Russian media roundup: Unrest in Moldova, the Litvinenko KGB case, events in Chechnya and the World Economic Forum in Davos were in the spotlight of Russian journalists last week.

A Moldovan army general watches demonstrators during a large protest in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. Photo: AP

Last week, the Russian media focused on mounting unrest in Moldova, the controversial UK report on the murder of a former KGB agent, and hopeful signs from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, which is emerging as a potential non-political platform for Russia to exchange ideas with Europe and find new partners. 

Events in Moldova 

Last week, the situation in Moldova once again worsened, as thousands of people took to the streets in the capital city, protesting against the policies of the current government. There has not been tranquility in Moldova for a long time already, as the current ruling coalition of pro-European parties has created great discontent among the people, who believe that the country is actually being run by a group of oligarchs.

The situation escalated last week after the cabinet of the new Prime Minister Paul Philip was urgently elected by parliament and then sworn in – late at night, and in secret. The protesters even tried to storm the main government building, but were not successful, while their leaders urged them to keep the protest peaceful.

The business newspaper Kommersant noted the striking unity in the ranks of the motley Moldovan opposition groups, as uniting against the cabinet of Paul Philip were both pro-Russian and pro-European forces. The leaders of the different segments of the opposition, according to Kommersant, successfully managed to put aside, for the time being, their political differences and unite their supporters in a fight against the corrupt authorities. 

The newspaper also emphasized that the reaction of the Chisinau Government was belated and ineffective, and in fact, the authorities, by their actions, only made the situation worse, thus strengthening the protest movement. 

The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta asked Moldovan experts about their thoughts on the protests. These believe that the government obviously does not enjoy the support of the population, because of not only corruption and inefficiency, but also due to its EU orientation, which is unpopular with certain sections of the population. The people do not see the benefits of getting closer to Europe, and it is getting more and more difficult to justify unpopular political decisions being taken by the republic’s leadership as steps required for “European integration.”

On the contrary, the independent media outlet Meduza considers that a situation unique to Moldova has developed – the pro-European population is now opposed to the government, which has announced that it has embarked on a course of European integration. Meduza says that this is due to the fact that, even though the Moldovans want to be part of Europe, the current government has discredited itself by corrupt practices and an inability to implement the “European dream” of Moldovans. 

The Litvinenko case

On Jan. 21, the public hearings on the Litvinenko case were concluded in the UK, which resulted in Judge Robert Owen presenting a multi-page report on death of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium-210 in London in 2006.

In this report, in particular, it is noted that Russian citizens Andrey Lugovoy (now a member of the Russian State Duma) and Dmitry Kovtun (an entrepreneur) are guilty of the murder, and that these two could not have committed this act “without the approval of Vladimir Putin.” Russian media discussed what consequences this report would have when it comes to Vladimir Putin, as well as for Russian-British relations. 

Also read: "The KGB saga: Putin and the Litvinenko case"

 The Internet website of the Echo of Moscow radio station aired the opinions of political scientist Alexey Ovchinnikov, who believes that this report will not do serious harm either to Putin or to Russian-British relations. Firstly, there was nothing new in this report, and secondly, the publication of this report should be seen more as a PR stunt by Britain, seeking to resurrect the notion of the “Evil Empire,” against the background of Russian diplomatic successes on the Iranian and Syrian issues.

Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that the publishing of this report was not very timely for British Prime Minister David Cameron: He cannot avoid reacting to this report, but stirring up things from so long ago, which would again plunge the UK into a confrontation with Moscow, is something he also does not want.

That is why, the newspaper notes, the reaction of London has been so demonstratively aggressive – immediately there were calls for new sanctions and the need to discuss the Litvinenko case at the highest level. However, Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that all this is nothing but a demonstration of political will, rather than a call to the real action, because it is not profitable for London to quarrel with Moscow on the eve of Syrian settlement talks.

To the contrary, the business newspaper Vedomosti, in its editorial section, noted the devastating consequences of this report. Unfortunately, the newspaper noted, this is not only one case in a kind of “dossier on the Kremlin,” which is being collected by Russia’s Western partners. The more such cases that appear, whether these be the “Magnitsky Case” or the doping scandal involving Russian athletes, the less room Russia has to maneuver in international affairs. The editors do not believe that this is some kind of deliberate policy of the West; however, there is no doubt that, sooner or later, the “general invoice” will be presented to Russia.

The unity rally in Chechnya

Earlier, Krasnoyarsk parliamentarian Konstantin Senchenko had called the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, “Russia’s Shame.” This past week, the story continued – a large-scale rally in support of Kadyrov was organized in Grozny, which officially was held under slogans calling for national unity. The Chechen authorities have reported that millions participated in this rally, but independent media sources have not confirmed this information. 

Political columnist Kirill Martynov, writing in the opposition Novaya Gazeta, noted that Kadyrov’s responses to critical statements made about him increasingly resemble a form of hysteria. It is unclear why such a large-scale “counteraction” was necessary, when the insult came from only a regional, and not a federal, politician – practically a political outcast at that.

