Media Roundup: The Russian media focused on the potential implications of a new political corruption scandal, Greece’s snap parliamentary elections, Europe’s refugee crisis, and reports about Russian troops in Syria.

Participants of an opposition rally in Moscow, Russia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Photo: AP

This week, the Russian media focused on a corruption scandal in the northern Komi Republic – an event that is being viewed as yet more evidence that the Kremlin is engaged in a “cleansing” of the Russian elite. In addition, the media turned its attention to the burgeoning Syria crisis, which now seems to be on the brink of direct military involvement by Russian troops.

Corruption scandal in the Komi Republic

On Sept. 19, the Investigative Committee of Russia announced the detention of Vyacheslav Gayzer, head of the Komi Republic, and 18 of his close associates, on charges of organizing a criminal group and fraud.

Gayzer, who has led the Komi Republic since 2010, was taken into custody and his membership in the ruling United Russia party was suspended. Russian media speculated on what was really behind the charges being laid against the head of this region.

The business newspaper Kommersant, quoting Russian experts, wrote about the need for high-profile anti-corruption cases to improve the image of the current government. The publication noted that everyone had long known about the existence in Komi of a “regime with authoritarian traits,” but only after serious failures in the fight against corruption did the federal government decide to implement strict measures against certain particularly offensive politicians.

The independent Slon investigated various versions of what happened, but remains convinced that the only theory that can be dismissed for certain is the story of a fair and impartial investigation that “suddenly” revealed violations in the work of one of the most important Russian regional politicians.

The popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets writes about the massive “cleansing” happening in the ranks of Russia’s elite, noting the recent high-profile resignations of the heads of the Novosibirsk, Sakhalin and Bryansk regions.

Gayzer was regularly included in lists of the most effective leaders of the regions; however, as the publication emphasizes, previous achievements can hardly help him now.

 Also read: "Why Russia's political elites need to play a more subtle game." 

Early elections in Greece

On Sept. 20, snap parliamentary elections were held in Greece, which were initiated in August by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who was not able to gain full support from the previous government for the agreements he signed with the EU on the issue of Greece’s national debt. 

As a result, the Syriza Party won once again, according to the final results, with 35.47 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the center-right New Democracy Party gained 28.07 percent of the vote.

Coming in third place was the ultra-right Golden Dawn, which received 6.98 percent of the vote. The Independent Greeks party (ANEL) entered parliament with 3.69 percent of the votes.

The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta wrote about the apathy and lack of interest among the Greek population, which was being called out to vote for a third time this year. The publication says that the ruling Syriza party has come out the winner, although it has lost some seats, giving up some of them to the conservative People’s Democracy (which is in favor of the European vector for Greece). 

One way or another, the author noted, the Greeks will face hard times, and potentially a new government crisis and new elections as early as 2016.

The independent media publication Slon believes that, in every sense, Tsipras came out the winner in these elections – first, Syriza will consolidate its victory, and second, a split in the party in August helped Tsipras get rid of the most radical party members, who in turn, formed the National Unity Party.

The article’s author believes that without this wing, Syriza has become a much more acceptable partner for European leaders.

The business newspaper Kommersant, on the other hand, is not confident in Syriza remaining victorious, pointing to the falling approval ratings of the party. The publication says that the main intrigue of the election is an agreement on the future composition of the government coalition, because no political force in Greece will be able to control enough votes to implement independent policies.

 Recommended: "Greece: a new Trojan horse of the Kremlin?" 

Refugees in Europe: a perspective from Russia

There has been a simmering discussion on the issue of refugees coming from the Middle East, the flow of which has increased significantly since late summer of this year.

Moskovsky Komsomolets published an interview with human rights activist Bakhram Ismayilov, who believes that the measures taken by the EU are ineffective because they are directed against the symptoms of the problem rather than the causes. The human rights activist also believes that the current situation will inevitably lead to changes in the policy of Brussels, which is likely to make significant changes to its legislation on refugees.

