Russia celebrated on March 18 the fifth anniversary of what Moscow considers the return of Crimea to the fatherland and what most other nations see as annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine. Over its five years under Russian rule, Crimea has come to play an important role for Russian foreign activities, including as a hosting venue for international events. One such event, the fifth Yalta International Economic Forum, is scheduled for April 17-21.
The program of the forum initially featured none other than Bashar al-Assad himself — a rare occasion of foreign travel by the Syrian president being announced months ahead of time. Later, however, Syrian Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said that Assad would likely be unable to attend the forum. Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Vershinin commented that “Syrian partners have already taken a major, substantial part” in the last event, and the level at which the country will be represented again is still “up to the president of Syria personally.”
Considering Russia's soft tone, Assad’s decision would have drawn hardly any attention if it hadn’t been for months of PR activity in the Russian media and blogosphere.
Back in October, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksenov, leading the region’s delegation in Damascus, had personally invitated the Syrian president to the forum. Three months later, Dmitry Belik, the representative of Sevastopol in the Russian legislature who had been a member of that delegation, announced that Assad had expressed his wish to visit Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.
According to Dmitry Sablin, the coordinator of the committee on Russian-Syrian parliamentary relations, while hosting the delegation from Crimea, Assad remarked that in 2017 his children had spent a vacation in Artek, an international children’s summer camp in Crimea.
“They found new friends in Russia and are still keeping in touch with them. Moreover, I would also like to visit Crimea,” he told the delegation.
In mid-February, Andrey Nazarov, co-chairman of the Business Russia forum, a public organization bringing together large and medium-sized companies, and co-chair of the organizing committee of the Yalta Forum assured the press that the list of distinguished participants would include both a Syrian delegation led by Assad and a French delegation led by politician Marine Le Pen.
“Sergei Aksenov had invited him during our visit to Syria and received a confirmation,” said Nazarov several days before the Syrian ambassador expressed his doubts about the trip.
According to French Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Le Pen also refused to take part in the forum as a distinguished guest, presumably due to reluctance to debate Crimea’s territorial status in advance of the European Parliament elections scheduled for May.
Local and federal authorities promote the Yalta International Economic Forum as an annual world business event. Founded in 2015, it is included among Russia's major economic venues together with the Saint Petersburg, Eastern Economic Forums and the Russian Investments Forum in Sochi. The summit is overseen by the presidential administration of Russia. It’s growing every year, due an increasing participation of Russians and internationals. Foreign newcomers usually include right-wing European populists and Asian and African delegations.
The last forum was quite productive in regard to Syrian issues. The 2018 venue dedicated a session to discussing the post-conflict economic reconstruction in the Arab country that produced more than 70 agreements and memorandums amounting to $2.4 billion, including $948 million as a sum involved in Crimean-Syrian cooperation. However, upon close examination, the deals seem to lack practical value.
Disregarding blatantly nonviable Syrian investment projects in Crimea (such as building a hotel there), as this destination will obviously be unable to successfully compete in the medium term with Russia’s Sochi area and Turkish resorts, significant topics included logistical partnership between the Russian and Syrian port cities of Sevastopol and Tartus. The parties also discussed the future of a joint shipping company that is supposed to assist in commodity transportation: Sevastopol ships construction materials, grain and vehicles to Syria, while Tartus sends fruits and vegetables to Russia. However, this cooperation faces many challenges that require real efforts by both sides and will persist as long as the visits of certain politicians and activists continue to be used as a way to demonstrate substantial international support for lifting "illegal sanctions" off Russia.
Al-Monitor has already reported on several cases where the fruit supplied to Russia was overripe and unfit for retail sale due to mistakes in storage and transportation made by the Syrian staff. Losing arable land in the course of the civil war, Syria, previously an exporter of grain (around 1.5 million tons a year before the conflict), became an importer. However, the history of cooperation with Russia in this field is shadowy. Previously, Syria had canceled a deal to buy 1 million tons of Russian wheat, though later, the sides successfully concluded a contract for a supply of three million tons in the next three years. Payment terms were not disclosed. The Russian Kommersant newspaper reported that in 2017, 105.6 tons of grain were exported from Crimea to Syria. Since 2018, the trade has amounted to 68.9 tons, meaning that the commodities are transported from other Russian ports. The suppliers are secretive about the details in an effort to avoid sanctions. As far as the shipping company is concerned, Morskaya Direktsiya (Sea Management Ltd), which used to operate the Kerch ferry service, eyed filling the niche. Yet now that the Kerch Bridge services the freight and passenger routes, the company has turned its attention to other services.
Hence it is difficult to understand whether Assad’s announcement of an intended visit to Crimea was made for valid reasons or a populist gesture by regional authorities and an effort by the Syrian president to be polite. As Assad is basically barred from foreign trips, a tight schedule and security concerns are not valid excuses. Undoubtedly, his participation in the Yalta Forum would have been merely symbolic, considering the lack of practical benefits. Moreover, he would have been obliged to sign new framework agreements while older ones are not yet fully implemented. However, attending the first official summit, even in the territory Syria considers Russian, would have allowed the government to rebuke allegations that Assad only pays confidential visits to Russia and Iran.
As a result, the refusal has stirred political suspicions about the politician who failed to preserve his country’s sovereignty avoiding visiting the territory absorbed with the assistance of “little green men” as well as controversy between Russia and Iran.