Russian media roundup: North Korea’s nuclear tests, the designation of the Levada Center as a “foreign agent” and a new children’s rights ombudsman were the hot topics discussed by Russian media last week.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reacts during a test launch of ground-to-ground medium long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-10 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Photo: Reuters

On the morning of Sept. 9, North Korea conducted the fifth and biggest of its nuclear tests. For now, Russia continues to treat these tests with great suspicion - even though there is no conflict between the countries, the close proximity of North Korea to Russian borders is a source of concern to the Kremlin.

There is only one week left before Russia’s parliamentary elections, so recent moves – such as the designation of the Levada Center as a “foreign agent” – were analyzed for their potential political meaning.

Russian analysts considered Levada to be a more or less independent public opinion center. However,  “foreign agent” status shuts down nearly all opportunities for its future work. Journalists speculated about the possible motivations for the decision and how it might impact the election.

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North Korea’s nuclear tests

The independent media outlet Slon questions why Moscow has reacted to nuclear tests in North Korea so calmly. Pyongyang’s tests have already had an impact on neighboring territories, where earthquakes were felt and even though there is no evidence yet of radioactive contamination, its threat still exists.

The concern is that there is no international commission to follow the tests in North Korea: the possibility of a mistake by North Korean engineers is high and the cost of it will be even higher for the bordering regions. In this regard, Russia’s traditional reaction – a cautious condemnation on the part of the Russian Foreign Ministry without any actions against North Korea – is perplexing.  

The business daily Kommersant explains that the current leadership in North Korea has gone further in its nuclear program than the former government. The former supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, always considered the “nuclear question” to be a tool for applying pressure on the West and gaining necessary concessions ahead of important negotiations.

With his son Kim Jong-un assuming the position of a leader, the situation changed radically: the connection with the negotiation process and potential bartering has disappeared. Experts interviewed by the publication also note that it is actually China that suffers the most from North Korea’s nuclear program – apart from the threat of radioactive contamination of its territories, China has to deal with the growing U.S. presence in the region, also provoked by North Korea.

Putin appoints new children's rights ombudsman

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially relieved Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov of his duties. On Sept. 9 Anna Kuznetsova, head of the Association of Family Protection, replaced him. The Russian media welcomed the appointment of a 34-year-old mother who has devoted her life to charity and the support of low-income families with mixed feelings.

The liberal media outlet Meduza analyzed the new ombudsman’s career path. Kuznetsova has fundraised in support of mothers in difficult life situations, served as the head of the All-Russia People's Front (APF) and distributed multimillion presidential grants within her own Pokrov fund.

The publication points out that Kuznetsova is someone supported by the first deputy head of the presidential administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, who promoted her over the past years in a number of organizations. Meduza also reports that Kuznetsova is known among human rights advocates as a decent manager, very religious person and a fanatical opponent of abortion.

Anton Orekh, in his column for Echo of Moscow radio station, points out that, while there are negative comments being made about Kuznetsova’s appointment, it is necessary to wait for her first measures as new children’s rights ombudsman. Kuznetsova is accused of supporting  a theory of telegony and has connections with Russian Orthodox Church, but this doesn’t matter because she has not made any relevant decisions in her new position yet. [Telegony is a theory of heredity suggesting that a child of a widowed or remarried woman might take on the traits of a previous husband – Editor’s note] Furthermore, it is not yet possible to say whether she will be more successful than her predecessor Astakhov.

The business newspaper Vedomosti reached out to Russian political analysts who believe that Kuznetsova fits ideally into the image of a children’s rights advocate – a young, energetic mother of six, she is also the wife of an Orthodox priest. All these qualities should make an impression on a significant part of the Russian population, which supports the promotion of traditional family values.

What is also important for the authorities is that she is loyal and fully devoted to the leadership in the Kremlin. This, however, might work against her in her future communication with liberal segments of the public.

