Russian media roundup: the Russian president heads to Helsinki as Turkey’s leader issues an apology to the family of the Russian military pilot killed when his plane was shot down in November.


Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, and Finland's President Sauli Niinisto shake hands during a joint press conference at the presidential summer residence in Naantali, Finland, on July 1, 2016. Photo: Lehtikuva via AP

Foreign policy dominated the Russian media this week as Turkey’s president tried to make amends for the death of a Russian fighter pilot last fall, Putin took on Finnish reporters over NATO expansion and Austria’s high court invalidated the May election. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is anxious to renew relations with Russia, but local pundits question his motives – especially given Turkey’s inability to push its agenda forward in Syria. Nevertheless, the relationship between Moscow and Ankara seems to be on the mend.

Not so for Russia-Finnish relations. At the end of what should have been a routine visit to Helsinki, a joint press conference between Vladimir Putin and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö took a turn for the worst when Finnish reporters asked if NATO membership was the only way to counter Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. Russia had hoped to work with Finland to mend trade relations, but that initiative now seems in doubt.

Europe may gain another Eurosceptic government when Austria returns to the polls in the fall after the country’s high court ruled that there were violations in the May 22 election that gave the Green party leader a narrow win over his far-right rival. Russian papers speculate that this could be the beginning of an Öxit campaign. Closer to home a reviled politician finally got his due – Pavel Astakhov is no longer Russia’s ombudsman for childrens’ rights. But the press cautions that his replacement could be worse.

Prospects brighten for normalization of Russian-Turkish relations

Russian-Turkish relations took a turn for the worst last fall when a Russian Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet while carrying out a combat mission over Syria in November. Of the two-man crew, the pilot was killed while parachuting out, and a special team was sent in to rescue the navigator. After the incident, Russia imposed restrictions on the import of Turkish products and prohibited the sale of tourist travel packages to Turkey.

Also read: "Will Turkey's apology for downing the Russian jet alleviate tensions?"

On June 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he apologized for shooting down the plane and offered his condolences for the death of the pilot.

He also expressed hope for an early restoration of friendly relations between the two countries. Almost immediately, the two leaders held a telephone conversation, which set relations on the path to recovery.

The Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid printed an article by political scientist Ivan Starodubtsev, who analyzed the motives of the Turkish side. Starodubtsev believes that Erdogan’s move is a pragmatic one that is part of a bigger policy aimed at reducing the level of conflict with his country’s closest neighbors.

The decision to attempt to normalize relations with Russia should be seen in the context of restoring dialogue with Israel. The expert suggests, however, that Russia should be cautious in accepting the apology, as Erdogan is facing a number of problems and may be acting opportunistically.

Kirill Martynov, political columnist at the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, agrees that the actions of the Turkish leader were not spontaneous. Martynov argues that two countries with deep ties and a number of mutual interests should have figured out a long time ago how to end this conflict without losing face. Although this rapprochement is beneficial for Moscow, it is much more important for Turkey, as the economic and political losses caused by Russian sanctions had a significant impact on the country.

Martynov also noted the possible role of Brexit in Erdogan’s decision, since the UK was always the primary lobbyist for including Turkey into the EU and now Ankara needs to find a new way to put pressure on Brussels. Turning towards Moscow could be such an instrument.

Vladimir Frolov, writing for the independent Slon, said that Ankara’s latest moves are rooted in its Kurdish problem and the country’s failure to help bring peace to Syria. After the Su-24 incident, Moscow made some efforts to strengthen the position of the Kurds, something that Washington was also doing, which made the group an even greater threat to the Turkish leadership.

At the same time, Turkey’s policy on Syria has obviously collapsed – Assad has not been overthrown, and the Ankara-supported Islamist opposition is going through hard times. Turkey is now seeking to break the vicious circle of conflict, and here Russia can provide some useful assistance, since both countries can claim at least one common enemy – international terrorism.

Putin’s criticizes NATO expansion on visit to Finland

On July 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Finland, during which he held talks with President Sauli Niinistö. A press conference was held after their talks, which, according to Russian media, was an even more significant event than the actual talks themselves. In their comments, the two leaders exchanged rather harsh attacks, and Putin warned Finland against joining NATO.

The online news site emphasized the extremely cold and hostile atmosphere that prevailed at the press conference. Traditionally, Finland has been an important trading partner for Russia, and both countries are interested in the restoration of contacts interrupted due to EU sanctions. In addition, Finland had always remained neutral, rejecting the idea of ​​joining NATO. The country has seemed to change it position in recent years, though, to the great irritation of Moscow, which is already extremely concerned about NATO moving closer to Russia’s Western borders. In this light, questions by journalists about NATO at the press conference became a kind of trigger –for strong words on both sides, disrupting what was otherwise an ordinary bilateral visit.

