Russian media roundup: Opposition protests related to the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov one year ago, signs of moderate reform emerging in Iran and speculation over the Syrian ceasefire made headlines this week.
Russians brought flowers on the bridge in central Moscow, where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed on February 27, 2015, to commemorate the first anniversary of his murder. Photo: Sputnik
This week, the Russian media focused on the one-year anniversary of the death of well-known opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in the very center of Moscow near the Kremlin on February 27, 2015. Media attention also focused on elections in Iran, the ceasefire in Syria and the political future of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov.
March in memory of Boris Nemtsov
Although the Investigative Committee of Russia and the Public Prosecutor’s Office have already presented the results of their investigations into the Nemtsov case, the Russian opposition groups do not believe in the accuracy and credibility of the information these contain, calling on the authorities to find and punish the real perpetrators of this murder.
On the one-year anniversary of the death of the opposition leader, several thousand people marched in his memory in Moscow. The participants marched carrying anti-government and anti-corruption slogans, while calling for real political freedoms. Officially, around 7,500 people took to the streets, while the opposition claims this number was closer to 25,000.
The opposition Novaya Gazeta, in an article by political commentator Kirill Martynov, accuses the Russian authorities of silencing not only the situation surrounding the death of the politician, but also any mention of the march in his honor. No major national TV channel broadcast this event, and even failed to mention it in their newscasts. The criminal clues lead a path to Chechnya, believes Martynov, but the Kremlin is unlikely to decide at this time on engaging in a confrontation with this rebellion-prone region.
The business newspaper Vedomosti emphasized the slogans under which the funeral march was carried out. Among the traditional demands for a fair investigation and statements against Russian President Vladimir Putin, there were accusations against the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, whom the demonstrators called “Russia’s shame.” Quoting opposition politicians, the newspaper also pointed to the Kremlin’s “inhibiting” role in the investigation – saying that only a change of government could lead to an honest investigation.
Alexey Venediktov, chief editor at the Echo of Moscow, is convinced that even Nemtsov’s murder has failed to achieve the main goal – to do away with this politician and his legacy.
“Boris has become a symbol of resilience,” assures Venediktov, emphasizing that his case is still alive with the opposition and remains in the people’s minds, no matter what tricks the government pulls.
Elections in Iran
On Feb. 26, Iranian elections were held for the Parliament and the Council of Religious Experts, with preliminary results indicating the growing popularity of moderate reform forces in the country.
The business newspaper Kommersant considers that these elections have dealt a serious blow to the conservative wing of the Iranian elite, in particular, against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his supporters, who have lost to pro-reform supporters of current President Hassan Rouhani in key cities, including Tehran.
Experts interviewed by Kommersant point to voters becoming tired of the many years of confrontation with the West, as well as the harsh rhetoric of the conservatives, which has led to widespread support for a path to reforms and dialogue, which Rouhani took at the very beginning of his presidency.
The online publication Gazeta.ru believes that these elections could decide the fate of Khamenei, as the new composition of the Religious Council may not support this elderly, ill-with-cancer Ayatollah, especially in light of his ultra-conservative views and the negative reaction to the “nuclear deal” that he signed.
For Moscow, the drop in support for the Conservatives is not considered as a good thing, because it was during the reign of the conservative forces that relations between Russia and Iran reached the peak of cooperation,” according to Gazeta.ru.
The business newspaper Vedomosti published a different expert opinion – saying that this whole conflict between reformers and conservatives is in fact mere fiction, and Rouhani certainly remains Khamenei’s man, and therefore even a formal victory of the reformers in the elections may not lead to any significant changes in Iranian foreign and domestic policies.
Ceasefire in Syria
The ceasefire agreement in Syria, signed with direct participation of Washington and Moscow, and scheduled to take effect on Feb. 27, became one of the most discussed topics of the week.
