Russian media roundup: The most important events of the past week included controversial new currency exchange rules in Russia and the dismissal of a popular opposition politician.

Journalists at Russian President Vladimir Putin's end of year news conference in Moscow, Russia on Dec. 17, 2015. Photo: AP

The end of December is the time for reviewing the past year, and many Russian publications have done so as 2015 comes to an end. On the whole, they say that it has been a challenging year, and that the prospects for Russia in 2016 are highly uncertain. 

Reviews of 2015

Slon, an independent online news portal, published its “Top 10 events of the year,” which included Russia's military operations in Syria, the sharp fall in the price of oil and the Russian economic crisis, the still-unsolved murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and many more. 2015 was “woven from fear, alarm and disappointment,” concludes the portal's editors, underlining the dramatic nature of the year's events.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular Moscow newspaper, reviewed the year in economics. The collapse in the ruble, the sanctions against Russia and low oil prices have created an extremely adverse economic climate, which will most likely continue into 2016. In this context, the main “complaint of the year” is addressed to the Russian government, which, according to the publication, has clearly not been coping with the mounting problems. 

“In its current form, the government is not coping with its tasks,” concludes the publication, citing leading Russian opposition politicians.

 Recommended: Russia Direct's report "Russia and the World: Foreign Policy Outlook 2016." 

For Slava Toroshchina, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, the year's most significant developments were Russia's growing isolation on the international stage and the rise in propaganda and ideological crackdown domestically. In light of the economic crisis, the government is fighting increasingly openly against dissenting ideas, creating a mechanism of low-grade propaganda and portraying to the public an image of a prosperous country successful on the international stage that does not actually exist.

New currency exchange rules in Russia 

On Dec. 27, new rules on exchanging currency in banks took effect in Russia. Anyone wanting to exchange an amount equal to just over $200 (or more) now has to provide various documents and complete a specially expanded questionnaire.

Officially, the new procedure is aimed at countering the financing of terrorism. The Russian media, however, have been talking of a return to the Soviet era, when there were severe restrictions on the movement of foreign currency.

Novaya Gazeta columnist Arnold Khachaturov reckons that the Central Bank's argument regarding countering the financing of terrorism is extremely weak: Any major foreign currency transactions already came to the attention of the relevant authorities, because they required a passport to carry out.

In addition, Khachaturov doubts that terrorists actually use retail banking channels for their purposes. He believes that the Central Bank sees the restrictions as a monetary policy tool aimed at reducing demand of foreign currency in the country, thus helping to shore up the ever-weakening ruble.

 Related: Explainer "The fate of the Russian ruble." 

Moskovsky Komsomolets suggests that the government has finally decided to resort to an extreme method of making money from its citizens: shedding light on their undocumented income. It is tracking undocumented income in foreign currency that is the purpose of the Central Bank's measures, which could lead as early as next year to the introduction of a new income tax charge for a whole range of individuals. For everyone else, the newspaper stresses, nothing will change other than that bank queues will get even longer.

Kommersant, a business daily, cites various experts who have differing opinions on the new rules. Some say that there is nothing unusual about the restrictions, and that they really are aimed at increasing the transparency and security of Russia's banking system, while others see in them an attempt by the government to control every aspect of public life, taking the country back to the days of the 1990s and unofficial and black market currency exchanges.

Echo of Moscow, a radio station, has republished a piece by Anton Nossik, a blogger, on its web portal, which argues that the new restrictions are pointless. Nossik emphasizes that the new measures do not introduce any new tools for treating money laundered by criminals, because the Central Bank already knows everything about law-abiding citizens and terrorists are hardly likely to be using the services of retail banks in large numbers.

“The sole purpose of creating the new register of foreign currency transactions is to give the impression of increased vigilance and awareness in an area where it is already not possible to learn anything new,” Nossik concludes.

The dismissal of opposition mayor Galina Shirshina

There have been further developments regarding the dismissal of the opposition mayor of Petrozavodsk, Galina Shirshina, which was mentioned in a recent review. On Dec. 25, the Petrozavodsk City Council voted by a majority to dismiss Shirshina on grounds of misconduct. This decision was no surprise, but there has been talk in the media about what the future holds for the opposition mayor.

