Top stories in the Russian press on Wednesday, March 25, prepared by TASS
Izvestia: Israeli-Palestinian tensions take back seat amid anti-coronavirus scare
The Palestinians hope that amid the coronavirus outbreak Israel and the United States would ditch "the deal of the century," proposed by US President Donald Trump, Palestinian Ambassador to Moscow Abdel Hafiz Nofal said in an interview with Izvestia. According to him, the common threat has helped consolidate both political forces in Palestine — Fatah and Hamas — and also reconciled them during the fighting between the Arabs and Israel. According to the latest data, some 60 coronavirus cases have been recorded in the Palestinian territories, including the Gaza Strip, while over 1,600 people have been infected in Israel. The envoy noted that Russian organizations have expressed readiness to deliver medication to the Palestinians if the situation worsened.
"All disputes between us and the Israelis have temporarily taken a back seat. Last week, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, asking him for cooperation in beating the coronavirus. A joint crisis center to combat the infection was set up," the ambassador told Izvestia.
Nofal highlighted the shared understanding about the need for coordinating the policy of both sides in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The ambassador explained that on March 5, a state of emergency was introduced as well as a ban on leaving home without any dire need and a curfew. This enabled Palestine to limit the number of the coronavirus cases to 60 and no deaths have been recorded.
Moreover, 17 people have fully recovered, while others are in satisfactory condition. "At the moment, we are trying to iron out minor disputes with Israel regarding the situation of Palestinians working in Israel," he noted.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Kabul to lose $1 bln in US aid over political rift
The Trump administration has promised to cut $1 bln in financial aid to Afghanistan, according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who held talks with Afghan politicians on March 23. Washington is dissatisfied by the dual power formation in the Islamic Republic, which occurred due to the local elite’s refusal to recognize the outcome of the presidential election, which secured Ashraf Ghani’s re-election, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.
Alternative power structures emerged in Afghanistan after Ghani’s victory in the presidential election was officially declared on February 18. His key rival, Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah, refused to recognize the election’s outcome and announced plans to set up his own government. Against this background, Abdullah’s cohorts, parallel governors, started seizing power in some Afghan provinces. The prime minister held his own inauguration ceremony in Kabul on March 9, the day when his rival was officially sworn in as president. At the March 23 talks in Kabul, Ghani and Abdullah told the US Secretary of State that they were unable to agree on a power formula. After signing the deal with the Taliban (outlawed in Russia) in Qatar, obviously Washington’s priority goal was to launch dialogue between the Afghan political elite and the Taliban movement. However, such talks are impossible when there is a parallel government in Afghanistan, the paper writes.
Omar Nessar, a senior fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Pompeo’s announcement on cutting aid to Kabul could affect security in the country. "The lion’s share of US assistance is spent on Afghan law enforcement structures," the analyst noted. "In view of this, the reduction in the future package could weaken the Afghan army and police. Certainly, this will also affect the national economy."
The US move is of great political importance as it chiefly deals a blow to Ghani’s position, the expert stressed.
Media: Car production, spare parts at risk in Russia over European plant closures
For the first time in Russia, car plants have been halting production due to the lack of European auto parts amid the coronavirus outbreak. After the shutdown in Europe, auto giants PSA (Peugeot Societe Anonyme) and Volkswagen have suspended production in Russia and Volvo Trucks is mulling these plans. However, this is just the beginning: European cars, including premium class BMW and Mercedes, as well as Renault are in jeopardy. Although the French giant has been highly localized in Russia, it could face problems with certain models. This situation could also affect Russia’s domestic vehicles, Kommersant business daily writes. Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade admits that other foreign carmakers could also stop production.
Meanwhile, plants in South Korea have resumed operations and these cars are not under threat now. Although Japanese plants are not reporting major problems, Toyota, Mazda-Sollers and Nissan partly depend on supplies from Europe and in the coming weeks they could also suspend production in Russia.
Market sources told Kommersant that it’s unreal to replace European components at short notice. Even if an alternative is found, carmakers will have to change logistics and this will take some time. Analysts predict there will be no problems with car supplies if plants in Europe resume production within two months.
Head of analytical department at AMarkets Artem Deyev told Izvestia that a 14-day suspension of production could cost Volkswagen up to 11 bln rubles ($140 mln) and PSA could lose several billion. According to the expert, the ruble depreciation amid the quarantine is not a lesser threat for the domestic car market than COVID-19.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Tehran’s coronavirus conspiracy theory fuels Iran-US tensions
The coronavirus pandemic has added fuel to the fire of the infowar between Iran and the United States, with Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei blaming the US for creating the virus. In turn, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that by covering up information on the number of coronavirus cases, the Iranian authorities are jeopardizing their citizens and other countries. This heated rhetoric came after staunch Iranian conservatives, dissatisfied with President Hassan Rouhani’s attempts to improve ties with the West, won the parliamentary elections.
Nina Mamedova, who heads the Iran Section at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Trump’s anti-Iranian policy, namely withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Tehran’s nuclear program, played into the hands of far-right forces in the country. This was confirmed by the outcome of the voting for Iran’s parliament Majlis. "Die-hard Conservatives have secured the overwhelming majority. The sway of moderate President Hassan Rouhani has ebbed. After Trump’s decision, the process of democratization, which had just begun, stopped."
The president’s supporters hoped that the US would ease sanctions amid the coronavirus outbreak, but this did not happen. "The positions of Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have strengthened, but this does not mean that the IRGC is imposing its decisions on the top authorities and the presidential administration. It is not ruled out that the Supreme leader would change his views. This happened earlier. Then, a new deal on nuclear and other issues will be signed with the US. In this case, the Iranians would see that Ali Khamenei can achieve what Rouhani and his allies failed to do. This would boost the role of the clergy in the Islamic Republic," Mamedova noted.
Izvestia: Tourism companies in Russia may lose 25% of annual revenues
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, tourism businesses in major Russian cities could lose a quarter of their annual revenues. The virus could cost Moscow some 100 billion rubles ($1.3 mln), market sources told Izvestia. Hotels are facing a major crisis. The flow of tourists to Moscow and St. Petersburg has plunged 95% when compared with the same period last year.
Due to reduced business activity, the number of tourists to other cities such as Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Samara and Vladivostok, where people usually come on business trips, has declined.
According to Maya Lomidze, executive director of the Russian Association of Tour Operators, so far the authorities have not ordered a ban on travel across the country or on closing hotels and recreation centers. However, St. Petersburg and other cities hotels are temporarily shutting down due to the lack of tourists.
"The situation at hotels in major cities is a disaster, the percent of bookings there is just 5-12%. The hotel owners have been forced to lay off staff. As a result, some 1 mln or 1.5 mln people across Russia could lose their jobs," Vice President of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers Vadim Prasov predicts. There are more than 1,500 hotels in Moscow alone, with two-thirds of them owned by small and medium-sized businesses, and half of them are empty now, Chairman of the Commission for Hoteliers at Moscow’s branch of the Opora Rossii civic association Igor Lavrik told the paper.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Russians have been vigorously booking hotels in the southern Krasnodar Region and Crimea for the summer. Current demand is 30% higher than in March 2019.
However, by the summer, most tour companies, which specialized in outbound tourism, are likely to be closed. "If the pandemic ends by at least this summer, 30% of companies will be shut down, and this is the most optimistic forecast," Lomidze stressed.