Russian media roundup: Russia’s top journalists and commentators focused on Putin’s performance in his “Direct Line” call-in show, the potential implications of a new prime minister in Ukraine, and a failed bid to boost global energy prices in Qatar.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his Apr. 14 annual call-in show in Moscow. Photo: AP

The annual “Direct Line” call-in show with Vladimir Putin on Apr. 14, in which residents from all over the country could ask their questions to the Russian president, proved to be the most discussed event in the Russian media over the past week. Traditionally, this “Direct Line” is a platform for discussing Russia’s most pressing issues, so analysts and commentators kept a careful eye on Putin’s responses.

In terms of foreign policy events making headlines, analysts and commentators focus on the Doha negotiations between the world’s major oil exporters to freeze production, the appointment of a new prime minister in Ukraine, and tensions between Russian and U.S. armed forces in the Baltic Sea region.

“Direct Line” with Vladimir Putin

The questions asked during this year’s “Direct Line” focused on the arbitrariness and irresponsibility of Russia’s local authorities, problems with salary payments to state employees, utilities and infrastructure issues, and other domestic issues that hinted at broader structural problems within Russia.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, in its op-ed section, emphasized that this latest “Direct Line” was strikingly different from the previous ones, given its fairly gloomy and pessimistic mood. The authorities have admitted that the country is going through serious problems, in particular, in the socio-economic sphere, and are not trying to gloss over that fact by claiming they are only of a temporary nature. The main message of this “Direct Line,” according to Vedomosti, is that life has become harder in Russia, and the nation’s population should get used to this.

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Alexander Minkin, a columnist for the Moskovsky Komsomolets newsaper, believes that President Putin “was talking in circles.” In other words, every year the “Direct Line” is merely a repetition of already covered material – questions about the same subjects, and answers based on a standard pattern. At the same time, everyone understands quite well that the president, even without the “Direct Line,” is well aware of the existing problems in the country, and the real purpose of this event is to demonstrate to the population that the leader is listening to ordinary Russians, and to create an illusion of stability.

Ukraine’s new government

On Apr. 14, Ukraine finally installed a new government after a prolonged government crisis. The new prime minister is Vladimir Groysman, a young politician and supporter of President Petro Poroshenko. Russian media paid great attention to this subject, trying to guess what political line the new prime minister will follow, and how this will have an impact on relations with Russia.

The analytical website, Aktualniye Kommentarii, gives voice to political scientist Oleg Ignatov, who is confident that the new prime minister has strengthened the position of Poroshenko, and that the Ukrainian political system has been pushed back to the “presidential republic” model. Groysman will not be a purely technical prime minister, says Ignatov, he has great experience and plenty of ambition.

But he is the “President’s man,” which imposes certain restrictions on his activities. With regard to Russia, he is slightly less intransigent than was his predecessor Arseniy Yatsenyuk. There might be a slight hope for the restoration of lost communication channels.

The independent Slon believes that Groysman’s candidacy offers mixed signals. On the one hand, Groysman does really strengthen the position of Poroshenko, as it gives him a way to influence the government. This is important to improve the rapidly sinking approval ratings of the president. On the other hand, the possible mistakes made by Groysman will be perceived as the failures of Poroshenko, as the link between the two politicians is evident for Ukrainians.

Raids at Onexim

Raids were conducted at Onexim Group, a holding company that is owned by leading Russian businessman and politician Mikhail Prokhorov. The authorities alleged that the company had violated tax laws. However, some experts believe that the case against the Onexim is yet the Kremlin's another attack on the independent press, since this group includes one of the largest Russian business publications – RBC Daily, which is well-known for its harsh criticism toward the Russian authorities.

The analytical website Aktualniye Kommentarii gives voice to famous journalist Anton Krasovsky, who believes that there are “certain people in the [presidential] administration” behind this attack on the Onexim. They seek to curb the growing number of alternative and influential sources of information, including RBC Daily. In this light, Krasovsky predicts further pressure will be applied on Prokhorov and his publication, which could eventually force the businessman to transfer this media holding into the hands of an entrepreneur close to the presidential administration.

