Russia: Chemical Weapons Deal A Good Start, But Syria Peace Is Still Far Off (+video)

With the country’s rate of economic growth declining toward zero, Medvedev is making a renewed effort to show the business community that he knows what to do. In an unusually long article published in the business daily Vedomosti, he acknowledged that what growth the country has is largely artificial, that the government is too dependent on revenue from the oil industry, and that Russia offers a terrible environment for investment. “Output growth is supported almost exclusively by large investment projects financed by the government and state-owned companies, salary raises in the public sector, an expansion of subsidies to agriculture and other sectors fueled by the high oil price,” Medvedev wrote. In other words, Russia’s economy might not be growing at all if the government wasn’t pouring oil money into subsidies and infrastructure projects, such as the preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and the soccer World Cup in 2018. The private investment needed to replace the government spending, he wrote, isnt coming, in part because investors have an “understandable lack of trust in public institutions.” Besides, private business has a hard time competing with state-owned behemoths: State-controlled banks, for example, hold 53 percent of the Russian economy’s entire loan portfolio. “We are at a crossroads,” Medvedev wrote. “Russia can continue going forward in slow motion, with economic growth close to zero, or it can take a serious step forward.” The second path “is fraught with risk,” while the first “leads to a precipice.” Few economists would argue with the diagnosis. “The head of the cabinet has largely learned to name the correct reasons for the country’s predicament,” Maxim Blant wrote on the opposition website ej.ru. Sergey Aleksashenko, director of macroeconomic studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, agreed : “It’s a good thing that this has at least been said.” The biggest flaw in Medvedev’s lengthy program, critics said, was the paucity of solutions. All he offered was a slowdown in tariff increases at Russia’s state-owned utilities and some small-business support in the form of tax breaks, loans and government contracts. He also expounded on the need to turn Moscow into an international financial center. “And that’s it,” Aleksashenko wrote. “What about safeguarding property rights and the quality of the judicial system, shrinking the state and using government resources effectively, what about privatization and infrastructure?” Medvedev’s article does not contain the word “corruption” or mention capital flight, expected to reach $70 billion this year. It offers no specific measures to foster competition, the focus of the latest World Bank report on Russia.

Russia charges all 30 Greenpeace activists with piracy

“Until recently we have been relying on our Western partners, who pledged to push the opposition to the negotiations table, and we hoped they would manage it quickly. But so far they have not succeeded. And I am not sure they will by mid-November,” Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow Tuesday. Russian experts say that if Western powers are serious about promoting a negotiated peace, they must first abandon the illusion that the growing body of jihadist-linked Syrian rebels can ever unify behind a democratic and secular program for the country. Sergei Markov, a political analyst who’s been a frequent adviser to President Vladimir Putin in the past, says there are groups of moderate rebels who could be induced to negotiate a peace settlement and political transition for Syria. But, he says, the US must first make a firm decision to exclude the jihadists as the common enemy of all, and work for a settlement between regime and moderate rebels. That’s a big leap for Washington, which still sees Assad as the main enemy and believes that the jihadist problem can be dealt with after the regime’s overthrow, Mr. Markov says. “The US and others are still backing militant Syrian oppositionists with arms and diplomatic support, even though Western public opinion more and more recognizes that these rebels are not democrats, but violent radicals aligned with Al Qaeda,” he says. “Because of this the preparations for a Geneva-2 peace conference are still not going well.” One continuing bone of contention, which drives the fundamentally opposing views of Russia and the West about the Syrian war, is the dispute over who used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, and on at least three earlier occasions. The West appears certain the Assad regime is to blame, while Russia argues that the rebels seeking to trigger US intervention on their side may be responsible .

Among those charged on Thursday was Russian freelance photojournalist Denis Sinyakov, a former AFP and Reuters staff photographer. The Kremlin’s council on human rights, an advisory body, said it was “extremely concerned” that the journalist covering the protest for a Russian online portal had been accused of piracy. “We unambiguously consider the arrest and the laying of the piracy charges against Denis Sinyakov as pressure on the media,” it said. Leading Russian media last week blacked out photographs on their websites in protest at his detention. Investigators on Wednesday charged a British freelance videographer. Those charged Thursday included the ship’s captain, American Peter Willcox. He was the captain of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ship, bombed by French agents in New Zealand in 1985. The activists are being held in pre-trial detention centres in Murmansk and the nearby town of Apatity above the Arctic Circle. Lawyers for the 30 have filed appeals against the decision to hold them in detention. President Vladimir Putin has said that in his opinion the activists were not pirates but had breached international law by getting dangerously close to the oil rig. ‘This is not justice, it’s a reprisal’ Campaign groups including Human Rights Watch have called for their release. The unusually tough charges for a protest has sparked comparisons with the case of the Pussy Riot punks who were last year sentenced to two years in a penal colony for demonstrating against Putin in a Moscow church. “This all reminds me very much of the case of Pussy Riot,” journalist Anton Orekh wrote on the website of popular radio station Moscow Echo.