Kommersant links her dismissal to her conflict with the regional authorities, and on a personal level with the regional governor, Aleksandr Hudilainen. The publication stresses that right from the start of Shirshina's term of office, the Karelian authorities have attempted to escalate their conflict with her, seeking to discredit her and remove her from office.

Ilya Azar, a special correspondent for Meduza, a liberal online news portal, attended the City Council meeting at which Shirshina was dismissed and interviewed the ex-mayor. In the conversation, Shirshina talks about her conflict with the regional authorities, on Hudilainen's subterfuges with the city's finances, and on the city's challenges and objectives that have and have not been met in the past two years.

 Also read:"2016 could be the moment of truth for Russia's political system." 

“Petrozavodsk's bureaucrats never managed to accept the young and independent mayor in those two years,” Azar concludes.

Vesti cites Russian experts and suggests that the conflict with the regional authorities could open up a path to federal politics for Shirshina, as the scandal has made her name known well beyond the boundaries of her native region. Preparations for the 2016 State Duma elections are in full swing, and the opposition forces might well make use of the popularity of the 'persecuted' politician. Furthermore, the term of office of the governor of Karelia, Mr. Hudilainen, expires in 2017, and Shirshina could rally the republic's opposition around her should she decide to send for the post.

Vsevolod Chaplin's dismissal

Another big departure this week was the release of the Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin from his position as Head of the Russian Orthodox Church's Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society. For the Russian Orthodox Church, Chaplin is a major and visible figure, well known not only in Church circles but also in the media.

Chaplin had been regarded as one of the main supporters of the current Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus', Kirill. Since the announcement of his dismissal, however, Chaplin has started an information campaign against the Patriarch, accusing the latter of being intolerant of ideas.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, citing experts, suggests that Chaplin's removal is connected with his statements to the media, which have not always met agreement with the Russian Orthodox Church. Chaplin was the main spokesman for the Church, but at some point he lost his connection with it and no longer thought it necessary to get approval for his statements. This annoyed not only the Patriarch himself, but also many of Chaplin's colleagues.

RBC, a business publication, quotes Chaplin on his disagreements with the Patriarch over Russia's presence in the Donbas region. Chaplin insisted that the Russian Orthodox Church should have a bigger presence there, and that it should be doing more to help the Russian-speaking population and Orthodox parishes. The Patriarch did not share this idea, and this could have been the starting point for the conflict between Father Vsevolod and Patriarch Kirill.

Another well-known figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, Andrey Kuraev, gave his views on Chaplin's dismissal to the popular website Kuraev believes that the matter has nothing to do with Chaplin's statements, which by definition could not have been disagreed with by the Patriarch.

 Also read: "Putin's Orthodox conservatives vs. Russia's unorthodox liberals." 

The problem was that the Church's position as set out by Chaplin has begun to make life more and more complicated for government institutions, including, in particular, the Foreign Ministry, which has had to offer excuses for Chaplin's statements on the “holy war against Islamic terrorism in Syria.”

It was this dissatisfaction from the government authorities that was the real reason for Father Vsevolod's dismissal and replacement with the more moderate and pragmatic Vladimir Legoida.

Quotes of the week:

Aleksandr Bazykin, Managing Partner, Heads Consulting, on the new currency exchange rules: “Such measures are reminiscent of a witch-hunt. They will not prevent actual money laundering, but they will make life harder for banks and ordinary Russians. In recent times, people have often bought foreign currency for savings purposes. However, constantly having to explain the source of these small amounts will be very tiresome.”

Galina Shirshina, on her conflict with the regional governor and her experience as a city mayor: “The person I was two years ago and the person I am now are two completely different people. And I have become even more dangerous for the governor and for the deputies. It might be impossible to put on over on me in the past, but now it is just not possible.”

Vsevolod Chaplin, on the reasons for his departure: “Fewer and fewer people in our Church administration can argue with His Holiness... I believed that I was right to do so in previous years as well. And, unfortunately, this has become harder and harder... I expressed an opinion different from the opinion of the Holy Patriarch both in discussions and in correspondence.”