Russian media roundup: Last week, the arrest of top Russian top economic minister Alexei Ulyukaev, the overturning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s conviction and the first phone call between Trump and Putin all made headlines.

Russia's Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev appears in Moscow's Basmanny District Court for a hearing into his case. Photo: TASS

The key event last week was the arrest of Russian Minister of Economic Development Alexei Ulyukaev on corruption charges. On Nov. 15, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced that Ulyukaev had been detained under suspicion of corruption.

Law enforcement authorities claim Ulyukaev solicited a bribe in the amount of $2 million to approve the purchase of 50 percent of the assets of the Bashneft oil company by Russian oil giant Rosneft. According to the Investigative Committee, the deal between Rosneft and Bashneft was conducted in accordance with the law. Reportedly, the Federal Security Service (FSB) had been watching Ulyukaev for some time before he was caught red-handed on Nov. 14. Ulyukaev is now under house arrest.

Another important event also shook up the world of Russian domestic politics. Moscow-based judges annulled the lower court's verdicts against opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his co-defendant, businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, on Nov. 16. Both men were convicted in 2013 of embezzling funds in the amount of $450,000 in a deal with state timber company KirovLes.

The Russian court reversed the verdict after the European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) ruled in February that the two defendants were convicted over “acts indistinguishable from regular commercial activities.” The overturning of the verdicts gives Navalny an opportunity to participate in the presidential election in 2018.

On Nov. 16 Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree for Russia to withdraw from the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Russia signed the statute back in 2000 but did not ratify the treaty. Today, Russia considers ratification meaningless as the “court did not realize the hopes pinned on it.” The majority of media outlets sees the connection between the decree and the recent Hague Tribunal report on Russian war crimes in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Also, on Nov. 14 Putin and the U.S. president-elect Donald Trump had their first formal phone conversation. According to the Kremlin press service, they discussed Russia-U.S. bilateral relations, cooperation in Syria and economic ties. In this light, Russian media continues to assesses the prospects of Russia-U.S. relations after Trump starts his term in January 2017.

Russian Minister of Economic Development detained over a bribery scandal

The business newspaper Vedomosti points out that this is the first case in modern Russian history when such a high-profile government official has been detained. The publication is not certain about which political figures could have been behind the scandal but they mention the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, who could have benefited from Ulyukaev’s arrest.

Overall, the scandal is quite damaging for the image of the government and its head Dmitry Medvedev, who at some point promoted Ulyukaev to the ministerial position. As the paper points out, the development signals the growth of competition among the representatives of the Russian political elite.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta also draws the connection between the arrest and the possible conflict with Sechin. The situation itself seems absurd given that the opinion of the minister did not really have any significance: the president himself had already approved the Rosneft-Bashneft deal. Furthermore, the deal was already finalized back in October, so there was no necessity for a bribe. It’s clear that Ulyukaev has become a victim of a conflict of interests: Sechin’s power is far greater than the power of any member of Medvedev’s government, and Ulyukaev’s arrest only proves it.

The Echo of Moscow radio station gave voice to opposition politician Gennady Gudkov, who is confident that the Kremlin has been annoyed by the minister’s statements that were at times too loud and independent. If this were a typical situation, he would have been quietly transferred to another position, but as the conflict emerged, it grew to another level.

Blaming the “siloviki” (law enforcement forces) and the liberal economic part of the government for Ulyukaev’s arrest, Gudkov predicts that there are going to be new scandals and investigations involving the members of the executive apparatus, which is what the Kremlin seems to want.

Recommended: "Inside the anti-corruption campaign against Russia's liberals"

Russian court overturns the ruling against opposition leader Alexei Navalny

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets argues that the authorities have long ago made Navalny their “assistant” for any situation. When they need him, they “pull him from the underground,” create hype around him and give him an opportunity to express his views on a national level.

Now is the exact time for that – the presidential campaign is approaching and it is very important to create the appearance of competition and give the Kremlin’s critics a chance to let off steam. Yet, Navalny’s “star moment” is always short: When the authorities do not need him anymore, he finds himself at best on the sidelines of the Russian political scene or, at worst, under criminal investigation.