Levada Center listed as a “foreign agent”

One of the most popular views is that Levada Center was designated for “foreign agent” status because of its ratings of political parties that reflected the fall in United Russia’s popularity among the public.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta has doubts about this version because the results of the  recent Levada polls were not much different from the ones conducted by the pro-Kremlin polling organizations Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) and Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM). The Kremlin has always used a formally independent center in its interests and a sudden hit at Levada looks like a grand political miscalculation.

It is possible that the growing hysteria and anxiety among the ruling elite – caused by the not so successful parliamentary elections campaign – has become a reason for Levada’s new status. The newspaper argues that the crackdown on Levada signifies potential difficult times ahead for the ruling elite.

Referring to anonymous sources in the Kremlin, the business newspaper Vedomosti finds the version of a negative reaction of the authorities to  the release of low electoral ratings of the ruling United Russia party more likely. The sources cited by the newspaper point out that Levada could have been listed as a “foreign agent” long ago, but this happened only now and could not be done without the agreement of the Kremlin. The experts interviewed by Vedomosti also suspect that the main factors here were not so much the released statistics, but the types of questions that Levada is asking the public.

The independent Slon interviewed political analyst Grigory Golosov, who is confident that the reason for the attack on the polling center lies in the upcoming elections and the recently released numbers on the significant fall in United Russia’s support. The expert believes that here the authorities have demonstrated their lack of confidence ahead of the elections: Even though Levada had never acted against the government and often supplemented the polling results of the pro-state FOM and WCIOM, the Kremlin still decided that there are no guarantees of its loyalty.

So, the Russian leadership faced the question of how to control this independent organization and has successfully done so by including it in the list of “foreign agent” organizations. “The authorities treat its electoral activities with deadly seriousness finding risks almost everywhere and trying to secure itself in every possible situation. Levada … did not fit into this situation,” Golosov concludes.

Also read: "Why Russia's leading polling center is listed as a foreign agent"

Parliamentary elections campaign

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, in his column for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, calls for taking part in the elections. “If you are not making the most of your rights, someone will make use of them – in their own interests, of course. So it is vitally important to vote – at least for the purpose to secure your democratic instrument,” Oreshkin points out. While the results are unlikely to surprise anyone, each vote will have a meaning as it will be made in favor of a certain political party, as opposed to being subject to manipulation.

Kommersant focused on possible falsifications and disruptions in the work of electoral commissions. Referring to the research conducted by the independent movement Golos, the publication points out that violations during the election process are often related to the work of small local electoral commissions. These violations can be both minor and quite significant, leading at times to legal prosecution.

In addition, experts from Golos explain that most often, those responsible for the violations avoid trial and the names of those who ordered the violations are never made public. State officials never show interest in such cases.

The tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets cites the data of the recent polls regarding the public’s interest in the elections. It is worth noting that the pre-elections campaign itself is of no interest to the citizens (51 percent do not watch the television debates); however, this does not mean that voter turnout will be low. The traditional turnout is about 50 percent, and there are no reasons to think that this time it will be lower.

Expert comment:

Oleg Ignatov, leading analyst at the Center for Current Policy (CCP), on the ongoing electoral campaign in Russia: “A week before the elections, ratings show that the preliminary results of voting for which parties will be represented in Russia’s State Duma can be predicted. Only the current parliamentary parties are expected to be represented. However, the Just Russia party is unlikely to overcome the five percent threshold.

Nevertheless, one should not rule out surprises: It will depend on the voter turnout in big cities. For last two weeks non-systemic opposition has been trying to attract attention to their electoral campaign in the capitals of the central Russian regions, which bring together a great deal of protest voters. If non-parliamentary stakeholders do well, the Yabloko opposition party and the Party of Growth have the chance of winning many votes. Today they (as well as four parliamentary parties) are in the spotlight. Likewise, the People's Freedom Party [PARNAS] may perform well during the political debates in several big Russian cities.”