Does this mean that things are going bad for Kadyrov? Wonders Martynov. The head of Chechnya is appearing as inconsistent and overly emotional, which cannot but have an impact on his image and support. 

Also read: "The Kadyrov scandal: Fear and loathing in Chechnya"

The Internet website of the Echo of Moscow radio station gave the word to opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who predicts a further aggravation of the “Chechen problem.” Although Kadyrov’s reaction really does look unnecessarily hysterical and ill conceived, behind it lies a strategy to aggravate relations between Chechnya and the rest of Russia, after all, “Kadyrov’s strategic objective is to secede from Russia and create his own authoritarian state under the guise of Islamic slogans,” concludes Mr. Navalny. 

The independent Slon, to the contrary, believes that the peak of the conflict has already passed, and this is manifested in part by the positive role being played by the Kremlin, which has responded in the most restrained manner, and made ​​efforts to calm down the conflicting parties. This rally, in this situation, can be understood as a kind of a “point” in the confrontation. At the same time, the publication believes that the Russian opposition has come out on top in this conflict.

The business newspaper Kommersant suggested that the people in Grozny did not come to the rally on their own. According to the newspaper, enterprises in Chechnya were sent directives, requiring them to send employees to this event with a set of banners and posters (basically saying – “Kadyrov is a patriot of Russia,” as well as slogans against the opposition).

Extensively discussed was also an article by another well-known opposition figure – the journalist Ksenia Sobchak – on the liberal opposition portal Ms. Sobchak believes that this apparent confrontation between the regional leader and federal opposition groups is in fact a manifestation of a “covert struggle” between the various segments of the Russian elite.

Ms. Sobchak hints that this also involves the fate of Kadyrov, whom the Kremlin cannot forgive for the unauthorized murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (many facts point to the “Chechen thread” in this crime). This is precisely why Kadyrov is so sharply reacting to events, struggling to demonstrate his loyalty and usefulness to the Kremlin.  

The World Economic Forum in Davos

This year, the Russian delegation significantly reduced its level of representation at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This time the Russian delegation was headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev, who oversees the Far East portfolio. The Russian leadership justified this by the fact that top officials were needed to work more actively on the country’s pressing issues, as the economic situation is becoming more dire.

Also read: "Why Vldimir Putin won't go to Davos"

The business newspaper RBC believes that Russia remained, in every sense, on the periphery of the Forum. This was due not only to the low level of participation, but also because of the global economic agenda, which has shifted to the East and is now focusing on the economic problems of China. The crisis in the Russian economy is pushing away investors and preventing the country from developing new technologies, something that is also a characteristic of other CIS countries, which have also lost the interest of foreign partners, according to RBC.

The business newspaper Kommersant does not agree with the assessment of its colleagues. According to the publication, on the contrary, Russia is becoming more popular among the participants and organizers of the Forum, as every crisis brings, along with its problems, also new opportunities. This growing interest is evidenced by the planned expansion of Moscow’s participation in the Davos Forum in 2017 (including visiting sessions). In addition, notes Kommersant, the Forum has become a neutral platform, at which Russia and the West can hold talks on economic and trade relations, without politicization and ideological confrontation. 

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta does not consider the level of Russian representation at the Forum to be low. According to the newspaper, the delegation was focused on achieving practical cooperation with foreign partners, and the appointment of the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the Far East portfolio, speaks about Russia’s desire to open the most attractive regions of the country to foreign investments and cooperation. Quoting Russian experts and businessmen, Rossiyskaya Gazeta also noted that the Davos Forum was a non-political platform, where Russia can express itself and find new partners.

Quotes of the week:

Opposition leader Vasily Nastase of Moldova on the protests: “We consider the authorities in Moldova to be a military junta. It is illegitimate. We are peaceful protesters, but are determined to topple this regime.”

From the UK report on the Litvinenko case: “Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin.” 

Andrey Lugovoy in response to accusations in the Litvinenko case: “I saw nothing new there. I am very sorry that 10 years on, nothing new has been presented, only invention, supposition, and rumors. And the fact that such words as ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ were used in the report, means there is no proof, nothing concrete against us.”

Ramzan Kadyrov on the rally in Chechnya: “The rally in Grozny will become a signal for all of our opponents and outright enemies... This is an all-Russia people’s assembly.” 

The opposition leader Alexey Navalny on the rally in Grozny: “What is this rally that was held in Grozny? This is a disgrace, this is laughable to everyone, this is a brazen threat, this is an anti-Chechen event, this is an anti-Russian event, but for me, above all else, this is corruption. This is misuse of state budget funds on a large scale. This is abuse of power.”

Former Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Committee on Civil Initiatives Alexey Kudrin at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “Neither I, nor presidential aides, believed that there would be a new big collapse in oil prices – this has created a new reality, and thus, the peak of the crisis still lies ahead.”