Moskovsky Komsomolets wasn’t ready to attributed the sudden public squabble only to questions from journalists, suggesting that in addition to the comments by the Finnish reporters that their country could be saved from Russia’s aggressive foreign policy only by NATO, Putin might have been put off by the fact that the EU extended its sanctions against Russia on the day of the visit.

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta, on the contrary, treated the exchange of remarks at the press conference as a playful quarrel in a friendly atmosphere. For Finland, the question of sanctions and countersanctions is very important because the two countries are closely linked by trade and economic ties. In spite of this, Finland not only joined the sanctions, but was one of the authors of a package of restrictive measures. In light of this, it is not yet clear when trade and economic cooperation will once again normalize.

Russian children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov resigns under public pressure

Children’s Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, known for his controversial statements and his backing of numerous questionable policies, has resigned. Officially, Astakhov was removed by his post by the president, but there is every reason to believe that Astakhov “was asked to leave” after a petition demanding his resignation was signed by more than 150,000 people.

The source of the petition was Astakhov’s behavior at a meeting with the victims of the summer camp tragedy in Karelia two weeks earlier, when the ombudsman asked one girl who survived the boat sinking: “So, how was your swim?” While this is far from the first time Astakhov has suffered from foot-in-mouth disease, it was the moment that galvanized his opposition.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, quoting Russian experts, emphasized that Astakhov always was more interested in engaging in self-promotion than the actual protection of children’s rights. Although he could be an effective advocate in individual cases, he seriously lacked a systematic approach to his work, and children’s rights in the country became even worse, according to experts quoted by the paper. In light of the upcoming elections, it is only appropriate to remove such an odious figure from public view, the experts say.  

It is too early to be celebrating Astakhov’s departure, according to Moskovsky Komsomolets. The paper noted that he could be replaced by the possibly-even-more-offensive Elena Mizulina. Duma Deputy Mizulina is the author of some of the most controversial laws affecting social policy, including laws on “gay propaganda,” surrogate motherhood, “baby boxes,” abortion and proposals not take children away from parents who were drug addicts or alcoholics.

The business publication RBC noted that there were a number of reasons behind Astakhov’s resignation. In addition to the already mentioned controversial statements, the anti-corruption agency in the Presidential Administration had claims against him. RBC also recalled Astakhov’s position on the wedding last year of a Chechen police chief to a 17-year-old girl. At that time, the Ombudsman tried to justify the situation by referring to the importance of local traditions.

Recommended: "EU after Brexit: Leaders confront the future of a united Europe"

Far right gets another chance in Austria

Last week, Austria’s constitutional court canceled the results of the presidential elections held earlier this spring. On May 22, by a margin of 0.6% of the votes, Green party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen won the election, but the right-wing Freedom Party sought to overturn the results due to certain violations. The constitutional court took the side of the Freedom Party, and now Austria awaits new elections.

The opposition Novaya Gazeta believes that in the context of the migration crisis and the success of Brexit, the right has every chance of winning this repeat election, bringing another Eurosceptic party to power. The Freedom Party does not hide its disapproval of the policies being pursued by Brussels, believing that the EU needs to seriously reform and return its focus to economics and trade rather than developing its political structure. If the right wins in the upcoming elections, a new era in the history of Austria will start, which may well bring an Öxit [exit of Austria from the EU], according to the paper.

The business newspaper Kommersant agreed the right has a strong chance to win the presidency. The publication emphasized that while the violations were only formalities, they were enough to have the results of the vote annulled. In order to prevent similar cases, Austria is planning to seek the assistance of OSCE observers in organizing the new elections, Kommersant noted.

Quotes of the Week:

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in his official letter to the Kremlin: “I want to once again express my sympathy and deep condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died, and I say – I'm sorry”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Finland joining NATO: “To paraphrase one of my Finnish friends, I can say that NATO probably would love to wage a war against Russia until the last Finnish soldier. Do you need that? We don’t. But you decide what you need for yourselves.”

Dmitry Peskov, official Kremlin spokesperson, on Erdogan's apology: “The Turkish leader expressed his interest in resolving the situation connected with the destruction of the Russian military aircraft. Erdogan expressed deep regret over the incident and underlined his willingness to do everything possible to restore the traditionally friendly relations between Turkey and Russia, as well as to jointly respond to crisis events in the region, and to fight terrorism.”