Russian media roundup: The EU’s decision to extend its sanctions on Russia, parliamentary elections in Greece, a potential Russian exit from PACE and the downgrade of Russian debt to “junk” status all made headlines.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, right, speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Jan. 29. EU foreign ministers hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss the latest fighting in Ukraine and possible further sanctions against Russia. Photo: AP

This week, the Russian media was focused on events with direct bearing on the nation’s future economic course, particularly the extension of EU sanctions on Russia and the lowering of Russia’s sovereign credit rating to “junk” by S&P. Russian journalists also speculated about the impact of the victory of Greek’s radical left in parliamentary elections as a way of eventually weakening European resolve against Russia. In addition, the Russian press debated the future of Russia’s participation in Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

The surprising victory of Syriza in Greek parliamentary elections

The Russian media began to prepare itself in advance for the parliamentary elections in Greece. They started creating a hypothesis about “anti-European” forces in the form of the Coalition of the Radical Left (the Syriza Party) led by Alexis Tsipras coming to power and undermining the unity of the EU. After these same forces won the elections, the Russian media was divided in their assessments of the prospects of the party and Greece’s continuation as a member of the Eurozone.

For example, some pro-government media (Izvestia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta) believe that Greece has taken the first steps towards a more independent domestic and foreign policy: If taken far enough, future steps could lead Greece on the path to undermining the foundations of the EU. Other independent and business media outlets (Echo of Moscow, Vedomosti) believe that the victory of Syriza in Greece is a common situation, the value of which is being greatly exaggerated. Not to mention the fact that one country, let alone a relatively small one, does not have the power to break up the EU.

Thus, Echo of Moscow blogger and activist of the Left Front, Andrey Rudoiy believes that Syriza does not really have that many opportunities to make a difference, and therefore the future of the party is rather uncertain.

“We should not expect something super-radical from such a union,” he said. “Hence the ambiguous reaction to the results of the Greek elections among the Russian left. And we can only hope that Syriza will not slide into the shameful squalor, in which the vast majority of social-democratic parties in the world find themselves today.”

An author of the business newspaper Vedomosti, Nikolay Epple, believes that the Greek leaders find themselves in a very difficult situation from which all directions look bad. Epple does not think that Greece can have a serious influence on the overall situation in the EU, and predicts that the country’s future as being not too bright.

“The exit from the Eurozone is needed to achieve devaluation of the country’s currency, which would then lead to an increase the competitiveness in Greek exports, but this will also reduce the standard of living,” suggests Mr. Epple. “And the path of default, which for a time would deprive the country of financing in the debt market, will not be popular with the electorate of Syriza. Continuance of cooperation with the troika [the EU, the IMF and European Central Bank] will also hurt Tsipras’ reputation – he would have to renege on most of his promises. Both these paths are fraught with political instability.”

Journalist Israel Shamir, writing for Izvestia, considers that the aftermath of the parliamentary elections in Greece and Tsipras’ victory has laid a “mine” under the foundations of the EU.

“The Greeks have suddenly made an attack on the dictatorship of Brussels,” he says. “Brussels bureaucrats have become accustomed to ruling Europe as they see fit, to make any statements, impose sanctions – and only inform members of the EU about their decisions.”

The columnist believes the elections in Greece have caused a “tremor” that has been felt by the entire European Union, where dissatisfaction with Brussels “seethes beneath the surface like lava beneath a thin crust of magma.”

The well-known pro-government journalist Yevgeny Shestakov, writing for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, notes that the elections in Greece have put an end to German leadership of the EU.

“These recent elections in Greece have dealt a severe blow to the German dream,” he said. “If recently, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel could feel like the ‘gray cardinal’ of Europe, and almost openly issued directives to European officials, now for many governments of the Old World an opportunity was born, to rise up against their economic occupation by Berlin.”

Moreover, Shestakov states that, “The rise of Syriza greatly concerns Brussels, because in the future, this Greek experience may be repeated by other Eurozone countries, no less irritated than Athens is, about the loss of national identity and state independence.”

Likewise, a writer for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Yevgeny Grigoriev, notes that the example of Greece may well be the beginning of a “domino effect.”

Russia is deprived of voting rights in PACE

The political elite of Russia was already growing fatigued of the way things were going in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and so the deprivation of the country’s right to vote until April 2015 led to some thinking of what might come next. What should Russia do about this, or can it do anything at all?

Some media (including a number of bloggers at the Echo of Moscow) believe that, in this situation, the right decision is to take a pause, and maybe even stop being active in the organization as the country has no real political influence there anyways. Other outlets (e.g., Moskovsky Komsomolets) see the Kremlin's response to the decision of PACE as inadequate: Russia is falling deeper into self-isolation, according to them.

Political scientist Maxim Grigoriev cast doubts about Russia’s membership in PACE during an interview with Aktualnyie Kommentarii.

