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Astana Talks on Syria continues despite setbacks; Next round will occur within a month

Russia considers the second round of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan a success; Astana discussions were an important step towards solving the Syrian crisis

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Participants of Syria peace talks attend a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, Feb. 16, 2017, VOA

Moscow, February 20, 2017: Russia considers the second round of Syria peace talks, held this week in Astana (Kazakhstan), a success, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Saturday.

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The director of the ministry’s Middle East and North Africa department, Sergey Vershinin, told Russian state media the talks in Astana were an important step toward resolving the Syrian crisis.

Three guarantor countries — Russia and Iran, which back the Syrian government, and Turkey, which backs some rebels opposed to it — organized the talks in Kazakhstan. In addition to the host country, others attending included representatives from Damascus and armed Syrian opposition groups, the United Nations and various observers, such as the United States and Jordan.

Delegations at the talks in the Kazakh capital were smaller and lower-level than they were during the first round of the Astana Process in January. They were unable to agree on a final statement, and there was still no direct dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition. Despite those factors, Russian officials gave an optimistic assessment of the results.

“I would say that it is going to take a long period of time to realize direct negotiations between the two sides of the Syrian conflict,” Russia’s delegation head, Alexander Lavrentiev, said. “… Little mutual trust exists between them. They have been accusing each other all the time. But I believe that we have to move … forward step by step, leaving no room for more conflicts.”

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Tensions simmer

The talks began a day later than scheduled. The head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar Jaafari, said the lack of agreement on a final statement was caused by the late arrivals of the Syrian opposition and Turkish delegations. Jaafari said those involved were irresponsible, and he accused them of aiming to disrupt discussions.

Syrian rebels said there was no final statement, considered a bare minimum for most such negotiations, because cease-fire conditions were not being met. Armed opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad say the Damascus government and its supporters regularly violate the truce.

The head of Assad’s delegation repeated accusations that Turkey was supporting terrorism and called on Ankara to withdraw its troops from Syrian territory and close its border. Jaafari said Turkish forces were violating Syria’s sovereignty.

Turkish troops have been fighting two foes in Syria: extremists from the Islamic State group, which Turkey is attempting to push back from its border with Syria, and Kurdish militias that Ankara contends are controlled by alleged terrorists from the militant group YPG. Turkish commanders said Friday that they were close to expelling all IS fighters from Syria’s al-Bab town.

Jaafari complained that Turkey had downgraded its representatives in Astana to lower-level officials, but the Syrian rebels’ delegation also was diminished, with representatives of only nine armed groups present, down from 14 when the talks began in January.

And while U.N. officials took part in the meetings, the head of their group, U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, traveled instead to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

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Astana supported

In the Russian capital, de Mistura said there was strong support for the Astana talks, “because we feel that focusing on the cessation of hostilities is the beginning of everything related to any negotiations on Syria. And … that helps — and is helping — the holding of the Geneva talks.”

Talks on Syria are expected to take place in Geneva on Thursday, after bilateral discussions beginning on Monday.

However, the head of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, Vasily Kuznetsov, said he was much less optimistic about what could be achieved when the talks shift to Switzerland.

“While you discuss the problem on the ground, the military problems, you can have some progress,” Kuznetsov said. “But … when you discuss the political process … [in Geneva], the constitution, the government and the election, yes, in this situation of total mistrust between every actor, I don’t understand how they can have any progress in these discussions.”

A third round of talks is expected to convene in Astana within a month.

A political scientist from the Russian Higher School of Economics, Leonid Isayev, said, “It’s much more comfortable for the Syrian regime to find solutions in this [Astana] format,” because the number of participants will much lower than in Geneva.

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Trilateral cease-fire mechanism

Despite the bumps in the Astana talks, Russia, Turkey and Iran hashed out some details of a trilateral mechanism for Syria designed to help solidify a cease-fire agreed to in late December.

The cease-fire, which excludes designated terrorist groups such as Islamic State, has been violated sporadically, but the truce has largely held.

If the political talks in Geneva break down, however, Isayev said the cease-fire could unravel quickly, “especially in the central and southern parts of Syria.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry posted a statement late Friday noting that while the joint group for a Syrian cease-fire was formed to investigate and prevent violations, it would also facilitate humanitarian access and free movement by civilians, and try to organize exchanges of prisoners and wounded fighters, with the help of U.N. experts.

The six-year Syrian conflict has killed over 300,000 people and displaced millions, many of them fleeing to Jordan and Turkey and on to Western Europe. Damascus was losing ground to the rebels until Russia entered the conflict a year ago and turned the tide in the government’s favor. (VOA)

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Foreign Investors Call Calvey Detention Decisive Moment for Russia’s Economic Future

A recent Moscow court decision to extend Calvey’s detention without trial for a minimum of two months on the grounds that his release poses a flight risk.

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Russia, America, Calvey
Foreign investors call Calvey detention decisive moment for Russia's Economic Future. VOA

Last week’s shocking detention of one of Russia’s most renowned and publicly visible American entrepreneurs not only caught fellow foreign investors off guard, it may have prompted a moment of national reckoning about how Moscow handles investor relations, say both Kremlin-aligned and international trade groups.

