Kommersant: Afghan conflict reaches Central Asia’s doorstep
The years-long standoff between the Taliban and the Afghan authorities has made itself felt in the post-Soviet area, knocking on Turkmenistan’s door. Tensions flared up when the Taliban attacked checkpoints on the Afghan-Turkmen border in the Badghis province. The incident has made it clear that the Taliban is searching for new inroads into Central Asia, demonstrating their growing strength in Russia’s zone of strategic interests, Kommersant notes, TASS reported.
Afghan border guards who had to fend off the offensive were largely outnumbered. As a result, the Taliban announced the success of its operation, adding that about 100 border guards had been captured. A bunch of Afghan military servicemen had to retreat and seek shelter in Turkmenistan but they were banned entry and ended up being taken into captivity. According to another version, a group of Afghan border guards managed to take refuge on Turkmenistan's soil and now the Taliban is demanding that Ashgabat return them to Afghanistan.
Experts interviewed by the newspaper believe that the Taliban are flexing their muscles in front of their regional neighbors, seeking new avenues into Central Asia. Apart from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan may also become such a route, but Ashgabat is trying to prevent it.
According to Arkady Dubnov, a Russian expert on Central Asia, Turkmenistan could have decided to hand over Afghan servicemen to the Taliban for practical reasons. "Since gaining independence, the Turkmen government has been buying the loyalty of the authorities along Afghanistan’s border provinces, which was its major tool for ensuring security. That includes not only official authorities but also those who actually wield power, even if it is the Taliban," the expert explained. As for the consequences of the recent border incident, Dubnov expects them to be quite serious for Turkmenistan. "Apart from the obviously deteriorating relations with Kabul, Ashgabat will now have to abandon plans to step forward as a host of future intra-Afghan talks," he said.
"Ashgabat’s response to such incidents proves that international law is far from respected," Kazakh expert on Afghanistan Alexander Knyazev pointed out. "Decisions are made based on short-term goals. In the 1990s, the Turkmens used to permit passage through their territory to Taliban militants surrounded by government forces. And in the current situation, Ashgabat just tried to avoid being involved in the Afghan conflict," he added.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Cabinet reshuffle surprise in store for Venezuela
While facing a deep political crisis, Venezuela’s incumbent President Nicolas Maduro is planning to reorganize the government in order to protect the South American country from "any threat." Experts offer several possible reasons behind this move, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.
Director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Dmitry Razumovsky pointed out that it was a popular regional practice during times of crises.
"Experts have been pointing out that in order to find a way out of the situation, the Chavistas, who are reluctant to hold any elections other than National Assembly ones, need to put forward an alternative," he noted. "According to some information, the Chavistas have a plan B to introduce new political figures not associated with Maduro," the expert added.
Among such figures, he named Miranda state Governor Hector Rodriguez. "He is a young administrator, a Chavista, who somehow resembles Guaido and is close to him in age. He is being kept behind the curtains from the current developments, including the blackout, so that people will not connect his name to them," Razumovsky said. "If a new cabinet involves figures such as Rodriguez, it will probably indicate efforts to pave the way for a successor to Maduro," he emphasized.
According to the expert, divisions among the Chavistas may be another reason for a total reshuffle of the Maduro government. "There are enough Maduro critics among Chavez's followers, who insist on holding talks with Guaido," Razumovsky noted.
And finally, the expert did not rule out that the military could have a role in the cabinet reshuffle. "The military understands it is useless to support Maduro because he is already very unpopular in the country, so it could have carried out an internal coup and seized the power," he assumed. The fact that Maduro has been attending public events less frequently indirectly proves this theory.
In any case, Razumovsky believes it is too early to draw unequivocal conclusions from the Venezuelan cabinet reshuffle. "We need to wait until new cabinet members are announced to see who they are and whether they are loyal to Maduro or represent the military," he stressed.
Izvestia: Why Vucic is hesitant to use force against demonstrations in Serbia
Protests in Serbia escalated a week ahead of the 20th anniversary of NATO’s bombings of Yugoslavia. Serbian officials told Izvestia that the authorities in Belgrade were reluctant to use force against the protesters so that they wouldn’t have to face Western accusations as the tragic date approaches.
