Buhari, Putin Partner To Improve Nigeria’s Oil Sector

Muhammadu Buhari and Vladimir Putin

 

President Muhammadu Buhari and Russian President, Vladimir Putin on Wednesday agreed to put Nigeria-Russia relations on a fast track, and pursue the completion of partially completed and abandoned projects initiated by both countries.

At a bilateral meeting which was held on Wednesday at the ongoing Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, the two leaders agreed to start new infrastructure projects and expand trade and investment, security and military cooperation.

In statements made by both leaders, Nigeria and Russia will work together to improve efficiency of Nigeria’s oil sector, which is the backbone of the economy, in a way that will see to rehabilitation of epileptic oil refineries through establishment of framework for a joint venture between Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and Russia-based leading oil company, Lukoil.

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Both NNPC and Lukoil will work towards the prospection of oil in deep offshore.

Nigeria and Russia also agreed to revive and solidify the venture between the NNPC and Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom for the development of Nigeria’s enormous gas potential and infrastructure.

The issue of uncompleted and abandoned Ajaokuta Steel Rolling Mill was presented by President Buhari. His request for the return of Russia, on a government-to-government relationship for completion and commissioning of the plant was accepted by President Putin.

Earlier in the day, the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Arch Olamilekan Adegbite had a very fruitful discussion with his counterpart in Russia on Ajaokuta.

The Russia government agreed to support the development of Nigeria’s rail infrastructure by constructing 1,400 kilometres track from Lagos to the South-South city of Calabar.

There was also a discussion on the advancement of ongoing projects for the establishment of a nuclear power plant in Nigeria. According to President Putin, the next step in the implementation of the project should be the commencement of the construction of a power plant.

On security and military cooperation, one that existed for fifty-nine years of Nigeria’s independence, President Buhari agreed to renew Nigeria-Russia Military Technical Agreement that had lapsed within a short time, saying: “I have directed the Minister of Defence to work with the Ministry of Justice to conclude this matter within the shortest possible time.”

This military cooperation agreement is expected to give impetus to further cooperation indirect procurement of military hardware on a government-to-government basis at a lower cost as well as training of military personnel and modernization of armed forces and renewal of infrastructure and equipment which President Putin promised to undertake.

On the protracted issue of the Aluminum Smelter Company of Nigeria, ALSCON, Ikot-Abasi, Akwa-Ibom State, President Buhari said that he had asked the Ministry of Justice, “to submit a comprehensive report on the UC Russel (the Russian owners of the plant) matter…I want to assure you that the aim of our reforms is to ensure such investments are concluded and actualized in a professional and painless manner.”

The two Presidents also addressed partnerships in education and agriculture. The Russia leader said they would give additional scholarships to Nigerians.

“We seek your Government’s support especially in the areas of wheat production. Today, Nigeria produces less than one hundred thousand metric tons of wheat locally while our imports are projected to exceed five million tons in 2020.

“We, therefore, need your support to bridge the deficit which will create jobs and save our foreign exchange for other important areas like security, defence and infrastructure,” President Buhari said.

On this, President Putin promised to promote joint efforts, given his country’s ranking as the current number one wheat producer in the world.

“We can do a lot together,” Putin added.

The Russian President said Nigeria should take advantage of Russia’s potassium resources to advance President Buhari’s local fertiliser production program. Putin promised his country’s support for the geological prospection of Nigeria’s solid minerals and gave assurances of working with Nigeria and other African countries to secure and stop the incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea as they did in securing the Somali coastal areas.

President Putin expressed further determination to secure Nigeria and the rest of Africa from terrorists. He told President Buhari that 2,000 ex-ISIS terrorists joined Boko Haram last year.

In conclusion, President Buhari said:

“ to move forward, may I suggest that our countries organize the fifth Joint Commission meeting to review and ratify all the agreements (about 40) contained in the Intergovernmental Nigeria-Russia Joint Commission on Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation Protocol of November 11, 2016.”

