Russian media roundup: The meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church is being carefully watched by Russian media, especially as it may relate to the situation in the Middle East.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, right, serves the Christmas Mass in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on Jan. 7, 2016; Pope Francis, left, prays during an audience at the Vatican on Jan. 30, 2016. Photo: AP

One of last week's main stories was the unexpected announcement of an upcoming meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. The leaders of the two largest denominations of Christianity have not met since the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054, and many thought this important event would never happen. However, the pontiff and the patriarch will meet at Havana Airport in Cuba on Feb. 12, with their tête-à-tête already being described as “historic” in the Russian press.

Pope Francis to meet Patriarch Kirill

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta believes that the modern world presents a challenge to Christianity that is too big for the Orthodox and Catholic churches to address separately, which is why they have decided to join forces. Citing the Moscow Patriarchate, the newspaper suggests that the main topic of discussion will be the situation in the Middle East, which is seeing an unprecedented level of violence against Christian communities.

The business daily Kommersant suggests that politics has played a considerable role in the historic meeting, including the involvement of Russia's President Vladimir Putin in setting it up. In addition, the newspaper writes, it is impossible to deny Russia's role in a political settlement in the Middle East, where it is protecting, inter alia, the interests of Christian communities, meaning that it has similar aims and objectives to the Vatican.

The analytical website Aktualnye Kommentarii has an article by publicist and writer Yegor Kholmogorov on the main reasons why the churches' leaders have not met for so long. Apart from obvious matters of faith, at issue has been the activities in the CIS of the Eastern Catholic ("Uniate") Churches, which, with the Vatican's support, have long been a serious headache for the Moscow Patriarchate.

Kholmogorov believes that, in the current difficult circumstances, the fact that the meeting is taking place at all is a genuine breakthrough, signifying that both the Orthodox and Catholic churches have the will and common sense to put aside their differences in the face of the real threat from ISIS and other persecutors of Christians and the Christian faith.

Also read: "Putin's Orthodox conservatives vs. Russia's unorthodox liberals"

The United Russia caucus

In fall 2016, Russia faces complicated parliamentary elections, which will evidently take place against the backdrop of an economic crisis. The country's leading political forces have already started preparing for this. In particular, the ruling, and largest, party, United Russia, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, met on Feb. 5-6. The meeting not only outlined the party's first policy statements, but also saw a number of personnel changes, including a rotation of the party's supreme and general councils.

The website Gazeta.ru writes about the meeting with a heavy dose of sarcasm, arguing that the statements from the keynote speakers were dubious, the anti-crisis theories vague, and the personnel changes clearly connected with a desire to publicly "disown" the most unpopular ministers in Dmitry Medvedev's cabinet – Education Minister Dmitry Livanov and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, as well as various other "offending" high-level officials.

The business daily Vedomosti, citing Russian political scientists, believes that the party is preparing for what could be the hardest election in its history, to which end it has started to draw on "hidden reserves." In particular, it is working more closely with potential single-member constituency deputies from the All-Russia People's Front, a coalition of pro-government political forces led by United Russia.

Meanwhile, the newspaper writes, the changes in the party's governing bodies will have no effect on its public image, but will more likely give more freedom of action to figures such as Siluanov who have been excluded from the party set-up.

Political scientist Alexey Chesnakov, writing for Aktualnye Kommentarii , believes that it is too early to make any judgments about United Russia's personnel and policy plans from the meeting. He considers it to have been a run-of-the-mill event and not entirely informative, and suggests waiting until the next major party events (such as the primaries taking place in May this year). The party needs to take a more active and articulate position, he believes, if it wants "to be a party that forms government rather than rubber-stamping decisions imposed from above."

The U.S. presidential race and the Iowa caucuses 

The Iowa caucuses have been the subject of much attention even in Russia, where people have been following the U.S. presidential race closely. The Russian media have been particularly interested in Donald Trump, who suffered his first significant defeat in Iowa. 