The Echo of Moscow radio station gave voice to opposition journalist Matvei Ganapolsky, who does not believe in prospects for Navalny’s future success. In reality, the Russian court only partially met the requirement of the international court ordering a new trial against the opposition leader, overturning a graft conviction against him. This might mean a new sentence against Navalny. So there is no reason to celebrate: the Russian system is biased and it is unlikely that Navalny will run for president.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia does not agree with Ganapolsky: the new trial is a common practice, so until the new verdict is finalized, Navalny can use his right to get elected. Political experts interviewed by the paper are cautious in assessing the prospects of Navalny’s future career: He has ambition and his participation will add intrigue to the presidential elections, but it is not yet clear whether there are any real chances for him to take part in elections.

Russia quits the International Criminal Court

Referring to Russian law experts, the business daily Kommersant points out that the International Criminal Court (ICC) indeed revealed itself as an ineffective and politically biased institution. The court was too quick to get involved in any cases concerning states, even if there was not any basis for that involvement. The report on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is an obvious example. The paper notes that Russia has followed the U.S. path in refusing to ratify the treaty, and it might be expected that Russia will continue to develop its relations with the international criminal system using a similar paradigm.

Vedomosti gives voice to Georgi Rusanov, an expert in international law, who thinks that by revoking its signature of the Rome statute, Russia is taking one more step closer to international isolation. There are complaints about the ICC’s work, but the majority of its members consider the Court to represent an important platform for dialogue and discussion of international law practices.

Russia is closing an important channel for communicating its own position to the world; at the same time, it is starting down the slippery slope of separating its legal system from international norms. In this light, it is especially worrying that there are proposals being made to leave the Council of Europe. In this case, Russian citizens will lose an opportunity to file complaints to the ECHR, Rusanov concludes.

The prospects of Russia-U.S. relations in 2017

Kommersant has doubts about the potential improvement of Russia-U.S. relations after Trump starts his term in January 2017. For now, of course, it’s too early to assess the plans of Washington, but the current state of bilateral relations will require such radical measures that will not be acceptable to any form of a new American administration, even if there is a figure who is sympathetic to the Kremlin as its head. Institutional limitations are too strong and the power of the president lacks the space for maneuvering, especially given the conflict with the members of Trump’s Republican party.

Gazeta.ru thinks that Trump’s presidency will offer hope for a revival of Russia-U.S. relations - but this process won’t be easy. The hopes are primarily based on personal sympathy between Putin and Trump, but this is often not enough for improving the dialogue between the countries. Notwithstanding good personal relations between Putin and George W. Bush, the countries still experienced a downturn in bilateral relations. The first meeting of the presidents might take place in the beginning of 2017, and it will be crucial for the future dynamic.

Vedomosti discusses potential candidates for the position of U.S. Secretary of State in Trump’s administration. The new figure will play an important role in Washington’s dialogue with Moscow, but it is still not clear to what extent Trump is ready to be involved in foreign policy. In an effort to improve his relations with the Republican establishment, Trump might transfer the foreign policy front to someone from the conservative wing of the party. In this case, a reset will not be possible.

On the other hand, even if foreign policy will remain part of the president’s focus, it is unlikely that there are going to be breakthroughs. After all, other important players, such as the Pentagon and Congress, also influence the president’s decisions.

Also read: "Why Russia has no reason to celebrate a Trump presidency yet"

Expert commentary

Andrei Tatarinov, director of the Actual Politics Center, on Ulyukaev’s arrest:

The news about the arrest of a top Russian government official on the suspicion of corruption spread nationwide and provoked anxiety and fear among a certain part of the country’s elite and led to a wave of joy and satisfaction among the public. As the story appeared as part of all news programs, the further court investigation is not that interesting for the public.

Such special operations show the limitations of public organizations that fight corruption in state structures only on a regional level, but not on a national one.

Speaking about Ulyukaev’s liberal views and conspiracy theories related to that, one should remember the previously detained governor of the Komi Republic, Vyacheslav Gaizer, and the governor of the Sakhalin region, Alexander Khoroshavin. They are not liberals. The fight against corruption in Russia does not have any political dimension to it.