President Putin agreed to the proposal.

Both leaders emphasized the need for reform of the United Nations Security Council. President Buhari asked Russia to support Nigeria’s aspiration for permanent membership of the council.

PHOTOS: Buhari Participates In Russia-Africa Economic Forum Plenary Session

President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia during the plenary session of the Russia-Africa Economic Forum in Sochi.

The plenary session was attended by other world leaders including African Heads of State and governments, Chairman of the African Union etc.

Senior Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and publicity, Garba Shehu had earlier in a statement said his principal and the Russian leader would meet at Nigeria and Russian bilateral meeting on Wednesday, while President Buhari would make a statement at the summit on Thursday.

Other participants at the summit that will showcase Russian interest and investment potential in Africa include businessmen, experts, investors, leaders of major sub-regional associations and organisations.

See photos below…

Buhari To Meet Putin In Russia

 

President Muhammadu Buhari departs Abuja Monday to attend a three-day Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, October 23rd – 25th, with focus on exploring and expanding opportunities in security, trade and investment, science and technology, and gas production.

During the summit, President Buhari will meet with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to further strengthen relations in security, trade and investment, and building partnership that will enhance Nigeria’s huge gas potential, following Russia’s remarkable success in gas exportation.

The summit, which will be attended by African Heads of State, will bring fresh perspectives on some global issues and challenges like nuclear technology, energy development, digital transformation, environment, technical security, mining and steel, education, agriculture, infrastructure and development strategies.

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An African Business Forum, which will bring together African and Russian business leaders, will be held during the event to enhance Russian investments in Africa, and promote African business interest in the host country.

President Buhari will be accompanied by Governor Muhammad Inuwa Yahaya of Gombe State, Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State and Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State.

Others on the trip are: Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, Minister of Trade and Investment, Adeniyi Adebayo, Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Olamilekan Adegbite and Minister of State, Petroleum, Timipre Sylva.

The President will return to the country after the summit.

Macron Presses Putin For Ukraine Progress Ahead Of G7

 

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday hosts Vladimir Putin for a rare bilateral visit by the Russian strongman to a major EU power, seeking to press the Kremlin to help end the conflict in Ukraine.

The relationship between a youthful French leader who regards himself as a champion of European liberalism and Putin, in power for two decades, has been marked by wariness and tensions.

But Paris is keen to keep relations alive, even at a time of intense strain between Russia and the West, with the French presidency emphasising the importance of finding common ground on shared interests.

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Macron will meet Putin at his summer retreat of the Bregancon fortress on France’s Mediterranean coast in the early evening, just days before he hosts world leaders including US President Donald Trump for the August 24-26 Group of Seven (G7) summit in Biarritz.

The high-walled medieval fortress will provide a grand venue for talks that will seek to ease the tensions marking the complex bilateral relationship between Paris and Moscow.

Macron hosted Putin shortly after coming to office in 2017 in near imperial style at the palace of Versailles outside Paris.

But the press conference at that event was marked by an iciness with the French president in front of an impassive Putin accusing Russian state media of broadcasting “lying propaganda”.

– ‘Room for manoeuvre’ –
Russia was slung out of what was the G8 in 2014 after it seized Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, an annexation the international community deems illegal.

It sparked a war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists which has so far claimed more than 13,000 people.

Macron has taken a keen interest in brokering an end to the conflict and believes that the arrival in power of new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky could give a new impulse to halting the fighting.

Zelensky has offered to meet Putin for face-to-face talks and spoken to him by phone in recent weeks.

“President Zelensky has made offers to which — it seems to us — President Putin should respond in an encouraging way,” said a French official, who asked not to be named.

“The election of President Zelensky gives us some room for manoeuvre,” the official added.

Brokering peace in eastern Ukraine would be a major feather in the cap for Macron, who since coming to office in 2017 has sought to magnify France’s international role.

