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Russia faces peacekeeping challenge in Nagorno-Karabakh



Russian soldiers are no strangers to patrolling the front lines of frozen conflicts in the country’s neighbourhood. But the almost 2,000 troops deployed to the disputed Caucasus territory of Nagorno-Karabakh this month find themselves thrust into an unaccustomed role: that of unbiased peacekeepers.

Unlike Russia’s military presence in eastern Ukraine, the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, the troops will not be defending land held by pro-Moscow separatists.

Instead, as part of a ceasefire deal brokered by Moscow to end a six-week long war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the soldiers must police a bitterly divided three-decades-old battlefield, enforcing vast Azerbaijani gains while protecting a besieged and battered Armenian enclave.

“Any peacekeeping mission deployed to what just recently was a war zone is fraught with risks . . . peacekeepers have to be as diplomatic as militarily capable,” said Maxim Suchkov, senior fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “Russia’s larger role in the conflict means greater responsibility. The truce is hanging on a few threads, which are virtually all designed by Moscow.”

Mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but is populated by ethnic Armenians, who took control of it and large areas of surrounding territory in a war in the early 1990s that killed about 20,000 people.

Map: Armenia to hand back land under ceasefire deal in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Lacklustre diplomatic efforts and sporadic violent clashes marked the next two and a half decades before Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey and boasting cutting-edge weapons, vowed to recapture the territory in late September, making huge territorial advances before the Moscow-brokered truce on November 10.

Russia has a mutual defence pact with Armenia but sought to maintain its close ties with both countries during the fighting. But the shift from mediating around the diplomatic negotiating table to manning observation points on the front line will probably strain Moscow’s role as regional hegemon as it seeks to balance the interests of both former Soviet states.

“Russian peacekeeping will now be a huge item on the bilateral agenda with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Renewing or not renewing the mandate for it to continue will become a source of bargaining and leverage affecting much wider issues,” said Laurence Broers, Caucasus programme director at Conciliation Resources, a peace-building organisation. “Managing that influence in ways that avoid looking like a former imperial power will be challenging, however.”

Russian peacekeepers must police a bitterly divided three-decades-old battlefield © Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty
Civilians fleeing the Kalbajar region, now under Azerbaijani control © Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Russia’s Ministry of Defence said on Monday that troops, backed by 90 armoured personnel carriers and hundreds of other vehicles, had fully deployed along the frontline and set up seven observation posts along the so-called Lachin corridor, a mountain pass that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and remains open under the terms of the ceasefire.

In an early sign of the challenges of implementing the deal, a Sunday deadline for control of the Kalbajar region to be passed from Armenia to Azerbaijan was delayed by 10 days amid a civilian exodus and questions over the fate of the thousand-year-old Dadivank monastery located in the region.

Russian president Vladimir Putin used a call with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev on Saturday to call for “ensuring the preservation and normal operation of those holy places” after the handover. But Russia’s defence ministry said two days later that it had deployed troops to the important Christian site “at the request of local [Armenian] residents”, and was considering a way to allow visits to the monastery, despite the plan for it to be handed over to Azerbaijan.

“There are some real logistical challenges to the evacuation of the civilian population — there is only one major road from Kalbajar to Armenia that can sustain large groups of people,” said Alp Coker, analyst at GPW, a political risk group.

“It is plausible that extra time was needed for these practical reasons, but it is also an opportunity to iron out some of the details of the agreement (which is quite vaguely worded) while continuing backdoor negotiations on other issues like Turkey’s involvement in the peace process,” he added.

The abbot of the Dadivank monastery speaks to Russian peacekeeping troops © Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
A man holds an icon from the thousand-year-old monastery © Dmitry Lovetski/AP

Russia must also contend with the rising influence of Turkey, whose encouragement of Baku and support on the battlefield was critical in its military success, and made it a key player in a region that Moscow considers its backyard.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly called for Turkish soldiers to also act as peacekeepers, but the Kremlin says there is no role for them under the terms of the ceasefire.