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The pro-government Izvestia called this truce “fragile”, pointing to the numerous factors playing against the implementation of this agreement. Among the most significant of these being the continuing conflict not only between the immediate parties to the struggle, but also among many non-regional players. The publication particularly stresses the potential destructive role of Turkey, which intends to use this ceasefire to strengthen its own positions in its fight with the Kurds.
The business newspaper Kommersant, analyzing the ceasefire agreement, also expressed skepticism about the possibility of its implementation. The very fact of this truce is, of course, a great diplomatic success, but it is not enough to maintain such a ceasefire in place. In particular, there is always the unpredictable reaction of Turkey, from which Russian experts expect provocations and disruption of the ceasefire. One way or another, Moscow is placing its bets on the ceasefire and a diplomatic solution, and how successful this process turns out to be will determine Russia’s weight in international affairs.
The opposition Novaya Gazeta writes about the positive reactions to this agreement, referring to major European, American and Syrian media. Contradictions, of course, remain, but one cannot fail to note the new mood between Moscow and Washington when it comes to cooperation in this very difficult region. Novaya Gazeta suggests that the current U.S. administration is seeking peace in Syria to be used as a pre-election asset, and this is the reason for the unexpected dialogue with Moscow.
Will Ramzan Kadyrov really step down as the head of Chechnya?
One of the most well-known and controversial politicians at the regional level – Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov – last week stated that he was ready to retire, and that at this stage, he saw his mission as being fulfilled. This statement caused great resonance in the Russian media, which are now wondering about the fate of Kadyrov, as the official term of office of this politician expires in April.
The business newspaper Kommersant, quoting Russian political scientists, emphasizes that Kadyrov did not mention anything about his lack of confidence in his own strengths during the upcoming regional elections scheduled for this September. On the contrary, Kadyrov is confident, and he keeps demonstrating this at the federal level, trying to, as quickly as possible, get a “green light” from the Kremlin for his political future.
However, the publication notes, a change in Chechen leadership could really be behind this rhetoric, and Kadyrov is trying to bargain with Moscow for a more favorable successor to the leadership of Chechnya.
Political analyst Ekaterina Shulman on the pages of the independent Slon says that Kadyrov’s words contain merely the most common, for Russian regional politicians, declarations of loyalty to the Kremlin and President Putin personally.
Recently, Kadyrov has often been the target of opposition criticism, which the politician himself could have interpreted as a signal for his possible removal, something that required an urgent response, seeing that his term of office will soon expire. “This is a good time to remind the higher-ups about one’s self and one’s boundless loyalty,” summarizes the expert.
Moskovsky Komsomolets, a tabloid, speculated about the motives that had prompted the Chechen leader to announce his possible resignation. The newspaper debated a variety of possible versions, in the end finding all of them groundless.
The political landscape of the republic simply has no alternative figures and there also exists no apparent conflict between Chechnya and Moscow either, no matter what the opponents of Kadyrov are saying. Moskovsky Komsomolets considered that this is just a new phase of positive PR by Kadyrov, which since the beginning of 2016 has been gaining ever-greater momentum.
Quotes of the week:
Opposition leader Alexey Navalny on the march in memory of Nemtsov: “A full and impartial investigation into the murder of Boris, and punishment of all those responsible, regardless of their level and status – is the most important and priority political demand today. Not a demand coming from the opposition, but from society in general. This is no longer just an issue involving some trial / investigation / criminal proceeding, but an issue touching upon the credibility of the state.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the truce in Syria: “In the next few days we will know more. It is step by step. There are no illusions. Eyes are open.”
The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, on Russia’s role in Syria: “The problem is the Russians claim to date that all of their action has been against those groups, so on the face of it the Russians could be entering into this arrangement on the basis that they are not going to change their behavior at all. If so, it will fail before it gets off the ground so everything hinges on Russia’s good intentions."
Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov on his possible resignation as head of Chechnya: “It is all the will of Allah. I’m just a foot soldier. If they say – continue to serve – then I will, if they say – that’s all, goodbye – then I’ll say good-bye. ... For the sake of stability in Chechnya and the world, I am ready to work even as a common laborer.”