Russian media roundup: The last week of 2014 saw the Russian media covering domestic issues – such as the sentencing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and continued signs of economic distress – that could impact Russian foreign policy in 2015.

Russian opposition activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, 38, reacts as he stands at a court in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who is a leading foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been found guilty of fraud and given a suspended sentence of three and a half years. Photo: AP

The final week of 2014 offered no letup in drama for Russia watchers. Although most people were gearing up to celebrate the coming New Year and the long winter break, the Russian media continued to discuss important political events, such as the Yves Rocher case and the sentencing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg. In addition, the media weighed in on the economic situation in Russia, offered their forecasts for 2015, and opined on the 15 years since President Vladimir Putin came to power.

The Navalny verdict

The Yves Rocher case, under which the brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny were accused of fraud and embezzlement of funds from the French company’s Russian office, ended on Dec. 30 with a conditional sentence for the opposition figure himself and a real jail term for his brother Oleg.

The verdict generated a great deal of indignation from the opposition press (Echo of Moscow, Novaya Gazeta) and lackluster interest among pro-government media outlets. Rossiyskaya Gazeta confined itself to a formal statement on the case, although the website Aktualniye Kommentarii and the newspaper Izvestia paid more attention.

Anton Orekh of Echo of Moscow believes that the unscrupulous targeting of Alexei Navalny’s brother underscores that the Kremlin is willing to use such tactics to accomplish political goals. Orekh comments that, “This method [is aimed at] a specific individual, but in order to break him personally, his colleagues, friends and now even relatives are victimized.”

“We would do anything for our loved ones,” explains Orekh. “The vast majority of us would make any compromise for their sake. A man will change his convictions and refrain from all kinds of activity if only to protect his family. You cannot point the finger at a man who backs down for the sake of his family. But those who employ such methods are pieces of lowlife.”

Leonid Nikitensky, who writes for Novaya Gazeta, also speaks of the questionable logic and potential partiality of the Russian judiciary.

“Regrettably, the court that handles cases of non-violent opposition is no longer the epitome of law and order, or even an instrument of preliminary investigation, but merely an auxiliary propaganda tool and a TV appendage, nothing more,” asserts Nikitensky. “The verdict reads like a script for a TV courtroom drama, in which the judge, Elena Korobchenko, was given the role of supporting actress.”

Aktualniye Kommentarii cited the words of lawyer Artem Grigoriev, who sees nothing unlawful in either the bringing forward of the verdict that so outraged the opposition, or the sentence itself.

“The main stages in the criminal process are the preliminary investigation and the judicial proceedings. The latter is also divided into stages: hearings, familiarization with the materials, pleadings, etc. The announcement of the sentence is in fact outside the scope of the judicial proceedings,” argues Grigoriev. “Therefore, I am of the opinion that today’s announcement, which was brought forward from Jan. 15, infringes the rights of neither the Navalny brothers nor their lawyers, since they exercised all their defense rights during the judicial examination.”

Notorious politician Eduard Limonov, another opposition activist, told Izvestia that the opposition was inflating the whole affair, and by so doing, were overlooking the crux of the matter. In his opinion, if they were ordinary people, no one would even think of defending them, because the instance of fraud is plain to see. Limonov states sarcastically that, “It would all seem pretty vulgar if one of the brothers were not Alexei Navalny.”

“But since one of the brothers is Alexei Navalny, the authorities look as if they are brutally persecuting the brothers, both as pure and innocent as a baby’s tears,” writes Limonov.

A stagnating economy is the consensus forecast for 2015

This week the Russian media continued to discuss the deteriorating economic situation in the country. Opposition media (Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow) remain critical of what is happening within the economic sector. In contrast, in the run-up to the New Year, pro-government media outlets (Aktualniye Kommentarii, Channel One) tried to divert attention from future economic woes.

Novaya Gazeta analyzed a recent interview with economist Sergei Guriev, in which he predicts a deep recession in 2015.

“At current oil prices, the forecast is as follows: The Russian economy will go into recession with a decline in GDP of around 4 percent,” says Guriev. “The latest draft of the budget, leaked from the Russian government on Dec. 25, also envisages a 4 percent drop in 2015. Moreover, the budget deficit will be 3.5 percent of GDP. And next year 70 percent of the reserve fund will get spent.”

Igor Nikolaev, an economist and blogger for Echo of Moscow, also forecasts a deep crisis in 2015.

“Although I try to avoid dramatic language, this time I feel obliged not to hold my tongue: It was a disastrous year for the economy,” writes Nikolaev. “Yes, that’s precisely what it was: disastrous both in terms of achieving targets and because this was the year when the prospect of a severe crisis finally took shape.”

Marina Sokolovskaya of Aktualniye Kommentarii writes that sanctions have forced Russia to rely on import substitution, which is stimulating the Russian economy, in particular the machine-building industry.

“Sanctions against the import of certain kinds of oil and gas equipment do create risks for the Russian economy, but at the same time provide opportunities for domestic industry,” she writes.

Meanwhile, Channel One correspondent Mikhail Akinchenko, although agreeing that the economic situation in Russia is far from positive, notes that stability is being preserved in order to distract TV viewers’ attention before the holidays.

15 years with Vladimir Putin at the helm

A number of media outlets, in particular opposition radio station Echo of Moscow and pro-government Aktualniye Kommentarii, remembered that it was on Dec. 31, 1999, that Boris Yeltsin resigned, leaving Vladimir Putin as acting president of the Russian Federation. The assessments of his period in office are mixed.

Boris Vishnevsky, who writes for Echo of Moscow’s website, paints a rather negative view of Putin’s governance.

“15 years ago we all got two New Year’s gifts from President Boris Yeltsin: his resignation and the transfer of power to his successor,” writes Vishnevsky. “For the first gift, we say thank you very much. For the second, we are still paying the price.”

Vishnevsky reckons that although the problems of modern Russia did not appear under Putin, he caused them to mushroom. “Rigged elections, TV channels transformed into propaganda zombies, corruption and privileges for the nomenklatura, oil and gas revenues directed into the hands of a small group individuals — they are hardly inventions of the Putin era. It all started with Grandpa Yeltsin, his successor merely honed and perfected the art.”

Meanwhile, Aktualniye Kommentarii presented a detailed analysis of Putin’s 15 years in power, highlighting the president’s most successful initiatives, his commitment to an independent and active foreign policy, and resolute actions on the domestic front. The website cites the comments of political scientist Vyacheslav Smirnov, who claims that Russia’s political and economic consolidation is an indisputable fact.

“The fact remains that over these 15 years Russia has become considerably stronger in economic and political terms,” says the expert. “Yeltsin’s Russia resembled today’s Ukraine. Back then oligarchs and money played first fiddle.”

Although Smirnov admits that many in the liberal and conservative camps are unhappy with the president, he considers that to be perfectly normal, since no leader is ever ideal, he contends.

“Liberals are disappointed by the lack of opportunity to fulfill their potential, that there is no handover of power or generational shift, and that they have next to no chance of taking office themselves, since the people are against it and the top brass want to keep the status quo,” sums up Smirnov. “And patriots resent the fact that Putin offers a policy of liberal economic reform and capitalism, but without the West. Historically it has always been the case in Russia that patriots have had a leftist, futuristic inclination.”