“In the current situation, where Russia is a big sponsor of PACE, making significant contributions to the organization, and yet is still regularly not only deprived of the possibility to vote and work in peace, but also a large part of the PACE apparatus actually holds anti-Russian sentiments and positions. The question arises: Do we really need membership in PACE?” he asked.

Nikolay Kozlov, a blogger at the Echo of Moscow website, believes that Russia did the right thing by suspending its activities in PACE to the end of the year.

“They deprived us of voting until April,” writes Kozlov. “I think this is no big deal. This organization has no significant powers, but [it] remains a prestigious discussion forum.”

Among those who consider the possible withdrawal of Russia from the Council of Europe (CoE) as a wholly inadequate response to the loss of voting rights, is the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. In one of its articles, the media outlet noted that this would not only be the end of cooperation in many areas, but also have a serious impact on the population of Russia.

Rupture of relations with the Council of Europe, in which Russia has been a member since 1996, means that a moratorium on the death penalty ceases to have effect, notes the article (This moratorium remains in effect by the decision of the Constitutional Court, which based its ruling on the commitments Russia made when joining PACE).

At the same time, the article emphasizes that “Russians will no longer be able to complain to the European Court of Human Rights. The Russian authorities will be very happy with this, but those who may rejoice with them, must clearly understand – will they be happy with the fact that there would no longer be any supranational protection against judicial tyranny.”

Kirill Shulika, a blogger at the Echo of Moscow website, also believes that Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe and PACE will lead to a deterioration of the human rights situation in the Russian Federation, as well as depriving Russians of the opportunity to get justice in the courts. In other words, the blogger notes, Europe is now abandoning those people, who through the institutions of Council of Europe, it has sought to protect.

“In fact, Europe has placed a very serious trump card into the hands of Russian hawks,” writes the blogger. “No one has any doubts that this PACE decision will in no way influence the situation in Ukraine. However, it can have a significant impact on the human rights situation in Russia, and of course, in a most negative way.”

The extension of sanctions against Russia

No less unpleasant for Russia was the extension of EU sanctions. On this question, the pro-government media (Rossiyskaya Gazeta) prefer not to provide too many details, emphasizing the lack of unity among the EU countries. Meanwhile, some opposition media, as well as business outlets, consider the extension of sanctions as something quite logical and expected (Novaya Gazeta, Kommersant).

For example, Kommersant interviewed Maxim Bratersky, professor in the Department of World Economics and Politics at the Higher School of Economics. The expert explained that the extension of sanctions “was 99 percent expected.” At the same time, Professor Bratersky argues that the EU is hardly likely to tighten sanctions seriously, becuase it understands "that the situation is somewhat more complicated, and not so black and white" as some would like to see it.

Meanwhile, Anna Fedyakina, writing in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, points out to "a split among European capitals, in relation to anti-Russian sanctions,” with Yevgeny Grigoriev of Nezavisimaya Gazeta offering a look at the balance of power in the EU after the elections in Greece. In particular, he argues that Brussels will hold to its line, and will find ways to convince Greece, a potential ally of Russia, to remain in the EU camp. He adds that the “top leadership of the EU is having an increasingly hard time in maintaining a confrontational policy against Russia.”

“Junk” status for Russia

Earlier in the week, the S&P rating agency’s downgrade of Russia’s sovereign credit rating to “junk” led to active discussions in the media.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta gives the voice to the former chairperson of the Central Bank, Konstantin Korischenko, who currently head of the Department of Stock Market and Financial Engineering at the Russian Presidential Academy (RANEPA). He stated that this downgrade would not lead to an economic catastrophe. Credit ratings should reflect not only the past and present, but also the future - events that may happen in the next two to three years, said Korischenko. 

At the same time, the newspaper also cites comments by Russian authorities, who call the rating politically motivated. The business newspaper Vedomosti takes these comments with a fair amount of skepticism, though it admits the possibility that “rating agencies allow many errors and inaccuracies.” According to Vedomosti, in reality the agencies estimate a country’s creditworthy capability or the probability of default.

“The probability of a Russian default has increased in recent years, and could rise still further. Now the situation in Russia is at the level it was in 2004-2005. ... Nothing more and nothing less than this,” reads the article in the newspaper. “The reason for the increased probability of default… is the huge growth in uncertainty. Investors today cannot predict what the Russian government will do tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, the writer for independent newspaper Slon, Georgy Vashchenko argues that a downgrade signifies that “in the eyes of the agency, and therefore in the eyes of lenders and investors who listen to it, we have fallen back to 10 years ago. In January 2005, S&P first raised Russia’s sovereign credit rating to investment grade. Nevertheless, Vashchenko says that “life does not end” with a rating downgrade and that “oil prices cannot stay low forever.”

Novaya Gazeta notes that the lowering of the rating “is an event that was fully expected, although it was still possible to avoid this by taking reasonable steps in terms of economic policy, and of course, in terms of the Ukrainian crisis.”