Kremlin advisor Yuri Ushakov said that the dialogue between France and Russia had “intensified” in recent months and that Putin’s visit was the “logical continuation” of his regular contact with Macron

Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Macron would be looking for ways to resuscitate the 2015 Minsk ceasefire deal which Paris and Berlin helped broker.

“The main public issue will be reviving the Minsk accords,” Baunov told AFP.

– ‘Very useful chance’ –
Iran will also feature high on the agenda, with Paris keen for Moscow to use its close ties with Tehran to prevent a further escalation of conflicts in the Middle East.

Tensions have shot up since Washington’s unilateral pullout from a 2015 deal to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Macron is expected to press Putin to use his influence with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop an offensive in the northern region of Idlib and ward off new refugee flows towards Turkey.

A source of tension could come from the domestic situation in Russia, with France repeatedly rebuking Moscow over its crackdown on protesters who are angered by a refusal to register opposition candidates for elections later this year.

In a possible gesture of goodwill by the Russian authorities, French banker Philippe Delpal, who had spent the last six months behind bars in Russia on fraud charges, was released into house arrest on Thursday.

Former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine told the Figaro daily that Putin’s visit marked a “very useful chance to move France and, if possible Europe, out of the impasse” in their relations.

 

Stop ‘Destabilising’ UK, Allies, May Tells Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Theresa May hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019./ AFP

 

British Prime Minister Theresa May told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday that normal relations will not be restored until Moscow ends its “irresponsible and destabilising” activity, a Downing Street spokesperson said.

The comments came as May met Putin for the first time since the row over the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.

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“She told the president that there cannot be a normalisation of our bilateral relationship until Russia stops the irresponsible and destabilising activity that threatens the UK and its allies — including hostile interventions in other countries, disinformation and cyber attacks,” the spokesperson said.

May also told Putin, in the talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan’s Osaka, that Britain “has irrefutable evidence that Russia was behind the attack” on the former spy.

“The prime minister underlined that we remain open to a different relationship, but for that to happen the Russian government must choose a different path.”

London has made clear that May’s meeting with Putin does not represent a thawing of ties with Russia, despite calls from Putin for the two countries to “turn the page”.

Ties have been severely strained since the March 2018 poisoning of the former Russian spy and double agent Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.

The incident led to dozens of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and a breakdown in already fragile relations between Moscow and London.

Russia has repeatedly denied any part in his killing.

Earlier this month, Putin said it was time to “turn the page” on the countries’ difficult relationship after the poisoning.

“Global issues related to national interests in the economic and social spheres and global security are more important than games of security services,” said the Kremlin leader.

Skripal sold secrets to Britain and moved there after a 2010 spy swap.

Last year, he and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent, the first use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II.

London says the attempted assassination was “almost certainly” approved by the Russian state.

The G20 will be one of May’s last trips as prime minister as Britain awaits a new leader.

Former foreign minister and London mayor Boris Johnson is the favourite to succeed her in an election that will be decided in a vote by members of the ruling Conservative party.

The winner will be announced on July 23, and will formally take office on July 24 and Putin has voiced hope relations could improve under a new PM.

Kim, Putin Vow To Seek Closer Ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees North Korean leader Kim Jong Un / AFP

 

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin vowed to seek closer ties as they met for the first time on Thursday, in talks aimed at countering US influence.

Putin emerged from the meeting in Russia’s Vladivostok saying that like Washington, Moscow supports efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and prevent nuclear conflicts.

But he insisted that Pyongyang “needs guarantees of its security, the preservation of its sovereignty”, and took a veiled swipe at the US for trying to strong-arm North Korea.

“We need to… return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world,” Putin said.

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The summit in the Far Eastern port city came with Kim locked in a nuclear stand-off with the United States and Putin keen to put Moscow forward as a player in another global flashpoint.

The two leaders greeted each other warmly, shaking hands and sharing smiles, at the start of meetings on an island off Vladivostok that lasted nearly five hours.