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At the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, chief editor Alexey Polukhin argues that the context of the raids of Onexim is broader than just the dissatisfaction with the freedom of the press in the presidential administration. Prokhorov has always been considered as a loyal businessman, even when he started publishing under opposition slogans during the 2011 presidential elections. The authorities never had any complaints against his business. However, he is very likely to have fallen out of favor, and is now experiencing a number of difficulties, including this problem with Onexim. How Prokhorov will react to the Kremlin's latest signal could determine his political fate.

Moskovsky Komsomolets interviewed experts about the possible causes behind this sudden attack on Onexim and Mikhail Prokhorov. The analysts agree that this may be the Kremlin’s response after the media holding company RBC actively exploited and investigated the topic of the Panama Papers that reveal offshore schemes of the current poliitcal elites, “testing the possible limits of investigative journalism.” Prokhorov, although a loyal businessman, had never been part of the group close to the Russian President, and the presidential administration clearly reminded him about this fact. 

Doha negotiations on freezing oil production

On Apr. 17, the major oil exporters met in Doha, Qatar to discuss a possible freeze in oil production rates until the end of 2016. The talks ended in failure, with the participants failing to reach an agreement on a production freeze that would boost oil prices. Expectations were high from this summit, but given Iran's refusal to limit its own production levels, the prospects of signing an agreement were quite low from the start, say experts.

Contradictions manifested themselves from the start in Doha, when Saudi Arabia demanded amendments be made to the draft agreement on freezing production. The business publication RBC Daily refers to the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the reason for the failure to reach an agreement on freezing of production.

Iran, recently freed from sanctions, has no intentions of reducing or freezing the level of its oil production, and Saudi Arabia, for its part, is not ready to grant any concessions, unless Iran does the same. Experts interviewed by RBC also predict that, on the background on this failure to reach an agreement, there will be a decline in oil prices, which would mean a new weakening of the ruble and the Russian economy.

Moskovsky Komsomolets also mentions the negative impact that the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia had during the negotiations. Raw material oversupply in the market is not beneficial to oil exporters, and the vast majority of players were in favor of an agreement to freeze production.

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However, Saudi Arabia stands alone on this issue, because of its tensions with Iran, as well as the government’s confidence that that country can cope with the economic situation, even with low oil prices. The consequences of these negotiations are not fully clear, however, there is a serious risk of a substantial drop in oil prices.

The incident with the Russian Su-24 in the Baltic Sea

On Apr. 11-12, a Russian Su-24 aircraft flew close to the American destroyer Donald Cook sailing in the Baltic Sea. While the incident took place in neutral territorial waters, the situation led to a new exchange of accusations between Russia, the United States and other NATO member countries.

The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta gives voice to Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov, who argues that such flights are routine in their nature. He rules out any political motives behind this incident. According to the newspaper, NATO pays attention to these flights being to foment Russophobia.

In contrast, business newspaper Vedomosti's columnist Nikolay Epple sees this incident as a political game: the Kremlin is aiming to raise the stakes during the negotiations by creating artificial tensions on the eve of the June 2016 meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. According to Vedomosti, Russia can afford itself to take risks and to bargain, while Western governments are dependent on public opinion.

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However, the experts interviewed by the newspaper do not support this view, saying that this is not a deliberate provocation from Russia, but simply the current part of the general background of conflicting relations between Russia and NATO. As a result, the newspaper calls for establishing a dialogue between two sides.

Quotes of the week:

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak about the failure of the Doha talks: “In general, of course, we expected an agreement would be reached at these talks. It seemed to me that countries had come there to negotiate.”

Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov on the flight of the Su-24: “There has been a quite long history of interaction between Russian and American naval aircraft overflying each other’s ships, but this time, such a routine flight has led to a lot of noise. Even though there was nothing extraordinary and unexpected in this, especially for the crew of the Donald Cook, which has been overflown by Russian jets many times in the past.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on the Su-24 incident: “The incidents are entirely inconsistent with the professional norms of militaries operating in proximity to each other in international waters and international airspace.”