Despite that, Turkey’s parliament on Tuesday granted permission for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to dispatch troops to Azerbaijan to serve alongside Russian military officials in a ceasefire monitoring centre. The motion put forward by the government said the deployment “will be beneficial for the peace and welfare of the region’s people and is necessary from the point of our national interests”.

Mr Coker said: “Azerbaijan may not trust Russia and believe in their impartiality. President Aliyev has always pushed Azerbaijan’s relationship with Turkey and under the current agreement will probably want to have a strong Turkish military presence as well to counterbalance Russia.”

But in the absence of a plan for a permanent solution to a territorial dispute that goes back generations, Russia is likely to find itself in the unenviable position of being forced to find compromise solutions that please neither side.

The ceasefire “addresses security and transit issues in the absence of a wider political settlement capable of transforming Armenian-Azerbaijani relations,” said Mr Broers. “Without that Armenians and Azerbaijanis won’t be able to live in proximity to one another without seeing each other as threats.”

“Real security comes from political change, not peacekeepers,” he added. “That’s some way off.”

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End of an era as Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona part company




Lionel Messi updates

Barcelona football club said on Thursday that Lionel Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest of all players, is leaving because of “financial and structural obstacles” that it blamed on financial regulations imposed by La Liga, which runs the top two divisions in Spain, requiring the team to rein in its spending.

Messi, the frontman of FC Barcelona’s success for more than a decade, will be leaving a club where he has spent the entirety of his career, winning every leading trophy and personal accolade.

Messi and Barcelona had intended to sign a new contract on Thursday but ultimately the player and club were forced to separate, said Barcelona in a statement, adding that both sides “deeply regret” their split. La Liga declined to comment.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations),” Barcelona said. “As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Messi’s exit comes as Barcelona and rivals Real Madrid are at loggerheads with La Liga over the Spanish league’s plan to partner with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, which plans to invest €2.7bn in the league, subject to clubs’ approval.

The exit of the superstar Argentina international, who earned a total of more than €555m between 2017 and 2021, according to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, underlines the financial pressures at Barcelona.

The Catalan club sunk to a net loss of almost €100m in the 2019-20 season, the first to be disrupted by the pandemic, as revenues of €855m fell short of the €1bn set in its budget. Its debt has soared north of €1bn. In June, the club approved a €525m debt refinancing.

On the pitch, Barca finished third in La Liga, its worst showing since 2008. It has not won the Uefa Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, since 2015.

The decision comes just days after Barca president Joan Laporta said the club “have to make sure” Messi stays and that the process was “on the right track”. The president had also called for “greater flexibility” from La Liga.

Despite the long affiliation between Messi and Barcelona, the player last year told the club he wanted to leave but ultimately decided to stay on to avoid a legal dispute.

Messi’s departure comes a day after La Liga agreed a €2.7bn deal with US private equity group CVC Capital Partners to buy a minority stake in a new entity that would manage broadcast, sponsorship and digital rights for the league.

Barcelona and arch-rivals Real Madrid, which have been embroiled in a dispute with La Liga over plans for a breakaway European Super League, would stand to receive about €260m each from the deal with CVC.

The transaction was partly seen as a way to win over the support of Barcelona, which has been financially constrained by La Liga’s rules from making any high-profile acquisitions or renewal of contracts.

Real Madrid also lashed out at the CVC deal with CVC on Thursday, questioning its legality and accusing the Spanish league of negotiating the agreement without the club’s knowledge.

Barcelona followed up later on Thursday by joining Real in condemning La Liga’s planned partnership with the buyout firm. The club said: “FC Barcelona feels it is inappropriate to sign a half-century agreement given the uncertainties that always surround the football world. The terms of the contract that La Liga is describing condemn FC Barcelona’s future with regard to broadcasting rights.

“FC Barcelona wishes to express its surprise at an agreement driven by La Liga in which the teams’ opinions, including those of FC Barcelona, have not been taken into account.”

Spanish football clubs have yet to vote on the CVC agreement. Italy’s top football league, Serie A, turned down a similar agreement a few months ago.

