Russian media roundup: Barack Obama’s presidential legacy, Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration, and the appointment of Canada’s new foreign minister all made headlines in Russia last week.

Pictured: Outgoiing President Barack Obama. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration continues to attract the attention of Russian journalists, who are discussing it in the context of recent hacking scandals and U.S. President Barack Obama’s political legacy.

At the same time, journalists paid attention to the appointment of Chrystia Freeland as the new Canadian foreign minister, because her tough stance toward the Kremlin might have implications for Russian-Canadian relations.

Obama’s legacy and his Russia policy

During the week, the Russian media discussed in-depth the results of Obama’s presidency, including his recent policy positions regarding Russia. Many members of the Russian media are inclined to describe the outgoing American president as nervous and unfriendly toward Russia, with his latest moves putting a cloud over the future of U.S.-Russia relations.

In his column for Gazeta.ru, journalist and political expert Georgy Bovt argues that the presidency of Obama was a failure in almost every way. At the same time, he admits that Obama achieved a certain measure of success in overcoming the economic recession that started in 2008. However, in other fields, the president who once promised “Hope” didn’t justify the hopes of Americans, according to Bovt, who sees the inequality and political split within U.S. society as a glaring failure of Obama’s tenure.

Also read: "Obama's legacy: Not that bad after all?"

Likewise, in the realm of foreign affairs, Obama was not forceful and decisive enough to bring stability to the world, Bovt says. He also speculates that Obama tried to complicate the presidency of Trump by spurring tensions with the Kremlin over the past two months.

Meanwhile, Russia’s official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta focused on Obama’s farewell speech, in which Obama talked primarily about his achievements while forgetting about his failures. According to this publication, Obama’s legacy might be overshadowed by Trump’s presidency, especially if Obama’s huge projects on regional trade agreements are not implemented.

At the same time, Actualniy Kommentariy, an analytical publication, published the opinions of columnist Natalia Yankova, who describes the last-minute moves of the Obama administration as deleterious and “toxic” for successors on the Trump team. She believes that such tactics reveal Obama’s underlying weakness.

However, Russia Direct columnist Ivan Tsvetkov doesn’t agree with Russian media and pundits. According to him, they tend to distort reality and are just trying to discredit Obama and his administration, because it is convenient for the Kremlin. Russian propagandists “just scapegoated” Obama and presented him as a very unfavorable leader toward Russia. However, they pass over in silence the fact that Obama’s political opponents and rivals criticize him.

“Such misperception results from ignorance about the American political reality and its nuances,” wrote Tsvetkov. “But in reality, U.S. politicians, mostly from the Republican Party, criticize Obama for his alleged weakness and failure (or cautious reluctance) to respond more firmly to Putin… According to this narrative, in fact, Obama turns out to have been one of the best American presidents for Russia.”

Trump’s intel dossier

With Trump’s inauguration this week, journalists in the Russian media tried to analyze his background, as well as the rumors and leaks surrounding him, from different perspectives.

One of the most intriguing topics that attracted coverage from some media outlets was a controversial (and still uncorroborated) intelligence report about the U.S. President-elect and his licentious behavior in a Moscow hotel, leaked to the American media in early January.

The report contained damaging information about Trump, and hinted that the Kremlin might possess more of the same kind of material that it might use to blackmail the future president. Russian media covered this story in the context of Trump’s future policy toward Russia.

Also read: "Here is why the Kremlin's big bet on Trump might be risky"

Meduza, an independent media outlet based in Riga, Latvia, weighed all the pros and cons of the report and, eventually, found it unreliable and invalid. Dubious sources of the leaked information as well as the style of the so-called “dossier” look very suspicious (and even obscene).

Moreover, the publication of unverified and unfounded information contradicts basic principles of journalistic ethics and calls into question the integrity of some editors of Buzzfeed, an American online publication, which released the dubious report to the public.

At the same time, Kommersant, a business daily, focused on the controversies within the Trump team. Many of these future members of the administration have yet to come up with a common position toward the Kremlin. The problem is that there is no unanimity between some members of the Defense Department and the State Department. The Russia question has seriously divided the Republican establishment in its approaches toward Russia, with some describing Trump’s position toward Moscow as too soft. All this brings about concerns within the Kremlin.  