An escalation of protests a week ahead of the 20th anniversary of NATO’s bombings is hardly a coincidence, Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee First Deputy Chairman Vladimir Dzhabarov told the newspaper. According to him, there are some forces in the Serbian opposition "that seek a quick rapprochement with the West." It is possible that they will take advantage of the current rise in tensions. "At the same time, they believe that relations with the West should improve at the expense of relations with Russia. However, I think that Russia has been and will remain one of the most important allies and partners for the vast majority of Serbs," the senator pointed out. In his view, the opposition has the right to carry out any activities as long as they are legal but violating the law should not be tolerated. Either way, this is Serbia’s domestic affair, in which Russia has no plans to interfere, Dzhabarov emphasized.
Events in Serbia are developing in accordance with a "colored revolution" scenario but this time, the word "colorless" would be more appropriate, Leading Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for European Studies Pavel Kandel said. "Vucic is expected to fulfill the promise he gave to his western sponsors: to normalize relations with Pristina. In fact, it is about Serbia recognizing Kosovo’s independence. Washington and Brussels haven’t written this option off yet. However, Vucic and his party have been in power long enough. And given the high unemployment rate, particularly among the youth, low living standards and impoverished pensioners, it is clear that the protest potential is rather high," the expert told the paper.
According to Balkan experts, the protests may become critical for Vucic under two conditions: if the Serbian authorities decide to use force against the opposition, which is what the president has been trying to avoid in every possible way, and if some decisive steps towards Kosovo are taken, though the authorities in Pristina have been vigorously seeking to undermine dialogue. Under such a situation, the Serbian leader will have less of a chance to retain his post.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: China relies on growing consumption, while Russia bets on national projects
Deep differences between the economic policies of Beijing and Moscow have become evident after Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s program was translated into Russian, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Russia’s authorities set artificial restrictions to limit consumer demand, increase taxes and cut state expenditures, while the Chinese government pursues a policy route that is the total opposite. Beijing reduces taxes, increases state expenditures and encourages consumption, experts note.
China’s bet on domestic consumption is based not only on the domestic and international situation of recent years, which includes a declining economic consumption trend, but also on fears that such a situation might trigger rising social tensions, said Locko Bank Management Board Deputy Chairman Andrei Lyushin.
Ekaterina Novikova, an associate professor from the Economic Theory Department at the Plekhanov Economics University agrees that for the past ten years, the Chinese government has been relying on the development of internal consumption and the domestic market. "In this regard, China reduces taxes to encourage both consumers and companies," she emphasized. "But in our case, the tax increase comes from the pursuit for funds needed to carry out the president’s May Decrees rather than from the need to boost the national economy, although lightening the tax burden could help support the Russian economy and gain additional resources to carry out other state projects," the expert pointed out.
Moscow chose a different path, encouraging investment demand rather than consumer demand, Finam analyst Alexei Kalachev said. "They decided to amass a huge piggy bank to fund 12 national projects and the comprehensive plan for upgrading and expanding backbone infrastructure. That said, the need to collect substantial funds led to an increase in taxes instead of a decline, like in China," he explained.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials’ statements are a typical declaration of intent, said Sergei Khestanov, an associate professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. "China has been speaking for a long time about its plans to move from export-driven growth to growth based on domestic consumption. However, it is a big question whether this goal is achievable in practice. For now, it sounds more like the usual declarations, while the real thing is nowhere to be seen," the expert explained.
Izvestia: Moscow to request US send jailed pilot back to Russia
Russia’s Ministry of Justice will ask the United States to hand over jailed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko to Moscow so that he can continue to serve out his sentence in his native country, Izvestia wrote, citing the ministry’s letter to the pilot.
"The US Justice Department’s letter concerning the April 20, 2017 decision to reject a request to hand you over to Russia to further serve out your prison sentence, informed the Russian Justice Ministry that the issue could be reconsidered after two years," the document reads.
According to the newspaper, a relevant request will be sent after April 20.
"As for the previous attempts to ensure my return based on my requests, all of them failed. The last time, we had to wait for a response for over seven months," Yaroshenko told the paper. "Even Moscow’s suggestion to exchange me for 13 American inmates did not work. Certainly, I greatly hope that this time things will turn out differently and my transfer takes place this year. I can only pray for this outcome," he added.
There is almost no other way to bring the Russian pilot back home. His wife and mother have appealed to US President Donald Trump but their appeals remained unanswered. The pilot’s dire health condition complicates the situation.
Sources in the US Department of Justice told Izvestia that the program for the transfer of sentenced persons applied to convicts who faced difficulties in serving out their sentences away from home. Until a decision is made, talks are being held between the US Department of State and the relevant agency from the country seeking to use that mechanism. It means that given Yaroshenko’s serious health problems, he qualifies for the program.