Weekly Media Roundup: The historic meeting between the Pope and Patriarch in Cuba and the 2016 Munich Security Conference made headlines in the Russian media this week.

Pope Francis, left, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill exchange a joint declaration on religious unity at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. Photo: AP

On Feb. 12, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Havana, Cuba, leading to much discussion and debate in the Russian media about the potential implications of such a historic meeting.

In addition, a leading European forum on global security issues was held in Munich from Feb. 12-14. The Russian delegation was represented by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who made a long speech about the country’s vision of current global challenges and threats. 

Meeting of the millennium

Already before the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill even took place, journalists dubbed this conversation between the two Church leaders as the “Meeting of the Millennium,” because the heads of the two Churches have not met since the Great Schism of Christianity in 1054.

The opposition media outlet Novaya Gazeta claims that this meeting was most beneficial to the Russian Patriarch, noting that, given the current situation, Moscow had more need for this dialogue than did the Vatican. For the Moscow Patriarchate this was a successful PR move, which Kirill could be planning to use to improve his own image in Russia. In this case, however, we are not talking about Christian unity, since neither of the two sides have any desire to undertake the difficult path to unification.

On the other hand, the business newspaper Kommersant was positive in its evaluation of not only the meeting itself, but also about the joint declaration signed after it ended, noting that Christians all over the world now have hope that there can be lasting dialogue between the two major Christian denominations.

With reference to Russian experts on religious affairs, the newspaper also suggested that the joint declaration would not be ignored by politicians and leaders of various countries of the world, given the high level of influence exercised by the Pope and the Patriarch.

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta carried out a detailed analysis of the text of the signed declaration, noting that it reflected the common aspiration of the two Church leaders not only to protect the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but also the basic Christian values in the Western world, which finds itself under the influence of secular ideologies. The newspaper also considers that, in this case, the very fact of the meeting taking place, may be able to influence the future of inter-Christian dialogue, and this is much more important than any signed document.

Also read: "What you need to know about the meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch"

The 2016 Munich Security Conference

In his address to the participants at the Munich Security Conference, Medvedev spoke about a new Cold War, the situation in the Middle East, and the unprecedented threat posed by migration. In addition, the Prime Minister’s speech was dominated by calls for constructive dialogue.

Moskovsky Komsomolets noted that the Prime Minister was given a cool reception in Munich. The West remains wary of Russia and its actions in Ukraine and Syria, which meant that the Medvedev did not get even the slightest positive reaction from the hall. Moreover, leading European politicians did not hesitate when it came to speaking out against Russia – they accused the Russian Federation of aggression and destabilization of the world situation.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, however, did not agree with such an assessment. Referring to Russian political analysts, the newspaper noted that the West is moving towards dialogue with Russia, in particular when it comes to the West’s leaders – the United States and Germany. Ukraine and the Baltic countries are another matter, as these are attempting to fan the flames of conflicts that are beginning to fade. It is useless to expect any constructive responses from them, but it is hoped that the actual recipients of the Russian message about the need to engage in dialogue and negotiations will pay attention to them. 

The opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, writing on the pages of the independent Slon, talked about a very different aspect of Medvedev’s speech – the image aspect, and this was mostly about the image of Dmitry Medvedev. Kashin feels that, over time, Medvedev has finally left behind his individuality and originality, which he enjoyed in the years of the so-called “tandem,” and irretrievably lost his image as an innovator and modernizer. Now, his speeches are all Vladimir Putin, showing through in each formulation, and this is yet another blow to Russian politics, the journalist noted with regret.

The Munich Agreement on Syria

Just before the opening of the Munich Security Conference, on Feb. 13 a meeting was held on the settlement of the Syrian conflict, between Sergey Lavrov, John Kerry, and the International Syrian Support Group. Although the negotiators were able to reach a compromise formula for a ceasefire and a truce, Russian media is not ready to believe in their actual implementation in practice.

The online publication Gazeta.ru noted that the agreements reached on humanitarian and ceasefire issues are too vague and do not include any provisions on Aleppo, and this city has now become the main stumbling block between all parties to this conflict. In addition, a common list of terrorist organizations still has not been agreed upon, without which it is impossible to coordinate efforts between the Western coalition and Russia.

