes that China could be the best mediator, because it is strong and has enough power to use its leverage in the negotiating process. However, he added that there is a problem with the US position because it is already developing its own conflict with China.

According to Hamer, Hungary could act as a mediator, but Budapest has its own differences with Kiev. Despite the fact that Turkey had come close to succeeding in its efforts, its reputation as a mediator has deteriorated due to the fact that Ankara has repeatedly violated agreements with Moscow. The Arab countries, according to the political scientist, are too pro-American, and their relations with Russia are still too weak.

Vedomosti: Armenian prime minister speaks in favor of deepening relations with EU

The Armenian government has the will and determination to deepen relations with the European Union (EU), Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on March 14 at a government meeting, commenting on the European Parliament's resolution adopted the day before on strengthening the organization's ties with Yerevan. The resolution, which proposes to study the possibility of granting Armenia candidate status for EU membership, was approved by 504 deputies, with four against and 32 abstaining. The document mentions that Russia still has a strong influence on the Armenian economy, Vedomosti writes.

Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) generally remain Yerevan's largest trading partners. In 2023, Armenia's trade turnover with the EAEU increased by 42.7% to $7.6 bln, according to data from the country's statistics authority. Russia's share was 90% with $7.3 bln (an increase of 43.3%), including $3.4 bln in imports from Armenia (+39%).

According to candidate of legal sciences Alexey Ispolinov, the Armenia-EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is currently in force between Armenia and the EU. So far, the CEPA does not prevent Yerevan from remaining in the EAEU, and the organization has no ban on cooperation with other interstate associations. "But if Armenia concludes an association agreement and then receives EU candidate status, it will have to reconsider its relations with the EAEU," the expert noted.

Sooner or later, Yerevan will have to make a choice, Ispolinov continues, even though Armenia is still far from European integration. In his opinion, the association agreement with the EU will not become a critical point for breaking relations with the EAEU. "But Russia and its partners in the association will not stand idly by, because it would mean Armenia violating its agreement obligations," he added.

Stanislav Pritchin, researcher at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at IMEMO RAS, told Vedomosti he believes that Yerevan will not be able to become a full member of the EU in the short or long term. According to him, the obstacle to the country's entry into the EU is not the presence of Russian troops on its territory, as the Western media say, but the geographical isolation of Armenia from Europe and its economic backwardness.

France is lobbying for Armenia's integration into the EU, Pavel Timofeev, head of the regional problems and conflicts sector at IMEMO RAS, noted. For Paris, this shows its own importance in confronting Russia in the Ukrainian conflict, and spites Turkey, whose membership in the EU the French have been blocking for decades, and attracts the attention of the significant Armenian diaspora in France.

TASS is not responsible for the material quoted in these press reviews

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Press review: Russia votes for president and EU three nix iced Russian funds for Kiev arms
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