Meanwhile, Gazeta.ru, an online media outlet, reached out to Russian pundits, who suggest that Trump might be changing his rhetoric about Russia after having been elected. During his pre-election campaign he was more sympathetic about Russia and President Vladimir Putin and was ready to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and discuss the possibility of lifting sanctions. Yet, weeks before his inauguration, he made it clear that he is planning to offer the Kremlin a tough tradeoff in exchange for concessions regarding sanctions and Crimea. At any rate, the Kremlin is taking a wait-and-see approach, the publication concludes.

New Canadian foreign minister

On Jan. 10, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist of the Financial Times with Ukrainian origins, as the new Canadian foreign minister. This move might have serious implications for Russian-Canadian relations, given the fact that the Kremlin blacklisted and banned her from entering Russia for her tough stance toward the Kremlin and harsh criticism of Crimea’s annexation. The appointment was met with a mixed response from Russian media and came as a big surprise for the Kremlin.

Kommersant argues that the appointment of Freeland might deteriorate Russian-Canadian relations, which are currently not in good shape. However, there is so far no reason to speculate that the relations will inevitably worsen. The only problem is Freeland’s ban from visiting Russia and now there is no clarity how she will fulfill her duties as Canadian Foreign Minister if she needs to pay an official visit to Russia. Other than that, nothing extraordinary happened with her appointment, given the current political environment and the fact that the Kremlin doesn’t see Canada as a top priority.

Also read: "What the Trump presidency means for Canada-Russia relations"

Quite naturally, the state-run Sputnik, an English-language media outlet, which is seen as propaganda by many Russian and Western experts, describes the appointment of Freeland as a “catastrophe” for Russian-Canadian relations, given the intransigence of Freeland and her sharp criticism of Putin.

At the same time, experts don’t see any links between her appointment and any attempt to complicate relations between Moscow and Ottawa. The key reason is that Canada needs a tough politician to deal with Trump in any negotiations about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Pundits see the deterioration in relations with Moscow just as collateral damage.

In contrast, Vedomosti, an independent business newspaper, sees Freeland as a good candidate to deal with the Kremlin on behalf of Canada. After all, she lived in Russia for a long period of time, she sincerely likes Russian literature and culture and, most importantly, the people. Although she is tough toward the Kremlin politically and sharply criticized Putin’s policy in Ukraine, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is a Russophobe. She just sticks to her principles and tries to observe integrity. That’s why there is no reason to be a doomsayer about the prospect of Russian-Canadian relations.

Decriminalization of domestic violence

Last week, Russian members of parliament supported a controversial law that decriminalizes domestic violence in Russian families. The State Duma gave the green light to the bill in the first reading, which means it needs to approved in the second and third readings.

Although the bill is not signed into law, this initiative brought about an outcry in society, especially among media and human rights activists. Journalists warn against “the legalization of domestic violence,” which was previously seen as a serious crime under the Criminal Code. Now the bill is expected to categorize it just as an administrative and petty crime.

On the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station, human rights activist Alena Popova makes no bones about her indignation and the fact that the parliamentarians approved the bill on the first reading. She raises the issue of domestic violence by predicting that the law will increase more incidents in many families, because those who use violence will feel they have impunity.

Meanwhile, Kommersant interviewed experts who highlighted the bill contradicts the state policy of supporting families, because it makes potential victims (including children and women) legally vulnerable to violence and aggression. Moreover, it hampers the attempts of government and human right activists to deal with the problem of domestic violence.

Also read: "The real reason why a resurgence of conservatism in Russia is dangerous"

However, according to the representatives of the authorities, quoted by Izvestia, a pro-government newspaper, the goal of the bill is to overcome what they call “legal contradictions” that lead to unfair punishment. It doesn’t necessarily mean the legalization of domestic violence, the publication reads.

Comment of the week

Oleg Ignatov, expert at the Center for Current Policy, on the bill decriminalizing domestic violence:

“The goal of this bill is an attempt to satisfy the conservative majority of the country. In fact, the authorities conducted such a policy even before Russia retook Crimea from Ukraine. The State Duma adopted a series of laws intended to put, even if artificially, the conservative part of society into opposition with the liberal minority. They just offered an agenda that would help most people to understand their identity and take a political position. With the absorption of Crimea, such tactics of the Kremlin became irrelevant. However, it is not ruled out that those at the helm, who identify themselves with conservatism, seek to return this political agenda once again through such legislation.”