Putin, known for delaying meetings with international guests, was waiting for Kim when he emerged from his limousine.

Both men said they were looking to strengthen ties that date back to the Soviet Union’s support for the founder of North Korea, Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung.

– Borscht, crab, dumplings –
Kim said he hoped to turn the modern relationship with Moscow into a “more stable and sound one” while Putin said the visit would give a boost to diplomatic and economic ties.

Putin said he supported Kim’s efforts to normalise relations with the United States and hoped to find out “what Russian can do” to help with the issue of denuclearisation.

The two later shared a lunch that included borscht, crab salad and venison dumplings, Russian news agency TASS reported.

Putin told reporters after Kim departed that he would fill in Washington on the results of the talks.

“There are no secrets here, no conspiracies… Chairman Kim himself asked us to inform the American side of our position,” said Putin, who was due to fly on to Beijing for another summit.

Kim, who arrived a day earlier in his armoured train, was expected to stay in Vladivostok until Friday for cultural events that Russian media have reported will include ballet and a visit to the city’s aquarium.

The meeting was Kim’s first with another head of state since returning from his Hanoi summit with US President Donald Trump, which broke down in February without a deal on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

It followed repeated invitations from Putin after Kim embarked on a series of diplomatic overtures last year.

Since March 2018, the North Korean leader has held four meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, two with Trump and one with Vietnam’s president.

At the meeting with Trump in Hanoi, the cash-strapped North demanded immediate relief from sanctions, but the talks broke up in disagreement over what Pyongyang was prepared to give up in return.

Russia has already called for the sanctions to be eased, while the US has accused it of trying to help Pyongyang evade some of the measures — accusations Russia denies.

There were no concrete announcements or agreements, but analysts said Thursday’s meeting was valuable to both sides.

“For North Korea, it’s all about securing another exit. China talks about sanctions relief but it doesn’t really put it into action,” said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“For Russia, North Korea is elevating it back to one of the direct parties, on the same footing as China.”

– North Korean labourers –
Among the issues that were likely discussed was the fate of some 10,000 North Korean labourers working in Russia and due to leave by the end of this year under sanctions.

Labour is one of North Korea’s key exports and sources of cash. Pyongyang has reportedly asked Russia to continue to employ its workers after the deadline.

Moscow was a crucial backer of Pyongyang for decades and their ties go back to the founding of North Korea, when the Soviet Union installed Kim Il Sung as leader.

The USSR reduced funding to the North as it began to seek reconciliation with Seoul in the 1980s, but Pyongyang was hit hard by its demise in 1991.

Soon after his first election as Russian president, Putin sought to normalise relations and met Kim Jong Il — the current leader’s father and predecessor — three times, including a 2002 meeting also held in Vladivostok.

China has since cemented its role as the isolated North’s most important ally, its largest trading partner and crucial fuel supplier, and analysts say Kim could be looking to balance Beijing’s influence.

While ties between Moscow and Pyongyang have remained cordial, the last meeting between their leaders came in 2011, when Kim Jong Il told then-president Dmitry Medvedev that he was prepared to renounce nuclear testing.

His son has since overseen by far the country’s most powerful blast to date, and launch of missiles which Pyongyang says are capable of reaching the entire US mainland.

Putin, Kim Jong Un To Hold First Talks In Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un / AFP

 

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un will meet in Russia’s Far East on Thursday, the Kremlin said, as the North Korean leader looks to rebuild ties with an old ally amid a standoff with the United States.

Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said the meeting — the first between the two men — would take place in the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok, before Putin heads to Beijing for another summit.

“The focus will be on a political and diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula,” Ushakov told a briefing on Tuesday.

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“Russia intends to help consolidate positive trends in every way,” he said.

Anticipation for the summit had been building since the Kremlin announced last week the two men would meet by the end of April.

