Russian media roundup: The Panama Papers scandal, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the controversial creation of Russia’s new National Guard all made headlines in Russia last week.

Viktor Zolotov (pictured), a close friend and long-time supporter of President Vladimir Putin, is appointed as commander of Russia's National Guard. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Apr. 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree establishing a National Guard that will consist primarily of troops from the Interior Ministry. That move led to sharp discussion within the Russian media about the true purpose for the creation of the National Guard: Was it to fight against terrorism, extremism and organized crime – or was it to maintain public order in the event of a challenge to the current government?

Then, on Apr. 6, the people of the Netherlands voted in a referendum against ratification of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. Somewhat surprisingly, 61 percent of Dutch voters were against closer links between the EU and Ukraine. It’s this same Association Agreement, of course, that led to the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict back in 2013. As a result, the Russian media carefully analyzed the results of the Dutch referendum for signs of potential cracks in European unity.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Armenia and Azerbaijan to alleviate the tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominately Armenian enclave within the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

Establishment of the National Guard

President Putin’s decision to establish the National Guard came as a big surprise, and caused a lot of debate in the Russian media. Some journalists even linked the establishment of the National Guard with upcoming parliamentary elections this fall and the deteriorating economic situation in the country. In such a situation, they say, there may be a need for loyal troops who can help to quell any domestic dissent.

For example, Sergey Sokolov, deputy editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, views the National Guard as a body of troops loyal to the president who can solve a very wide range of issues – including a potential conflict between different members of the Russian elite. The Russian population has been distracted for too long from the real problems (via military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria), but this cannot be done forever, and if the worst-case scenario develops, the National Guard will be ready.

Also read: "Why did Putin just create the National Guard?"

The online publication focused on the potential impact of the figure appointed as the head of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov. It’s becoming clear that President Putin trusts Zolotov significantly more than other members of the armed power structures, and that is why he was entrusted with heading up what is essentially the “personal guard” of the president. The main function of this National Guard in times of crisis, says, will be to fight against social instability and internal protests anywhere in the country.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular newspaper, points to the high administrative and financial costs of the forthcoming changes in the ranks of the Interior Ministry. In parallel with the establishment of the National Guard, the president abolished the independence of two major agencies – the Federal Migration Service and the Federal Service for Drug Control, making them now subordinate to the Interior Ministry. All of these changes will require considerable financial investments, as well as changes in over 52 existing laws.

Dutch referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine

Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that the Dutch referendum puts into question the European future of Ukraine. In short, the Dutch voted against it as a way of challenging the behavior of the government in Kiev – from its failure to fulfill the Minsk agreements to recent revelations about Ukrainian President Perto Poroshenko’s offshore businesses. The Netherlands is not a traditional partner of Russia (unlike Italy, for example), and there is absolutely nowhere to look for the “long arm” of Moscow here.

The independent publication Slon published an article by the economist Demid Getik, who argues that the Dutch referendum was more about the EU than Ukraine. Growing Euroscepticism has recently been reflected in the actions of a number of European political parties, including the ones that initiated this referendum in the Netherlands. The question is not at all about Ukraine, but rather about a Europe-wide expression of discontent with the EU’s foreign and domestic policies as well as the activities of the Brussels bureaucracy.

Alexander Mineev, a writer at the opposition Novaya Gazeta, holds the same view. The Dutch referendum is a symptom, showing that pan-European unity is seriously weakening, something that all European elites need to address urgently. The upcoming referendum in the UK, growing Euroscepticism in France and Belgium, the deepening migration crisis – all this has a negative impact on the EU’s future prospects, while Ukraine is left hanging in limbo, because to ignore this Dutch “No” means to strike one more blow to the legitimacy of the pan-European bodies.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and Medvedev’s shuttle diplomacy

The aggravation of the conflict over the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic between Baku and Yerevan has raised serious concerns in Moscow. As a result, the Kremlin sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to defuse the situation and reconcile Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The business newspaper Kommersant noted the “symmetry” of Moscow’s actions in this conflict: Russia is trying not to spoil its relations with either of these countries, because in the current economic and political situation, these two neighboring states are important for Moscow. Traditionally, Moscow has considered Yerevan a more important partner than Baku. However, this time, the official Russian position is to refrain from any accusations of blame. As part of Medvedev’s “shuttle diplomacy,” Russia is calling for an end to the confrontation and demanding that both sides sit down at the negotiating table.

Pavel Felgenhauer, writing in Novaya Gazeta, believes that the winner of this first “round” of aggravation was Azerbaijan. Russia certainly did not need another armed conflict near its borders, and even the warring parties themselves are not too interested in a prolonged conflict, for which neither has the needed resources.

Recommended: "Three ways for peaceful resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict"

However, Azerbaijan finds itself in an unexpectedly advantageous position – during the “fat” years, thanks to windfall oil revenues, Baku managed to greatly re-equip and modernize its army, which came as a real surprise for the Armenian military, which had grown complacent ever since the ceasefire in 1994.

The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii, referring to the opinion expressed by Prime Minister Medvedev, sees a “Turkish trail” in the escalation of this conflict. Moscow has consistently insisted on a peaceful settlement of this dispute, while Ankara has been speaking out in support of Baku. Such an approach is not conducive to the cessation of hostilities. This conflict is dangerous for Russia and the wider region and requires an urgent settlement – something that Turkey apparently does not recognize yet. 

Panama Papers still in the spotlight

Last week, the Russian media continued to discuss the publication of the Panama Papers and their allegations of offshore dealings by high-profile Russian political figures.

The business newspaper Vedomosti argues that nowhere in the world, except Russia, are the politicians speaking about a “conspiracy against Russia and Vladimir Putin.”

Many world leaders and politicians have been hit hard with these revelations, and Russia is far from the only victim of these reports. Quoting Russian experts, the newspaper also stressed that the publication of these materials did not resonate among the population, and does not really pose a threat to the stability of the Russian political elite.

The pro-government TV network Channel 1 talked about the investigation, but considers its results unimpressive. The Russian part of the report looks more like speculation, rather than sound conclusions, and this speculation is directed personally at Putin and his inner circle, according to the media outlet. These reports did not reveal any compromising materials.

Also read: "How can the Kremlin turn the Panama Papers to its advantage?"

Moreover, Channel 1 points to the “American trace” in the activities of the Consortium of Investigative Journalists, emphasizing that major U.S. companies and government officials do not appear in the Panama Papers.

Quotes of the week:

Vladimir Putin on the problem of press freedom in Russia: “A free press can be the enemy only for crooks, embezzlers and criminals, but for a government that serves its people, such a situation can never arise.”

Opposition politician Alexey Navalny, on the new commander of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov: “Everyone who knows him personally told me right away – he is someone who will have no problems when it comes to shooting, and he even wants to shoot.”

Opposition politician Gennady Gudkov on the creation of the National Guard: “This is a major political reorganization – the president is strengthening his personal power. The new structure will be headed by… Viktor Zolotov, who has repeatedly demonstrated his loyalty. These are the preparations of the government for street battles.”

Dmitry Medvedev on the “Turkish trail” in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: “Probably, there is a Turkish factor here – at least because Turkey has stated its position.”