Media Roundup: As oil continues to dip below $90 per barrel, commentators from across the political spectrum have been attempting to understand the consequences of the shift in global economic fortunes for Russia.

The drop in oil prices has been one of the main topics discussed by Russian media this week. Photo: Shutterstock / Legion Media

This week, the Russian media focused primarily on falling oil prices and their potential to change the dynamic of the confrontation between Russia and the West. The global economy, as they see it, is now driving the foreign policy calculus of the Kremlin. If oil prices continue to fall, they could weaken the negotiating position of Moscow in any resolution of the Ukraine crisis and call into question the government’s economic policies.

In addition, two domestic news items – a meeting of the Russian Human Rights Council (HRC) with President Putin and a final verdict against one of the defendants in the high-profile Bolotnaya Square Case – also attracted media attention.

Falling oil prices

Lately, the theme of falling oil prices has been headline material for the Russian media. While the pro-government media sees this as the result of a conspiracy of the world’s major players, the opposition media and business publications (Echo of Moscow, Slon, Vedomosti, and Kommersant) have been trying to understand the more complex causes and consequences of the drop in the price per barrel.

One of the main commentators of the pro-government Channel One television network, Mikhail Leontiev, made the following observations about the situation“Today’s falling prices have nothing to do with the long-term trends. This is due to the current mess and chaos in the world. Oil, stolen by the Islamic Caliphate, has been thrown onto the market. By the way, this is being done through Turkey, which is involved in a terrible war against the Caliphate. And most importantly, Saudi Arabia announced that it would not support oil prices by cutting its own production. Moreover, it has started to cut oil prices. Following the Saudis, Iran has started to cut prices as well, and as for Iraq... OPEC said that it sees no opportunities to reduce production there. All players wish to maintain their market share at any cost – especially the Saudis, and especially on the American market. The fact that the United States has transformed into an exporter of oil means that the Americans no longer need Saudi Arabia as an ally. Thus, the Saudis are not needed by anyone.”

Ira Solomonova, in her blog for Slon, cites data from the analytical agency Stratfor in making her conclusions about falling oil prices: “The first and most important result of the decline in oil prices is the effect that it will have on the confrontation between Russia and the West.” As she explains further: “Hydrocarbons are the main source of income for the Russian budget, which was based on an estimated price of $117 for most of this year ($90 in its last quarter) and $100 for 2015. Although Russia is currently coping with the effects of the sanctions imposed against it by the United States and the EU, these measures have already forced some companies – in particular Rosneft – to apply to the government for additional funding. Reduction of funds coming into the Russian budget, which will follow the drop in oil prices, will more and more limit the Kremlin’s ability to support those seeking assistance. The thinner the financial cushion becomes, the less effective it will be to soften the impact of the sanctions, and in the end, the Kremlin will have to reconsider its position in negotiations with the West over Ukraine, say the analysts.”

At Vedomosti, Mikhail Ovcherenko, criticized the “conspiracy theory” approach, noting that the problem lies in the structural problems of Russia itself: “The fall in oil prices and the reluctance of Saudi Arabia to intervene in the market gave rise to conspiracy theories. One of them goes like this: The United States, in order to increase production, reached an agreement with the Saudis to keep prices low to strike a blow against oil-dependent Russia.”

Ovcherenko continues by noting that, “The breeding ground for such theories is the current geopolitical crisis… Homegrown proponents of this theory say that the problems of our country are a consequence of the global cabal, basing this on the ‘Saudi history.’ Nevertheless, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

A blogger of the opposition radio station Echo of Moscow, Yuri Magarshak, believes that the ruling elites in Russia were too late in working on the issue of how to survive during a period of low oil prices: “With falling oil prices and the ruble falling against the dollar, interest rates are changing every week, and where will all this end? This is the question. Leading policy makers in the Russian Federation, literally like children, have now made a startling discovery – the economy needs to diversify, make its technologies competitive and its education the best in this world. Being dependent on the ‘oil and gas’ needle, like a drug addict – there is no way out, but to kick the habit. There is no other way out.”

The unexpected drop in oil prices was also assessed by Yevgeni Khvostik from Kommersant. He cites the research of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, in which it is claimed that the decline in oil prices will also lead to positive consequences: “Having to spend less on the purchase of raw materials, companies can use the released funds for the development of their businesses, on innovation and for making other investments that, in turn, can stimulate the economic sector in which they operate, for example, the airlines.”

An expert at Kommersant, Sergey Minaev, notes that over the past twenty or thirty years, the energy markets have experienced serious adjustments several times, and this is what we see happening now – however, no tectonic shifts are to be expected: “Theoretically, multinationals, after 20 years of global expansion, should be more vulnerable than they were earlier. Western companies are making 20-30 percent of their sales in the developing countries – this is twice more than in the 1990s. Nevertheless... all of these geopolitical factors have not yet had any impact on the companies themselves, or on the financial markets. Major Western companies, present on the Russian market, because of tensions between Russia and the West and due to the drop in the ruble, have seen their shares lose only $75 billion in value – which is a mere droplet in the transnational sea.”