Baring Vostok founder Michael Calvey’s arrest Feb. 14 on charges of fraud stemming from a lengthy legal dispute with Russia’s Orient Express Bank sparked widespread speculation about whether the days of unbridled “reiderstvo” — aggressive Kremlin-backed asset raids and corporate takeovers synonymous with Yukos, Russneft, Bashneft, Stolichnaya Vodka and VKontakte — were a thing of the past, or whether, perhaps, Calvey had actually committed a crime.

A recent Moscow court decision to extend Calvey’s detention without trial for a minimum of two months on the grounds that his release poses a flight risk, along with news that he’s been denied consular access in violation of the 1966 Vienna Convention, doesn’t bode well for professionals such as Aleksander Khurudzhi, who has been tasked by the state with rehabilitating Russia’s image as a secure place to invest.

‘This is a shock’

“From my point of view, what happened is in complete contradiction with statements of a Russian president who, from all rostrums, has expressed the same unchanging viewpoint: that Russia is open for investments and that Russia will do its best to attract and safeguard both Russian and foreign investments,” Khurudzhi, deputy ombudsman for the Kremlin office of business ethics, told VOA.

“This is a shock,” he added. “It undermines all the work being conducted by the Agency for Strategic Initiatives. All the work that has been done for the last seven to eight years aimed at improving the investment climate. It undermines trust in the system as such … (and our entire) team isn’t sleeping at night. Without any exaggeration, the work is being carried out for 24 hours. This is a challenge for all of us, for our whole team.”

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Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, including the State Duma parliamentarians, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and other high-ranking officials, in Moscow, Feb. 20, 2019. VOA

Indeed, during his annual State of the Nation address before Russia’s Federal Assembly on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin, who has been faced with record-low approval ratings, even made a fairly explicit reference to Calvey’s detention.

“To achieve … great (economic) objectives, we must get rid of everything that limits the freedom and initiative of enterprise,” Putin said. “Honest businesses should not live in fear of being prosecuted of criminal or even administrative punishment.”

Putin, who met Calvey multiple times since the American arrived in Russia in the mid-1990s, has said he had no foreknowledge of Calvey’s arrest, and that despite his repeated calls to keep commercial disputes and litigation from culminating in spurious charges against foreign investors, he has no direct influence over how Russian courts render their verdicts.

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FILE – CEO and co-founder of the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management Bill Browder attends the “Prospects for Russia after Putin” debate in the Houses of Parliament, London on Nov. 18, 2014. VOA

Vocal Kremlin critics, such as Hermitage Capital co-founder Bill Browder, are deeply skeptical of these claims.

“The arrest of Mike Calvey in Moscow should be the final straw that Russia is an entirely corrupt and (uninvestable) country,” Browder said in a tweet Friday. “Of all the people I knew in Moscow, Mike played by their rules, kept his head down and never criticized the government.”

Browder was denied entry into Russia in 2005 after his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, began investigating governmental misconduct and corruption in response to suspicious tax evasion charges brought against Hermitage by Russia’s Interior Ministry.

Magnitsky died under suspicious circumstances in Russian custody in 2009.

Seen as a ploy

For someone like Browder, it would seem Putin’s claim of political impotence in the face of a fully independent judiciary, despite copious historical evidence to the contrary, is nothing more than a cynical public relations ploy meant to portray Russia as a nation of procedural law, while denying justice and consular access to the very foreigners who fastidiously try to abide it.

Even prominent Putin allies, such as Russia’s ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, have sounded the alarm, calling Calvey’s arrest an “economic emergency.”

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FILE – Alexis Rodzianko talks to Reuters in Moscow, Sept. 16, 2009.
VOA

For U.S. citizen Alexis O. Rodzianko, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia and a longtime Moscow resident, the initial shock of Calvey’s detention might, however ironically, reveal a longer-term opportunity to recalibrate Russia’s ties with foreign investors.

“Sure, at this point it’s damaging. It certainly makes every one of us who were here thinking about, ‘Well, you know, how far is it from me to his prison cell?’” he told VOA. “But I think it could be a defining issue for the business climate here. It could be the beginning of a bad streak, or it could be the signal for Russia to actually take some positive action.”

Calvey’s formal indictment on Thursday, however, speaks more to the former than the latter outcome.

Rodzianko, who’s convinced the charges against Calvey are without legal merit, said he’s personally convinced the arrest stemmed from “a commercial dispute in the usual sense,” and that “people who set it up were not expecting the resonance that it (has) received.”

Asked if he thought Calvey’s arrest could be in any way politically motivated, he said he was convinced it was not.

“But then I think, in the circumstances, it can’t but be political, just because of the current state of affairs, because of the current state of relations,” Rodzianko said. “It’s just too easy to make that connection, which I don’t think is a proper connection, but I don’t see how it can be avoided.

Two possible outcomes

“I think it’s a symptom of a problem that Russia has, and Russia has to deal with,” he added. “It could (have one of) two outcomes.”

One, he said, is that Calvey’s arrest will come to signify a continuation of a malevolently corrupt practice that Russian and foreign investors have come to “face on an endemic basis.”

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Or, “it might actually be a mistake which leads to significant reform, which might improve the situation for both foreigners and Russians investing in Russia,” Rodzianko said.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow district court said that Calvey, who was detained along with other members of the firm on suspicion of stealing $37.5 million (2.5 billion rubles), faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. (VOA)