Russian and North Korean flags were already flying on lamp posts Tuesday on Vladivostok’s Russky Island, where the summit is expected to take place at a university campus.

Ushakov said the talks would begin one-on-one and then move into an “expanded format”, without providing further details.

He said no joint statement or signing of agreements was planned.

Russia’s Ria Novosti news agency quoted sources in the country’s rail service as saying a train carrying Kim was expected to arrive at Vladivostok station at 6:00 pm local time (0800 GMT) on Wednesday.

Kim, who travels to international meetings on an armoured train, was expected to cross into Russia at the border town of Khasan, news agency Interfax reported.

The talks follow repeated invitations from Putin since Kim last year embarked on a series of diplomatic overtures.

Since March 2018 the formerly reclusive North Korean leader has held four meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with the South’s Moon Jae-in, two with US President Donald Trump and one with Vietnam’s president.

– Cold War ties –
Analysts say he is now looking for wider international support in his standoff with Washington.

At Kim’s last summit with Trump in Hanoi in February, Pyongyang demanded immediate relief from sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

But the talks broke down over what North Korea was prepared to give up in return.

Last week Pyongyang launched a blistering attack on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, demanding he be removed from the negotiations just hours after announcing it had carried out a new weapons test.

Moscow has called for the sanctions to be eased, while the US has accused it of trying to help Pyongyang evade some of the measures — accusations Russia denies.

The Vladivostok meeting appears to have been discussed with Washington.

Ushakov met last week in Moscow with Fiona Hill, a foreign policy adviser to Trump, for talks on North Korea. The US special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun was also in Moscow at the time for meetings with Russian officials.

The summit will be the first between the two neighbours since Kim’s father Kim Jong Il met Dmitry Medvedev in Russia eight years ago. Putin previously met Kim Jong Il in Vladivostok in 2002.

Ties between Pyongyang and Moscow, once its most important ally, go back decades.

The Soviet Union installed Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung as North Korea’s leader and was a crucial backer and main aid provider to Pyongyang during the Cold War.

The USSR started to reduce funding to the North as it began to seek reconciliation with Seoul in the 1980s, and Pyongyang was hit hard by the demise of the Soviet Union.

China has since stepped in to become the isolated North’s most important ally, its largest trading partner and crucial fuel supplier.

Analysts say that by reaching out to Russia Kim could be looking to balance Beijing’s influence, while Putin is keen to project Russian influence in another global flashpoint

Netanyahu To Meet Putin Days Before Israel Vote

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) is pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow./AFP

 

Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday, just five days ahead of an April 9 Israeli general election, the premier’s office said.

Netanyahu has held a series of meetings with foreign leaders in the runup to the vote, helping him further his argument that he is Israel’s irreplaceable statesman.

His office did not provide further details in its brief statement on the meeting on Tuesday.

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Israel and Russia coordinate their military activity in Syria to avoid accidental clashes.

Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes against what it says are Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.

It has pledged to keep its main enemy Iran from entrenching itself militarily in the neighbouring country.

In the civil war that erupted in Syria in 2011, Russia has been backing President Bashar al-Assad’s forces alongside Iran and Tehran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.

A friendly fire incident in September that led to Syrian air defences downing a Russian plane during an Israeli raid angered the Kremlin, which blamed Israel.

Netanyahu and Putin held their first extensive face-to-face discussions since the friendly fire incident in Moscow on February 27.

The two have spoken repeatedly by phone in recent months, including on Monday.

The Israeli premier is currently hosting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who arrived in Israel for a three-day visit on Sunday.

He also recently hosted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and last week met US President Donald Trump in Washington.

Netanyahu is facing a tough election challenge from centrist former military chief Benny Gantz.

Putin Signs Laws Against ‘Disrespecting’ Authorities, Fake News

Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin 
PHOTO: Alexander ASTAFYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed controversial laws that allow courts to fine and briefly jail people for showing disrespect towards authorities, and block media for publishing “fake news”.

