Russian media roundup: Last week attention was focused on the ASEAN-Russia summit in Sochi, United Russia’s primaries and Montenegro’s decision to join NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong at the welcome ceremony for delegation heads, ASEAN-Russia Summit, May 20, 2016. Photo: Host Photo Agency

The Russian media coverage last week was largely focused on Sochi hosting the Russia-ASEAN summit, the political primaries of Russia’s ruling party, and the implications of Montenegro’s decision to join NATO.

ASEAN-Russia summit

One of the key themes covered by the Russian media last week was the ASEAN-Russia summit held in Sochi on May 19-20.  This year the summit marked the 20th anniversary of cooperation between Moscow and ASEAN countries. The most important questions discussed at the summit included the strengthening of cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the potential free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and joint projects in the areas of business, energy, infrastructure, culture and tourism.

The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was extremely pleased with the results of the summit. Participants were ready to join efforts not only in the economic area, but also in security matters, the newspaper reported. Russia offered to establish a free trade zone between the EEU and ASEAN as well as create a strategic partnership between the nations of the EEU and Southeast Asia.

Moscow also proposed 57 projects aimed at establishing joint efforts in technology and innovation and invited the countries of ASEAN to participate in upcoming economic forums in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. As a result of the summit participants came up with plan for cooperation for the next four years aiming to increase the volume of trade between ASEAN member states and Russia.

According to the business-oriented newspaper Kommersant, given Putin’s upcoming visit to China in June, the summit in Sochi attempted to prove that Russia’s “pivot to the East” was not just a political project, but also an economic one. The paper warned that, although Moscow’s efforts to improve ties with Japan and ASEAN would help it to avoid the role of “China’s little brother” and give the Kremlin extra bargaining power in negotiations with Beijing, this development could also put Moscow in a position where balancing between the interests of different parts of Asia would be crucial.

The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published a commentary by Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal Russian economist and politician, who believes that the summit in Sochi was pointless in the sense that Russia’s role in Southeast Asia is now really minor and it cannot compete there with China. According to him, in 2015 the total trade turnover between Russia and the ASEAN member states decreased by almost 40 percent and reached a level o $14 billion – six times less than that of China. “Time passes. The money is spent on pointless things. Russia is following the road to nowhere,” he wrote.

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United Russia primaries

On May 22, the current ruling party – United Russia – held its political primaries, opening more than 12,000 polling stations all over Russia. The results of these primaries will help to determine which candidates will run for seats in the State Duma, the nation’s lower house of parliament, in September.

Assessing the results of the primaries, the pro-government newspaper Izvestia wrote that more than 9 million citizens took part in this political event, which is relatively new for Russia. Experts interviewed by the paper agreed that the primaries were held at a very high level and now it is likely to become a common practice in Russia’s political culture. The paper also quoted political expert Konstantin Kalachev who believes primaries are helping to keep the leading party of the political system (United Russia) and its members in good shape. “The new voting system has proved that political system in Russia is alive and the competition within the ruling party does exist,” he said.

The business newspaper Vedomosti looked into the violations that happened during the primaries and analyzed to what extent candidates not affiliated with United Russia could pose a threat to the representatives of the party. The publication quotes the political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, who says that even though such candidates may get elected into the Duma, their numbers will be small and they will have to comply with the party’s discipline. “Against this background, the majority of voters remained indifferent to the topic of primaries: they do not expect democracy from the party – all they need is for it to ensure the growing level of living standards,” he says.

The Echo of Moscow radio station released a commentary by Gennady Gudkov, a Russian politician and businessman known for his criticism of Putin’s government, who also pointed out that a number of violations happened during the primaries and noted that some candidates were banned from participating in the political event. “Primaries are used by the Kremlin to get rid of undesirable candidates,” he wrote.

Montenegro to join NATO

On May 19, NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels to sign the document for Montenegro’s accession to the organization. It allows Montenegrin representatives to take part in all Alliance meetings as observers until the agreement is ratified by the current 28 NATO members. Russian media analyzed what implications this development might have for Russia.

The tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published expert opinions on the issue. According to Elena Guskova, director of the Center for the Study of the Contemporary Balkan crisis at the Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the decision to join NATO has a purely political meaning – there is no talk yet about the creation of military bases in Montenegro.

This development is aimed to show the world that even Russia’s closest friends are turning away,” she says. “The decision to join the North Atlantic Alliance was made through the vote of Montenegro’s parliament, more specifically, by around 50 of its members or around a half of all parliamentarians. In fact, the destiny of the country was decided not by its people, but by some 50 people. Don’t doubt it: if it was decided by the people, there would be no joining – according to public opinion polls, almost 54.7 percent of citizens would vote against it.”

The online publication writes that officially there is no reason for the Kremlin to worry about Montenegro’s accession to NATO. This country is one of the most favorite places for Russian tourists and doesn’t possess a significant military capacity. However, Montenegro’s shift to NATO is very unpleasant for Moscow, the publication notes. The Kremlin is concerned that Montenegro’s membership in the Alliance could negatively influence neighboring Serbia, Russia’s important ally in Eastern Europe.

In a piece on Montenegro and NATO, Kommersant refers to Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s current prime minister, who told the publication that there is no reason for Montenegro not to maintain its historically close relations with Moscow. Sources close to Djukanovic also told Kommersant that even today Russia has a number of friends in NATO and soon Montenegro will become another one.