HRC meeting with Russian President Putin

The Human Rights Council meets with the Russian president only once a year, and invariably this meeting becomes the subject of discussion in the Russian media. This year, given all the recent events in Ukraine and the current international situation, the meeting attracted even greater attention.

Pro-government media sought to demonstrate how important this organization is, and how much attention is paid to its activities on the part of the government in these difficult times, when in a neighboring country there is a humanitarian catastrophe.

A correspondent of Channel One, Anton Vernitsky, in particular, said“Very soon, the council will be celebrating its tenth anniversary. According to Vladimir Putin, over these years, the Council has become the most important institution in our country. It has raised a variety of issues – from affordable housing to the problems faced by orphans. The main theme today has become supporting refugees from Ukraine and adaptation of those Ukrainian citizens who do not wish to return to their homeland, where the basic norms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are being violated.”

Opposition media (Novaya Gazeta, Echo Moskvy) have accused the HRC of formalism and believe that this body is not able to solve the tasks it was assigned.

An observer at Novaya Gazeta and a member of the HRC, Leonid Nikitskiy believes that the present meeting of the HRC is more in the interests of the citizens of a neighboring country, and not Russia“By chance or not, but some people did not get to speak, for example, Tamara Morschakova, who was supposed to talk about the crisis in the judiciary and law enforcement systems. Nothing was said about education, or about medicine or about pensions. That is, it turned out that Mr. Putin heard more about the problems of Novorossiya than about Russia and its internal life, which is not by any means cloudless or conflict-free.”

An author on the Echo Moskvy website, Arkady Dubnov, also negatively assessed the results of the meeting, which in his opinion had a purely formal character: “In the end, there is a common belief that everything we do depends on the president,” [Putin] said at the end of the meeting when answering the question of Stanislav Kucher, on whether Putin will change the system in which everything depends on him. Judging from the present situation, apparently not. Because, “in order to change the system that is entirely dependent upon the decisions of the first persons, we need to improve the civil society institutions.” However, judging by the fact that the Ministry of Justice is demanding the closure of the “Memorial” organization [one of the largest human rights organizations in Russia], which no one remembered at yesterday’s meeting, and for the purity of the experiment, it was decided, for starters, to close these institutions. The president humbly promised, “not to oppose” the burden of responsibility “to be extreme.” These, they say, are our “well-known historical traditions.” 

An author at Vedomosti, Elena Mukhametshina, on the whole, quite calmly assessed the results of the activities and referred to the opinion of the political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov: “Vinogradov said that Putin’s style of communication depends on what kind of audience is he addressing: He communicates with the HRC with moderate positions, while for radical statements, he selects other platforms. Meetings with the HRC are a ritual, as well as a desire to preserve one’s freedom of maneuver, if by any chance at some point there will be a softening of policy, he could say that this was already talked about.”

The Bolotnaya Square Case

One of the defendants in the so-called “Bolotnaya Square Case,” which involves several high-profile proceedings against members of the anti-government protests on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in May 2012, has received the court’s verdict: Dmitry Ishevskiy was sentenced to three years in a penal colony.

While opposition media (Slon, and business publications (Kommersant) wondered about the severity of this sentence, the pro-government media have remained silent on the issue or limited themselves, like Rossiyskaya Gazeta, to formal reporting of the news.

Yevgeniya Kislaya (Slon) paints a portrait of Ishevskiy as both a positive and serious man, stressing that he received a prison term contrary to the logic of the process: “Dmitry Ishevskiy – an officer, was educated as a teacher. Before his arrest, he informally moonlighted as a driver and attended a flight attendants’ course – and the prosecutor read out many letters testifying to the good character and qualities of Ishevskiy, while at Bolotnaya Square, he, of course, acted with ‘criminal intent’…” (in an article by Ivan Komarov) gives the floor to the other individual in the Bolotnaya Square Case – Maria Baronova (who was released under amnesty): “Maria said that in the case of Ishevskiy, we could talk about self-defense. The question is, under what circumstances was the helmet broken? If another person is beating you, do you have to stand with your hands lowered at your sides? No, you can yank off his helmet in response – each person has the right to self-defense, if another person first committed aggression – unmotivated, unreasonable and illegal aggression. And the Criminal Code contains an article on the punishment of a person in authority who commits an aggression against an unarmed individual.”

Komarov, in his article, also added the words of the lawyer of the convicted Dmitry Dubravin: “We will definitely appeal this decision. Why was the sentence so severe? This is necessary to ask the court. I understand this, as simply the ossification and clumsiness of our justice system, can they not show more flexibility in their approach to different circumstances. As they were ordered from the top, so they act,” believes the defense lawyer. “They act, not bothering to look at the special circumstances when considering each case. This sentence cannot be seen as a logical decision.”

Ivan Tyazhlov at Kommersant also wondered about the severity of the sentence: “Despite the guilty pleas and cooperation during the investigation, the court sentenced Dmitry Ishevskiy to three years and two months in a penal colony.”