Putin signed off on the legislation against the advice of human rights activists, who warned the laws amounted to censorship and would be abused to further crackdown on freedom of speech.

The law on disrespecting authorities backs punishment for “offending state symbols” and stipulates hefty fines and jail terms of 15 days for repeat offenders.

Another piece of legislation allows authorities to decide what amounts to “fake news” and gives a media watchdog the power to demand an outlet delete the information.

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Websites that fail to comply would be blocked.

Fines could reach 1.5 million rubles (over $22,700) if the infraction leads to grave consequences like death or rioting.

Rights activists say that since first becoming president in 2000, Putin has gradually crushed freedoms in Russia, muzzling critics and bringing television under control.

The new legislation takes the crackdown on civil society to a whole new level, they say.

Critics say the legislation is vaguely worded and would have large scope for abuse, further complicating the difficult and sometimes deadly work of rights activists and opposition journalists in Russia.

The Kremlin is stepping up media control to counter a fall in Putin’s approval rating amid mounting economic trouble, according to activists.

“These new prohibitions and punishments are not just a continuation of the repressive legislative and practical measures that began in 2012,” Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, told AFP.

“This is a completely new level which almost literally repeats the Soviet-era law about ‘activities undermining the Soviet system’ and ‘anti-Soviet campaigning and propaganda’.”

The authorities unleashed a major crackdown on dissenters after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 in the face of mass protests.

“From now it will be police that will decide what fake news is and what’s not,” said Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial, a top rights group.

“This will lead to a violation of civil rights and freedoms.”

– ‘Hating in silence’ –
Moscow on Monday marked the fifth anniversary of Crimea’s annexation from Ukraine, a move condemned by the West but celebrated by most Russians.

Mikhail Fedotov, the chairman of the Kremlin’s human rights’ council, told AFP that the legislation had “numerous flaws” and his group had asked the president to reject it.

Even the usually pliant media criticised the new laws.

“Authorities want people to hate in silence,” mass-circulation tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote ahead of the signing last week.

“The authorities’ desire to gag their subjects is a very old, shameful and meaningless desire.”

In 2018, Putin was elected to a historic fourth term in office with a record vote share amid increasing international isolation.

But the 66-year-old Russian president’s popularity ratings have taken a beating due to a controversial pension age hike and falling living standards as a result of tough Western sanctions over Ukraine and other crises.

Last month Russian lawmakers backed a bill that could cut off the country’s internet traffic from servers abroad, which critics say is a possible step towards an isolated network like in North Korea.

Macron, Putin Weigh Situation In Syria

 

A video grab taken from a footage released by France Televisions on December 25, 2018 shows France’s president Emmanuel Macron (L) gesturing as he speaks during a special program dedicated to French soldiers at the military airbase in N’Djamena, 
Handout / FRANCE TELEVISIONS / AFP

 

French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday discussed priorities for the “greatly deteriorated” situation in Syria, Macron’s office said.

Macron told Putin that France was focused on continuing the fight against remnants of the Islamic State group, protecting civilians and providing “complete, safe, and unobstructed access to humanitarian aid to civilian populations,” a statement said.

Syria posed “serious risks for regional and international security,” it added.

Another priority for Paris is the search for a negotiated political solution in Syria with UN oversight, which should include “constitutional reforms along with free and fair elections.”

The Kremlin later said the two leaders “underscored the need to follow an inter-Syrian political dialogue.”

Putin also told Macron he had received information “that fighters were preparing weapons using toxic chemical substances in Idlib,” in northwestern Syria, which is still in rebel hands, a Kremlin statement said.

An Arab-Kurdish alliance has spearheaded the drive against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria with support from and US-led international force, and was poised Saturday to control the last bit of land held by jihadists.

They had declared a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but have since lost all of it but the tiny patch in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq.

Eight years into a war that has killed more than 360,000 people, President Bashar al-Assad’s government now controls nearly two-thirds of the country.

