Russian media roundup: The recent NATO Summit in Warsaw, Russia’s parliamentary elections and the nation’s new anti-extremism legislation all made headlines last week.


Left-right: Britain's Defence Minister Michael Fallon, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. Defence Minister Ash Carter during the NATO summit in Warsaw, July 9, 2016. Photo: AP

Amidst continuing tensions in Russia’s relationship with the West, the nation’s media kept a careful eye on developments at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, where many of the issues under discussion were connected with Russia – including the so-called “Russian threat” against Eastern Europe.

The Russian media also took a closer look at two new developments with implications for the nation’s political opposition: a tough new anti-extremism law and an official move to block websites calling for a boycott of the 2016 parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

The NATO Summit in Warsaw

NATO Summit participants supported the strategy of recent years, namely that the response to Russia’s actions in Europe should be a build-up of armaments and military forces of the Alliance in potential conflict countries. At the Warsaw Summit, they decided to place four battalions from NATO countries in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. The battalions (4,000 strong) will be based in these countries starting in 2017.

The online publication argued that the NATO Summit reflects the spirit of the Cold War. Anti-Russian sentiment set the tone for the summit, with the largest contribution to the toughening rhetoric from the United States and Eastern Europe, both of which are traditionally wary of Russia, according to the media outlet.

Although the final documents of the summit contain statements concerning a need for interaction with Russia on a number of issues, on the whole, this meeting in Warsaw reflected the deep crisis in relations between Russia and NATO. Russia is seen solely as an enemy and a potential provocateur of hybrid conflicts on the periphery of the Alliance.

“Defense, deterrence and open dialogue” is the slogan that NATO is using against Russia, according to the business newspaper Kommersant. The problem is that NATO forces are coming extremely close to Russia’s borders, which always causes severe irritation in Moscow. Kommersant also argues that Eastern European countries fuel tensions by enhancing NATO military capabilities on the borders of Russia.

Also read: "The downward spiral in the Russia-NATO relationship"

Meanwhile, the independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta argues that for NATO member countries, the incorporation of Crimea and events in the Donbas became a turning point in relations with Russia. In short, the Alliance has returned to the logic of confrontation, not cooperation.

Quoting Russian experts, the publication says with regret that now the situation is even worse than during the Cold War, when the parties at least adhered to certain rules. Today it has come to confrontation for the sake of confrontation, and mutual deterrence mechanisms have become weaker, which threatens a new escalation, similar to that of the Cuban missile crisis.

Roskomnadzor blocks websites calling for election boycott

The unfolding campaign in Russia to boycott the State Duma elections in September of this year took an unexpected turn. Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications (Roskomnadzor) simultaneously blocked four websites making similar appeals, citing the fact that this “undermines the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation.” The Russian public perceived this move ambiguously, and a number of experts do not consider this move a violation of the rights of voters.

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta emphasizes that the blocked resources, in addition to asking people to boycott the elections, are also being used to coordinate unauthorized protest activities, which is contrary to Russian law. The publication also pointed out that Roskomnadzor acts on the instructions of the Prosecutor General, who has found violations in the activities of these resources.

At the same time, the business newspaper Kommersant, quoting Russian experts and human rights activists, explained that from a formal point of view, such a boycott is not illegal, as it is not prohibited by elections legislation. Experts believe that this “anti-boycott” campaign is probably due to the fact that the authorities are paying very much attention to the upcoming elections and the prospects of a low turnout.

A boycott was not included in their plans, and now they must react. This is not the first campaign against participating in elections – a similar situation occurred in 2011, but then no sanctions were applied against those calling on people not to go to the polls.

Putin signs new anti-extremism legislation

Last week, the Russian media continued to discuss the nation’s controversial new anti-terrorist legislation. On June 24, the State Duma adopted a number of amendments to the Law on Terrorism, which give new powers to the security forces over the lives of ordinary citizens.

In addition to the introduction of provisions for “failing to report information about imminent terrorist attacks,” and increased sentences for certain crimes, the package of amendments includes a requirement for telecom operators and Internet providers to store all correspondence and calls made for a period of six months. At the same time, it requires to store information about the facts of calls and the sending of messages for additional three years.

In spite of appeals made by human rights activists and discontent expressed by telecom operators and Internet providers, President Vladimir Putin signed the amendments into law on July 7.

Moskovsky Komsomolets compares several measures of the new law with the order to “flog the water” made by Persian King Xerxes. The publication noted that some requirements are not only absurd, but are also impractical. In particular, it seems hardly feasible for various messenger services to convey to the state security services the “encryption keys” that give access to the correspondence of their users.

In many situations, this is technically impossible, as the messenger services can use unique encryption or new encryption each time on a specific device, according to the experts interviewed by Moskovsky Komsomolets. This cannot be changed, and therefore, in the long term, individual operators – including WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype – can be fined or other punishments can be applied to them, although it is unclear which ones.

The business newspaper Vedomosti emphasized that the package of amendments signed by the president led to enormous dissatisfaction in the Russian business community. Even at the stage of its consideration, the business community and human rights activists expressed many complaints about the introduced amendments. However, in the opinion of human rights activists, the legislators and the president did not heed their concerns.

Vedomosti also cited the opinion of political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov, who is confident that the purpose of this law is to have a demoralizing effect on the most prominent critics of the government. The legislation, he says, is sending a clear message of “everything is bad and will get worse,” and that is why Putin has signed this law in its current form.

Read Russia Direct Report: "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism"

Anton Oreh, a blogger writing for the portal of the Echo of Moscow radio station, points to the absurdity of the new anti-extremism measures. He argues that as a result, not only will prices for telecommunications and the Internet greatly increase, but this is also a kind of return to Soviet times, when heads of religious organizations, subjected to persecution, and ordinary citizens could be sent to jail for alleged failure to provide information or flimsy charges of complicity.

Quotes of the week:

The head of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, on the NATO Summit: “NATO’s decisions today cemented a second Berlin wall in Europe. All decisions were based on the logic of the Cold War confrontation – ‘we will be safe, because we are stronger’.”

The Roskomnadzor official statement on the blocking of sites calling for a boycott of State Duma elections: “Activities aimed at organizing a failure of elections to the lower house of parliament undermine the foundations of the constitutional system of Russia, according to which the supreme expression of the power of the multinational people of the Russian Federation shall be referenda and free elections.”

Political whistleblower and privacy advocate Edward Snowden about Russia's new anti-extremism measures: “Putin has signed a repressive new law that violates not only human rights, but also common sense. [It is a] dark day for Russia.”