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UKRAINE

How much influence does Russia have over Spain?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is resulting in a host of global sanctions for the eastern powerhouse that Putin will no doubt seek to address by using Russian power and influence overseas to weaken the West’s stance. But how much of a hold does Russia have on Spain?

How much influence does Russia have over Spain?
Demonstrators hold placards reading "Stop Putin, no to war" and European Union and Ukrainian flags during a protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine, in front of the Russian consulate in Barcelona on February 24, 2022. - But would the Spanish government ever concede to the Russian leader due to economic or political pressure? (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

The economic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are already being felt in Spain.

Electricity prices are set to hit a record high in Spain as a result of the conflict (higher than any of the other price spikes experienced over the last year).

Oil prices already surged on Thursday, with Brent breaching $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014, meaning that petrol and diesel prices have already started going up in Spain. 

And the import of maize and all sorts of other grain from Ukraine will also be badly hit.

READ MORE: How Spain’s economy could be impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

These are all economic consequences that are likely to be felt in Spain, Europe and elsewhere around the world as the war unfolds.

As the EU and NATO consider how best to deal with Putin’s invasion, a wide range of sanctions on individuals, banks and companies of Russian origin are being rolled out by different nations.

The Russian leader living up more than ever to his reputation as a dictator will likely seek to wield pressure over many of his opponents, finding each one’s Achilles heel to turn the tables in his favour. 

Russia will be able to put pressure on Germany through its dependence on natural gas, in the United Kingdom it may threaten to unveil the full extent of Russian influence and financing over the ruling Conservatives, but what pressure could Putin put on Spain specifically?

Tourism

As Spain’s economy is highly dependent on tourism, it would be no surprise if Russia targeted this sector if it wanted to get Pedro Sánchez’s government to yield in any respect. 

A total of 1.3 million Russian tourists visited Spain in 2019.

Obviously in 2020 and 2021 these figures were vastly reduced due to Covid-19, but even during the first year of the pandemic, the 155,961 Russian tourists who visited Spain spent €201 million.

In 2021, even though visitor numbers were down to 133,961, Russian tourists spent €228 million, consolidating themselves as the second biggest foreign spenders in Spain and the market that was growing the most, even though they’re 11th overall in terms of visitor numbers. 

Spanish authorities have been willing to bend Covid travel restrictions for British tourists over the past two years given that they’ve long represented their largest tourist group by sheer numbers, but it’s unlikely that Spain would go against EU sanctions on Russia if the Eastern powerhouse were to threaten Spanish tourism heads with dissuading Russian holidaymakers.

What Spain will want to avoid is the war in Ukraine preventing or discouraging all other international tourists from reaching its shores.

Investments and oligarchs

Russia’s billionaire investors have so far not had Spain among their main priorities. 

It’s worth noting that Spain’s National Securities Market Commission (CNMV) does not break down all the shares in listed companies that do not exceed 3 percent of the company’s share value and there may be more large Russian investors who remain unknown as a result. 

But 2018 data from Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that Russia ranked 41st among the largest investors in Spain, with just over €470 million. 

Russian investments focused primarily on real estate and construction (45 percent), hotels and tourist accommodation (35 percent) and the metal industry (close to 4 percent).

With regard to real estate, Russians have made a name for themselves in recent years for being the main luxury property buyers in Spain along with Chinese nationals.

Property ads written in Russian are displayed on the window of a real estate agency in Catalonia. Russians have been snapping up luxury villas surrounded for over a decade. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO / AFP)

Thousands of Russian millionaires have bought second homes in exclusive neighbourhoods in coastal locations across Spain, with the purchase of a €500,000+ property giving them Spanish residency through the so-called golden visa.

Their spending power is huge and Spain’s luxury property market is buoyant in part thanks to them, but the ‘takeover’ is nowhere near as rampant as it has been in London in recent years.

In terms of oligarchs, the most notable Russian tycoon operating in Spain is Mikhail Fridman, who in 2019 took control of the Día supermarket group after a business battle that reached Spain’s National Court. 

Political meddling 

Unlike the case for other far-right politicians across Europe such as Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage or Matteo Salvini, there is no evidence that Spain’s Vox party has received financing from the Kremlin in return for championing Putin’s Russia and creating divisions in Spain and Europe. 

In fact, Vox leader Santiago Abascal has condemned the “brutal attack” on Ukraine and argued that the Spanish government are “the political partners of allies” of Russian President Vladimir Putin (how he reached that conclusion is unclear).

Former Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (L) hold a press conference at the Spanish foreign ministry in Madrid in 2018. Putin and Sánchez have never met each other during an official visit. (Photo by CURTO DE LA TORRE / AFP)

What has been widely reported previously in leading Spanish newspapers such as El País or think tanks like the Elcano Institute is that Russia did interfere in Catalonia’s illegal independence referendum in 2017. 

An investigation by The New York Times also revealed the links between the Kremlin and the office of the now exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, one side seeking to destabilise the EU, the other looking for influence to ensure independence went ahead.

In 2019, Spain’s National Intelligence Agency warned that Russian spies continued to operate “aggressively” in the country and that their “hostile operations” were a threat to national security. 

Will Spain ever bow to Russia?

Spain will continue to feel the economic repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for at least the short term, with the drop in travel affecting its all-important tourism industry, and energy and food supplies all likely to continue rising in price.

But the eastern hegemon does not exert enough commercial or political influence over Spain for Pedro Sánchez’s administrations to ever consider making concessions for Putin if that meant going against the EU or NATO’s strategy.

Spain is a medium-sized player in this conflict, and although any retaliation by Russia on the West will be felt here as well, Putin is unlikely to ever target Spain specifically.

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UKRAINE

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
 
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
 
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
 
 
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant
“Sentimentai”.

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.

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