Russian media roundup: The appointment of a new human rights ombudswoman, the controversial political manifesto of Russia’s top investigator and a new development in the case of Nadezhda Savchenko all made headlines last week.

Tatiana Moskalkova, the new human rights ombudswoman in Russia, left. Photo: RIA Novosti

With the crises in Ukraine and Syria showing signs of stabilizing, the Russian media turned its attention last week to two important domestic policy events that could hint at broader structural changes taking place within Russian society.

The first of these events was the appointment of Tatiana Moskalkova as the new human rights ombudswoman in Russia. Known for her deeply conservative and pro-government views, she marks a significant departure from the approach of her predecessor, Ella Pamfilova, who is leaving her post to become the new head of the Central Election Commission.

The second of these events was the publication of a controversial manifesto in a leading Russian political weekly by Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of Russia. In it, he argues for tighter censorship in Russian society and a more vigorous response to the West’s “information war” against Russia.

New human rights ombudswoman in Russia

Russia’s new human rights ombudswoman is Tatiana Moskalkova, a State Duma parliamentarian, a member of the Just Russia Party and a major general in the Russian Interior Ministry. The appointment of Moskalkova, well known for her anti-Western and pro-government ideas, provoked a mixed reaction in Russian society, with the Russian political opposition calling this appointment both absurd and humiliating.

Boris Vishnevsky, a writer at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, argues that this episode reminded him of a well-known Soviet-era joke: “In the Soviet Union there were no human rights violations – because the people had no rights.”

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Vishnevsky believes that this “joke” is at risk of becoming a reality in today’s Russia, where, to monitor respect for human rights, they appointed a politician who has supported some of the most controversial laws in recent years, including those that limit the freedom of action of human rights activists and non-profit organizations in Russia.

The business newspaper Kommersant, quoting Russian political scientists, suggests that the appointment of Moskalkova is an attempt by the authorities to move human rights issues from the political to the socio-economic sphere. In an economic crisis, more attention needs to be paid to the urgent problems of the Russian population, and that means more emphasis on pressing socio-economic issues.

The newspaper also reminded its readers that Moskalkova is very confident in her strengths and abilities to negotiate with leading Russian human rights organizations, because she has experience in introducing legislative proposals during her work in the State Duma.

Moskovsky Komsomolets published an interview with the head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, who is confident that Moskalkova will be able to cope well with her new obligations. Fedotov says that for her, this certainly will not be an easy position, especially in light of her lack of experience in the human rights sphere. However, he emphasizes that human rights activists are not born but created.

A new call to censor the Internet in Russia

On Apr. 18, Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of Russia, published a controversial political manifesto.  The article called for partial censorship of the Internet based on the Chinese model, as well as a number of other institutional and legislative measures, which largely boil down to the need to confront Western media influence in Russia. This article provoked a lively debate in the Russian media, with many journalists accusing Bastrykin of pursuing isolationism. 

Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a writer at the business newspaper Vedomosti, believes that Bastrykin’s article bears evidence to a looming crisis in Russia – a crisis that the nation’s top authorities are no longer able to restrain. The situation is so catastrophic, he notes, that the Kremlin can only fall back on implementing emergency measures to deal with it. In practice, this means that any anti-government activities or statements will be severely punished, and will be regarded as acting in solidarity with “Western agents” in Russia.

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Unfortunately, concluded Krasheninnikov, Russia’s top investigator clearly expressed not only his own opinion, but also the opinions of the political elite.

Kirill Martynov, editor of the politics section of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, wrote that the publication of this article is a symptom of a growing struggle within the Russian elite. Just months before the 2016 parliamentary elections, and against the background of large-scale reforms in the security structures (e.g. President Vladimir Putin’s recent creation of the National Guard), Bastrykin was forced to prove to senior leaders of the country that he was still a useful and valuable figure in the fight against internal enemies. The majority of proposals made by Bastrykin are absurd, or even anti-constitutional, according to Martynov, and are obviously intended to paint the Russian opposition in the worst possible light.

In an article for analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii, opposition politician Valery Fedotov pointed out that the “draconian measures” proposed by Bastrykin were not meant to become the basis of policy for the Russian leadership. Rather, the publication of the manifesto was an attempt by the head of the Investigative Committee to attract attention to himself and once again intimidate the liberal opposition.

In doing so, he is taking over the role of chief intimidator of Russia’s political dissenters from the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Such a controversial op-op piece could indicate the weakening of Bastrykin's position in the struggle within the Russian elite.

Possible exchange of Nadezhda Savchenko for Russian citizens

Last week, talks once more intensified on the possible exchange of Nadezhda Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot sentenced to 22 years of prison, for two Russian citizens held by Ukraine. On Apr. 18, these two Russians were found guilty of terrorism and waging a war of aggression by a Ukrainian court and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

The Russian side has not yet made any official confirmation of such an exchange, but the topic has nevertheless caused a considerable stir in Russian media. After all, the authorities initially claimed that they were not looking at any options to exchange Savchenko.

The business publication RBC refers to sources close to the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament), and claims that Savchenko will be exchanged for the two Russian citizens before the end of May. The timing has to with procedural issues, because technically, such an exchange can only take place as a mutual pardon, or as an extradition for prisoners to serve their sentences in their home country. In short, there cannot be an exchange of prisoners in the classic sense, because there is no state of war between the two countries.

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At RBC, they also hinted that informal talks on the issue within the framework of the “Normandy Four,” as well as requests through communication channels between Russia and the United States, played a role in the possible release of Savchenko from Russia to Ukraine.

The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii published an article by the well-known political consultant Anatoly Vasserman, who believes that exchanging Savchenko would be a big mistake for Russia. Vasserman points out that the pilot is a criminal and a killer of Russian citizens, so her transfer to Ukraine would look like an unjustified concession to the Ukrainian side.

Everyone understands that she will be released as soon as she arrives in Ukraine. In addition, stresses Vasserman, the exchange will not improve relations between Russia and Ukraine, nor will it contribute to the removal of Western sanctions against Russia.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that the issue of Savchenko’s exchange is purely political, not legal, and the exchange could take place even before the end of May, as required by the procedures. This will demand certain efforts on the part of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is interested in the speedy repatriation of this pilot.

The publication stresses that the official position of the Kremlin is not yet clear. While Moscow is keeping silent, there is every reason to believe that an agreement will be reached between presidents Putin and Poroshenko.

Quotes of the week:

The new human rights ombudswoman in Russia, Tatiana Moskalkova, commenting on her appointment: “Today, the human rights issue is becoming actively used by Western and American institutions as a weapon of blackmail, speculations, threats, and attempts to destabilize and put pressure on Russia. The Human Rights Commissioner has the needed tools to counteract these phenomena.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, on the appointment of Moskalkova: “Nowhere and never before was a police officer promoted to such a position – this is a mockery of the police, and of the position.”

Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of Russia: “During the last decade, Russia, and a number of other countries have been subjected to the so-called hybrid war unleashed by the U.S. and its allies. This war is being waged on different fronts – political, economic, informational, as well as legal.”

Opposition leader Alexey Navalny on Bastrykin’s proposed initiatives: “For some reason, is seems that absolutely no one wants to live in China, whose best Internet censorship practices Mr. Bastrykin wishes to introduce. Perhaps this is because in China they shoot people for corruption.”