Putin Receives Five-Star Welcome, Calls For Stable Balkans In Serbia

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin attend a welcoming ceremony prior to their talks in Belgrade. MAXIM SHIPENKOV / POOL / AFP

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called for stability in the Balkans during a visit to Serbia, a key Moscow ally in the volatile region.

After arriving to a rousing red-carpet welcome in Belgrade, Putin said Russia would back efforts to maintain calm.

“Russia, like Serbia, is interested in the situation in the Balkans remaining stable and not dangerous,” Putin told reporters at a joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

As part of the event, Vucic presented Putin with a puppy of the Sarplaninac breed, a shepherd dog from the region.

Meanwhile, Putin awarded his counterpart a Russian state honour.

The Russian president’s visit was marked by tens of thousands of Serbs who marched through the capital in a parade in his honour.

“Welcome honoured President Putin, a dear friend,” read one of many billboards around the city bearing a mix of Russian and Serbian flags.

The parade culminated at the massive Saint Sava church, one of Orthodox Christianity’s largest houses of worship.

In recent days vendors have been selling T-shirts, mugs and books bearing Putin’s face, while a central Belgrade fountain has been lit up with the red, white and blue colours of the Russian flag.

No solution without Russia 

Although Serbia aspires to join the European Union, it has kept up close ties with Russia, its historical “Orthodox big brother” whose people also share Slavic origins.

The affection for Moscow is fanned by its unyielding support on the emotive issue of Kosovo, a former Serbian province that broke away in a 1998-99 guerilla war.

Serbia has never accepted the split and Russia similarly rejects it, wielding its veto power at the United Nations to thwart Kosovo’s dreams of joining.

“Without Russia and due to Russia’s power in the UN Security Council it is clear that there will be no solution” over Kosovo, Vucic said.

EU-sponsored talks to normalise ties between Belgrade and Pristina have been stalled for months.

Putin said that to “achieve stability in the (Balkans) region, we have to find compromises and when they are found they should be respected.”

Before his arrival, Putin accused the West of “destabilising” the Balkans with efforts to expand NATO, an accusation that the United States often lobs in the direction of the Russian president.

‘Serbia’s salvation’ 

In return for Moscow’s support over Kosovo, Belgrade has refused to join international trade sanctions imposed on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Graffiti saying “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia” can sometimes be spotted on Serbian streets.

Putin is “Serbia’s salvation,” said retired general Mitar Petkic, who had camped for hours in front of the Saint Sava church to welcome the Russian leader.

“The EU is falling apart, when we will join it will not exist anymore,” the 66-year-old told AFP.

Jelena Bogicevic, a pensioner, held a banner reading “Welcome Putin, the legend”.

But the fanfare does not mask what Russia considers recent setbacks in the Balkans, where the West has increased its influence.

Moscow was unable to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO in 2017, a goal which Macedonia is also moving towards after ratifying a name change deal to end a decades-long dispute with Greece.

If Macedonia succeeds, seven countries bordering Serbia — which does not aspire to join — will be in the NATO sphere. Only neighbouring Bosnia will also not be a member, due to the veto of its Serb population.

 ‘Energy, key area’ 

The relationship between Serbia and Russia is “more an emotional than a rational” one, explained Serbian economic analyst Biljana Stepanovic.

According to a 2017 Serbian government survey, a quarter of the population believes Russia and the EU were the country’s joint top donors for development aid.

In reality, 75 percent of donations came from the EU or its member states, while Russia did not make the top nine.

The West also outpaces Russia in terms of direct investment and trade.

Moscow does, however, have some stake in the region.

Serbia imports two-thirds of its natural gas and crude oil from Russia, while Russian giant Gazprom owns the Serbian oil company NIS.

“Energy is the key area of Russia-Serbia cooperation,” Putin told reporters.

He said Gazprom planned to increase its gas deliveries to the Balkans country by 2020.

AFP