Ivan Yakovina, a columnist for the independent Slon, considers an agreement on a ceasefire as a promising development, explaining the obvious desire of Washington to achieve a final settlement of the Syrian conflict. The war in Syria is directly threatening U.S. interests, not only in the region, but also in Europe, and so the United States is willing to undertake some tough measures in order to reach a settlement, at least by putting pressure on those who depend on them – including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is very likely that the agreements on a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities will not be implemented by all the parties, but their undoubted value lies in the humanitarian plane, and that at least some agreements are being concluded between the U.S. and Russia. 

At the business publication RBC, they do not expect a breakthrough from the reached agreements – as there are too many factors working against a ceasefire in Syria. On the one hand, there are the remaining contradictions between external powers, when it comes to the list of terrorist organizations, as well as the prospects of U.S. ground operations in Syria. 

On the other hand, a major role being played here is by the ambitions of regional powers, on which American and Russian influence is greatly exaggerated, notes the publication. It is unlikely that the Munich Agreement will be implemented in Syria. However, if a breakthrough does take place in this area, then the Geneva talks between Assad and the opposition will also go smoothly. 

Controversy in Moscow 

On the night of Feb. 9, Moscow City Hall implemented one of the most controversial urban affairs projects of recent years – during the evening, and over the next few days, about 100 building sites in Moscow were demolished, which the city authorities judged as unauthorized constructions (samostroyka). In most cases, these were commercial structures – vendor’s stalls, shops and mini-malls.

This action caused extremely mixed reactions among the population: these centers of small and medium-sized businesses were originally built in violation of the law; however, they did have formal authorizations (corruption schemes of the 1990s were very extensive, in terms of scale, and included officials of different levels). These enterprises existed and operated for many years, creating jobs, although, of course, they were eyesores to the city, not to mention the potential harm they posed to infrastructure and lines of communication.  

Leonid Nikitinsky, at the opposition Novaya Gazeta, is outraged by the actions of the city authorities, and considers them to be illegal. He feels certain that the night of Feb. 9 bore witness to the fact that the judiciary is dead in Russia, because City Hall did not even bother to seek a court decision to raze to the ground private constructions. With these bulldozers, the executive “vertical” powers put the last nail into the coffin of the justice system. 

Nikitinsky also believes that, in this whole situation, it is particularly outrageous that many entrepreneurial organizations in Russia remained silent on this issue, and did not stand up for their colleagues in Moscow. 

The pro-government Channel One commended the actions of Moscow City Hall, noting not only the illegal nature of these buildings, but also the threat that they pose to communications and the city’s residents. The TV channel also recalled that City Hall was forced to take down these structures – as the owners of these premises, being warned in advance, did not take any measures to eliminate the violations. The question of compensation payments to the owners is now being worked on, emphasizes Channel One. 

Kirill Martynov, at the independent Slon, insists on the dangers posed by such measures in the midst of the crisis – the demolition of small and medium-sized businesses puts an end to private enterprise in Moscow. This deprives residents of not only jobs and income, but also such banal things like catering and maintenance services and mini-markets, which were concentrated in the structures now demolished. Most of these, says Martynov, offered services and low-priced products, which are particularly in demand today, when all Muscovites are suffering from a deteriorating economic environment. 

Quotes of the week:

Pope Francis on his meeting with Patriarch Kirill: “With Patriarch Kirill, this was a conversation between brothers. We talked about the obvious issues that concern us both. We had a frank conversation. I felt close to my brother, and he told me the same thing.”

Dmitry Medvedev at the Munich Security Conference: “Almost every day someone makes a speech, claiming that we pose the most terrible threat to NATO as a whole, or separately to Europe, America and other countries. Scary movies are being shot, in which Russians are depicted as starting a nuclear war. I sometimes think – today, are we in the year 2016, or in 1962.” 

John Kerry on the talks on Syria: “What we have here are words on paper. What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground.”

Sergey Sobyanin, Mayor of Moscow, on the demolition of buildings: “The demolition of illegal buildings in Moscow serves as a vivid example that in Russia, truth, heritage, and the history of our country are not for sale. One cannot hide behind documents for a property acquired by clearly fraudulent means. We will give Moscow back to Muscovites - its parks, squares and streets. Open, beautiful, beloved.”