The expert also refutes the popular thesis postulated in Russia that the closing of borders within the EU represents a violation of European standards, explaining that in cases of an emergency, the EU states are allowed to independently manage their affairs.

The opposition-minded Novaya Gazeta said that the Russian pro-government media, which has a tendency of trying to divert attention away from domestic problems, has artificially inflated the refugee migration topic. The newspaper dispelled the “myths” about Syrian refugees in Europe, believing that their numbers and the danger they present to European countries is greatly exaggerated.

 Also read: "Will Russia contribute to solving Syria's refugee crisis?" 

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported on possible conflicts erupting between the inhabitants of Germany and all the new arrivals, in particular, because of the festival that will be held in Munich soon – October Fest, which attracts great numbers of nationalist-minded youth.

Rumors of Russian troops in Syria

The Russian media is discussing the possibility of sending Russian troops to Syria to help Assad’s regime in its fight against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Official sources are heating up interest in this topic, hinting that such a possibility exists, but it is too early to talk about it today.

Last week, a surge of interest in this subject arose after President Vladimir Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, stated that Russia is ready to provide assistance to Syria if that country asks for it, and information was received from anonymous sources of the press that Russian contract soldiers were already being sent to Syria.

 Related: "Russia raises the stakes in Syria." 

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that the Kremlin is implementing a deliberate policy to reorient all attention from Ukraine to Syria, in order to increase its influence and try to restore its image. The paper feels confident that on Sept. 28, when Putin will speak at the United Nations, he will not talk about Ukraine or the “Russian World,” but will announce new initiatives on Syria.

The website of The Echo of Moscow radio station gave a voice to Middle East expert Alexander Shumilin, who believes that Russia is playing a complex political game, trying to reach an agreement with key players on the Syrian issue – particularly with the United States.

According to the expert, the question of Russian participation or non-participation in Syrian affairs also very much depends on Moscow’s unwillingness to put pressure on Assad.

Moskovsky Komsomolets quoted Middle East expert Gumer Isayev on the problems of Russia’s participation in operations in Syria. The expert believes that this will be painfully received by Russian society. Moreover, the current situation that the Assad regime finds itself in is very depressing, and there is a risk of being dragged into a hopeless war on the side of a weakening regime.

Opposition rally in Moscow

On Sept. 20, opposition forces held a rally in Moscow to demand a “change of government.” The opposition was saying they were expecting a turnout of about 40 thousand, but in fact, according to various estimates, only 4 thousand to 7 thousand people attended.

The greatest outrage for the opposition came from the decision as to where they were allowed to hold their rally. That’s because Moscow City Hall “evicted” the opposition from the city center to its outskirts.

The opposition TV channel Dozhd conducted a live broadcast from the event, and also published the full closing speech made by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who said that the main struggle in Russia is between those who want changes and believe in them, and those who do not want changes.

The opposition-minded Novaya Gazeta noted that the rally was rather sluggish and poorly organized (the opposition leaders’ speeches were hard to hear), and people marched with similar banners and posters that were distributed to them by the rally’s organizers.

The pro-government media, including Rossiyskaya Gazeta and TV network Channel One mostly ignored the rally, limiting themselves to reporting on the number of participants.

Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that the reason for the low turnout at the rally was the unattractive political agenda, as well as the absence of any additional emotional factors (such as the murder of Russia’s most prominent opposition activist Boris Nemtsov provided this past spring).

Quotes of the week:

Andrey Andreyev, parliamentarian of the Komi Republic (Communist Party) on the detention of Gayzer: “So, if they are claiming that this kind of a group has existed for about ten years, then why, in spite of the government’s fight against corruption over the years, its activities were not stopped? This is the first time that the Komi Republic has been shaken by such a scandal.”

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, on reasons for closing the country’s border to refugees: “In the end, there will be more of them than us. This is simple mathematics.”

Dmitry Peskov, on the possibility of sending Russian troops to Syria: “If there is a request [from Syria], within the framework of bilateral contacts, in bilateral dialogue, of course, this possibility [sending Russian troops to Syria] will be discussed and considered.”