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Europe targets adolescents for Covid jabs to curb Delta spread




Covid-19 vaccines updates

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose habitual garb in public is a dark suit and tie, switched this week to a black T-shirt to encourage the young to get vaccinated over the holidays. 

“Many of you have questions or are scared,” Macron said in one of several videos he posted on TikTok and Instagram from what seemed to be the presidential holiday residence in southern France. “So I’ve decided to answer your questions directly. Go ahead.”

He has also posted short videos to correct misconceptions about the vaccines and France’s supposedly “freedom-killing” insistence on health passports to access bars and other public places. “Vaccination saves lives, the virus kills — it’s as simple as that,” he said in one. 

Macron may be one of the EU’s more visible leaders to urge the young to be jabbed, but he is not alone. 

On Wednesday, the UK belatedly extended its Covid-19 vaccination programme to 16- and 17-year-olds. But across continental Europe, governments from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean have already been targeting as yet unvaccinated teenagers to fight rising infections and hospitalisations driven by the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

This vaccination drive, which anticipates the new school term starting in September, is partly why Europe has already overtaken the US in terms of vaccination rates per 100 people and, on current projections, will soon overtake the UK too.

In France, health ministry data show that more than 40 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 have already received one jab, and nearly 20 per cent are fully vaccinated. (In the vulnerable age group between 70 and 80, full vaccination coverage is close to 90 per cent.) 

Chart showing that Europe and the US have already vaccinated millions of teens, leaving the UK far behind

Most Nordic countries have also started to vaccinate teenagers and, by the end of July, almost one-third of 12-15 year-olds in Denmark had received at least one jab. “We need the immunity of the population, especially before a winter season,” Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority, said in June when announcing the decision.

Much the same is true in Germany, where more than 900,000 adolescents or 21 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17, have received at least one jab, and more than 10 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

Individual German parents and children already have had the legal right to get vaccinated since June, and several states had begun limited offerings of the jabs to 12-17-year-olds.

But health minister Jens Spahn announced on Monday plans to offer more jabs to youngsters before school begins. “This is absolutely not about applying pressure,” he said on RBB radio. “It is about giving those who want to be vaccinated, including children and adolescents, the opportunity.”

The next step in Europe will be to vaccinate young children, especially as Delta strain infections seem to be rising fastest among the unvaccinated young. In a recent UK study, almost a third of the positive Delta variant tests came from people aged 5 to 17.

“It’s clear that children under 12 will become the main reservoir of infections once a large share of the over-12 population is vaccinated,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. 

“It seems reasonable today to suppose that we’ll only be able to finish with this pandemic by vaccinating a very large share of the population, perhaps 90-95 per cent, by including children,” he said, noting that the jabs would have to be supplemented by other measures such as continued border controls as well.

In Spain, which has already overtaken the UK and the US in vaccinating its population, the government says its inoculation drive must now focus on younger people. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has declared that the country, where 59 per cent are fully vaccinated, deserves “the gold medal for vaccinations”. This week he said the country was on course to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of its population before the end of August.

But officials increasingly recognise that will not be enough to provide “herd immunity”. Infection rates in Spain — now in its fifth coronavirus wave — remain extremely high, with cases particularly prevalent among people in the 12-19 and 20-29 age groups; in the former, the full vaccination rate is less than 4 per cent.

High infection rates among these groups — with a 14-day rate of above 1,300 per 100,000 people — have spilled over to older groups. The 14-day rate among the over-eighties has been close to 300, even though according to official figures that age group is 100 per cent vaccinated.

“What is happening in Spain shows quite simply that the vaccinations do not have the same efficiency that was indicated in the trials . . . It is going to be more difficult to reach herd immunity,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former Basque region minister for health and director at the World Health Organization. 

He said the Delta variant — now accounting for more than 75 per cent of Spanish cases — was a key factor blunting vaccines’ impact and argued that the necessary level of protection would now probably require full vaccination for closer to 90 per cent of the overall population.

“We are only going to achieve this when we have revaccinated older people who are losing protection relatively quickly and when we have vaccinated young people and children,” he said. “The end is further away than we predicted.”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo

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Global house prices: Raising the roof




Global house prices: Raising the roof

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