Alexander Panov, Washington correspondent for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, notes the unprecedented nature of the present campaign for the Republicans. At the start of the race, the favorites included the establishment favorite Jeb Bush, but he is now trailing behind his unexpectedly strong rivals, including two with Latin American backgrounds, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Panov calls the election impossible to predict: the balance of power is constantly changing, but the American system itself makes it difficult for radicals to obtain power, meaning that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are probably not going to be sitting in the White House.

Vedomosti sought the views of Russian experts on the U.S., who gave differing assessments of the Iowa caucus results. Viktoria Zhuravlyova, from the think tank IMEMO, thinks that the results were predictable, including the defeat of Trump, who did nevertheless achieve some small successes, even if he did not win the broad support of the Republicans. 

Vladimir Vasilyev, from the Institute of the USA and Canada, disagrees, calling the caucuses a real surprise to both parties, particularly the Republicans, who had been expecting to get Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee, but have ended up with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Karina Orlova writing on the website of the radio station Echo of Moscow considers the main sensation in Iowa to be not Donald Trump at all, but the victory of Mr. Sanders over his younger rivals in the Democratic race. The 74-year-old left-wing Democrat managed to win over the ultraconservative Iowa electorate, and now looks unstoppable. This means that we can expect Michael Bloomberg to enter the race, and he has as good a chance as Sanders, writes Orlova.

Changes in Tula

On Feb. 2, Vladimir Gruzdev stepped down as Governor of Tula Oblast. His departure has been much talked about in the media, not only because of the probable conflict between him and the local elites, but also because of his successor Alexey Dyumin, a former military man close to President Putin

The well-known opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, writing for the independent online media outlet Slon, regards the appointment as not merely dubious, but "shameful." Kashin believes that Dyumin's only accomplishments have been to be Putin's "protection officer" and to oversee the integration of Crimea, but this has been rewarded with an entire region, which he will be incapable of governing because of his total lack of relevant abilities and experience.

Gazeta.ru believes that the retiring Gruzdev was liked by literally no one, from local businesses to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. His political career, the website suggests, is probably over now. With regard to Dyumin, it is perplexing: he is a little-known figure, whose record of achievements consists primarily of working for the Presidential Security Service and has nothing to do with Tula Oblast. Tula Oblast is not a particularly rich or significant Russian region, but for Dyumin, his appointment as governor is a serious step up in his career. 

Anton Orekh, a columnist for Echo of Moscow's website, writes with great irony comparing President Putin to an absolute monarch: "A monarch can promote up the career ladder his favorites, bodyguards, grooms of the royal stable, people he goes hunting with – anyone he likes from his royal retinue."

The potential victims of this policy are the inhabitants of Tula Oblast, who were going to have to deal with an unqualified leader with no experience of governing.

Quotes of the week:

Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of Russia and leader of the United Russia party, on the latter's new personnel policy: "We do not need specially groomed candidates. Only those who win people's real support will take part in the elections to the State Duma. There is simply no other way of making it onto the United Russia list."

Commenting on the meeting, opposition leader Alexei Navalny writes: "The party's leader told us all that the government owed all its successes specifically to it. These were the only true words at the entire meeting – looking at the 'successes' of this government, there is no reason to doubt them."

Commenting on the Iowa caucuses, the political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov writes: "The Iowa results confirm what people have been saying since the start of the campaign. Voters are tired of the succession of either the same or the same type of people; people want to vote for politicians who position themselves as opposite to the establishment."

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, official spokesperson of the Russian Orthodox Church, commented: "The situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa and in other regions where extremists are perpetrating a genocide of Christians, requires immediate action and an even closer co-operation between Christian churches. In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution."

Commenting on Mr. Dyumin's appointment as Governor of Tula Oblast, the opposition's Victor Shenderovich commented: "This is the latest slap in the face for the rules of propriety, the latest mockery of people, the latest signal of the level of degradation."