Russian media roundup: The celebration of Victory Day in Russia, the 2016 US presidential race and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Sochi all made headlines last week.

Russians celebrating the 71st anniversary of Victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War. Photo: RIA Novosti

In addition to covering this year’s Victory Day national holiday, the Russian media focused on two foreign policy events that could impact Russia’s relations with the West – the continued success of Republican contender Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential campaign and the visit of Japanese Prime Minister to Sochi.

Victory Day in Russia

On May 9, Russia celebrates one of its most important national holidays – Victory Day. Every year, large-scale celebrations of the victory over Nazi Germany are held in the country, including the famous military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. Given Russia’s military interventions abroad, the holiday this year generated lively discussions in the media.

For example, the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an article by liberal economist Sergey Aleksashenko, who believes that the government is trying to co-opt the wartime struggles of the Soviet people for its own purposes. The country’s leadership is monopolizing and politicizing the memories of the people, using these for their own tactical propaganda purposes, thus taking away from the original meaning of this holiday. Aleksashenko believes that Russia’s leaders should reconsider this approach with respect to Victory Day to avoid any further damage to the nation’s reputation and image.

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Igor Tsukanov, writing for the business newspaper Vedomosti, also warns against the excessive politicization of Victory Day. From a truly emotional and unifying event, it is gradually being turned into a soulless propaganda tool. Tsukanov believes that the only way out in this situation is for every person to re-think the meaning of the day for his or her own family, in order to remember and honor those ancestors killed in the battles of the Great Patriotic War (World War II).

Pavel Kazarin, a freelance writer for the independent media publication Slon, focuses on the problem of Russia framing the Great Patriotic War in terms of absolute good versus evil. The Russian public does not recognize the various shades of gray in the history of this tragedy, in which only light and darkness are presented. They see only the infallibility of those who fought to defeat Nazi Germany.

For Russia, it is unthinkable to question the morality of this victory. However, the passage of time is leading to changes to this worldview, especially as fewer and fewer veterans remain alive. Over time, people will re-think and reconsider the meaning of the Great Patriotic War.

The U.S. presidential campaign

Russian media actively discussed the candidacy of Donald Trump, who is now the only Republican contender remaining after John Kasich and Ted Cruz dropped out of the presidential race.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, in its op-ed section, argues that, despite recent opinion polls predicting a final victory for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, Trump still has good chances of becoming president. The very political system of the U.S., with all its democratic mechanisms of checks and balances, will simply not allow Trump to realize his most outlandish and controversial promises. These tools are very capable of turning any rebel candidate into a quite moderate incumbent.

The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii tries to debunk many of the myths about Trump, among which are his lack of experience and absence of a coherent action plan. Trump’s advisers, including Joseph Schmitz and Carter Page, actually view Russian-American relations in a pragmatic light, and are inclined towards dialogue. As a result, Trump may well turn into a serious and pragmatic politician. For Russian-American relations, this could mean an opportunity to restart dialogue on a clean slate, and then build it on the basis of mutual interests and pragmatism. 

The Moskovsky Komsomolets popular newspaper emphasized that Trump has apparently become the “darling of Moscow” in the American presidential race. Trump and Putin, without meeting personally, have exchanged compliments, a fact that is perceived as evidence of goodwill towards Russia. Yet in reality, the Kremlin is well aware of the unpredictability of this billionaire, and the possible methods he may implement to “Make America Great Again,” including steps that could push the two world powers into a new spiral of confrontation.

Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia

On May 6, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived on a working visit to Sochi, where he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders discussed economic and trade cooperation issues, as well as a number of outstanding political problems – the conclusion of a peace treaty, the Kuril Islands territorial dispute and the resumption of dialogue in the “2 + 2” format (regular meetings between the foreign ministers and defense ministers of both countries).

Also read: "Why Russia needs stronger ties with Japan"

The business newspaper Kommersant emphasized that, with this visit, Abe has partly undermined the policy of isolating Russia, imposed by the G7. Abe was the first leader of the G7 to come to Russia on a working visit in the spring of 2015. Moreover, the prime minister’s current trip cannot be called a mere “protocol” visit, given the detailed agenda of the talks and the wide range of issues that were discussed – all demonstrating the high level of mutual interest of both countries to maintain good relations.

The publication also noted, quoting Russian experts on Asian affairs, that Tokyo has many reasons for trying to mend relations with Russia, including the containment of China in Asia, and the desire to earn some foreign policy points on the eve of this summer’s parliamentary elections in Japan., an online media outlet, commented extensively on the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister. Tokyo is much more interested in normalizing relations with Moscow than the other members of the G7 Club, and this has forced Abe even to enter into an unspoken conflict with Washington, which is extremely unhappy with Japan’s increasingly independent foreign policy of recent years.

Objectively, many obstacles lie in the path of restoring normal cooperation, including the unresolved territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. However, both sides are beginning to understand the need for dialogue and compromise. Nevertheless, the current talks could hardly be called a breakthrough – the expectations going into the talks were too high, while the actual results were minimal.

The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an article by journalist Vasily Golovnin, who lives in Tokyo. He believes that domestic political considerations were behind the latest Japanese diplomatic initiative. Abe is facing difficult elections, and he has few domestic success stories to brag about. In this light, the prime minister needs a diplomatic victory, which could, at the very least, become some kind of an agreement reached with Moscow over the Kuril Islands. In addition, a trip to Russia, once more demonstrates an independent course in foreign policy, which Abe has maintained, in spite of pressure from Washington and other members of the G7.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The Asia-Pacific Military Buildup: Russia’s Response"

London gets a Muslim mayor

On May 5, a native of Pakistan, Sadiq Khan, became the first Muslim mayor of London. Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian businessman, who has been a permanent resident of London for many years already, generated controversy with his comments about the election.

Chichvarkin examined several points in Mr. Khan’s pre-election program – claiming that Sadiq Khan is a socialist who will not allow private business to develop freely in the British capital in order to please the poorest segments of the population. His campaign promises are “social populism [that] favors deadbeats and incompetents,” Chichvarkin argues.

The analytical publication Expert offered a view of Khan’s victory in the broader context. Past regional and municipal elections in Britain have shown that the threat of a Brexit (the exit of the UK from a united Europe) is not as great as it had seemed not that long ago. Moreover, Khan’s victory is historically significant for the whole of Britain – as someone coming from the immigrant milieu, and being a Muslim, he is a symbol of change in the ethnic and religious composition of British society.

Quotes of the week:

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Today, I would like to engage in a frank exchange of views with Vladimir Putin, not only on bilateral issues, such as politics, including such issues as concluding a peace treaty, diplomacy, economics, but also many important complex issues that our two countries, and the entire world, are facing.”

Businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin about the new mayor of London: “Like all socialists, he does not understand the essence of business, does not believe in private initiative... Social populism favors deadbeats and incompetents.”