An EU official told RFE/RL that the EU plans to extend sanctions against Russia when EU ambassadors gather for a meeting slated to take place on December 21. The sanctions to be officially extended until July 31, 2016 target Russia’s financial, oil and military sectors as well as specific individuals. A December 14 meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels saw a move to extend sanctions blocked, as Italy called for debate at a higher political level.
Observers speculated that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will highlight the issue at a meeting of EU leaders later this week. The December 21 meeting is set for a day after the deadline by which Russia is demanding that Ukraine repay all of its $3 billion debt. Despite a debt restructuring deal reached in October with all of Ukraine’s other creditors, Russia has asked that the IMF and other Western political bodies guarantee Ukraine’s debt in order to allow repayment at a more gradual rate. There has not yet been an official response to the offer. The sanctions were originally put in place in July 2014 in response to perceived Russian involvement in Ukraine’s separatist movement in the east after the ousting of Russian-leaning former President Viktor Yanukovich. They were most recently extended in June 2015 by another six months to January 31, 2016, with the EU citing Russian failure to uphold the ceasefire stipulations of the February 2015 Minsk II accords.
Relations between the EU and Russia have been strained over reports of rising violence and ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine, yet leaders on both sides have sought cooperation towards the resolution of Syria’s political crisis. Despite the sanctions, the Russian economy has bounced back from its 2014 slump, with experts predicting an improved economy and investment environment in 2016.
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- Chinese state media agency Xinhua news reported that China’s Silk Road infrastructure fund has pledged $2 billion to support “capacity cooperation” with Kazakhstan. It will add to the already $40 billion fund, which was started in 2014 to support the New Silk Road project, a Chinese-led effort to build connectivity across Asia. The fund supports Chinese companies’ contracts with Central Asian governments, exporting production capacity to infrastructure projects. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Kazakhstani Prime Minister Karim Massimov agreed in talks on December 14 to boost bilateral cooperation in agricultural projects, energy, industrial capacity and regional connectivity. Chinese contractors recently finished work on Kazakhstan’s Beineu-Bozoi-Shymkent pipeline, expected to eventually increase gas transmission from Turkmenistan across southern Kazakhstan to China.
- Samvel Karapetyan, the founder and president of Armenian company Tashir Group, discussed in an interview the group’s purchase Armenia’s main electrical company Electric Networks of Armenia. He said that the purchase of Electric Networks from Inter RAO, a joint stock company headquartered in Moscow, was an investment into what he considered a long-term asset, despite considerable debts with which the company has been saddled. Tashir Group announced in March that it had acquired ENA. The Armenian government reported in September that it accepted a request from Inter RAO to consider selling ENA to a company registered in Cyprus, but no further reports of its decision were made public. ENA increased prices in August, triggering a wave of street protests that eventually quieted down after a string of arrests of protestors. Karapetyan is the wealthiest Armenian in the world, and is based in Russia. His brother is a politician from the Republican Party of Armenia, the country’s main political party that observers say stands to benefit from the implementation of constitutional reforms just passed in a referendum that drew allegations of corruption from international watchdogs and domestic activists.
- Leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait signed a series of cooperation agreements and memorandums of understanding in Kuwait on December 14. Visiting Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah signed an agreement stipulating visa exemptions for holders of service and diplomatic passports. Oil ministers from both countries signed a deal to avoid double taxation and evasion of income and capital taxes, another to encourage and protect investments, and a third to boost economic and technical cooperation. Another agreement was signed on air services cooperation. Atambayev also addressed the first meeting of the Kuwaiti-Kyrgyz Investment Forum, inviting businessmen to explore opportunities in Kyrgyzstan. The Times Kuwait published an interview with Kyrgyz Ambassador Jusupbek Sharipov stating that Kyrgyzstan is the gateway to Central Asia for the oil-rich nation.
- US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow on December 15 for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria. His visit falls before a third round of talks between world powers in New York on December 18 to address the topic of a political transition in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that Kerry and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov had spoken by phone, agreeing that certain preconditions needed to be met before the December 18 talks. However, the State Department’s spokesman refuted this claim, saying that Kerry arrived in Moscow under the impression there are no preconditions to the meeting. The talks come against the backdrop of intensifying violence in Syria, as a Russia and a US-led coalition of NATO members including France carry out air strikes alongside the Syrian government, which target a variety of groups and display little official coordination. The US and its allies have insisted on the need for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, to which Russia has agreed while continuing to support Assad’s government.
- Tajikistan’s lower house of parliament voted to grant first and only Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov the title of “Leader of the Nation,” which would grant him lifelong immunity from prosecution. Passed by a parliament dominated by Rahmonov-led People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, the legislation specifically confers the title solely on Rahmonov. Observers and critics noted that the move parallels other long-ruling Central Asian leaders’ consolidations of power, including former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov’s development of a cult of personality, and Kazakhstani legislation passed in 2011 stipulating the same “Leader of the Nation” title and privileges for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.