Media roundup: Russian media mulled over Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to the 70th UN Summit in New York, the mounting problems of the ruble, and a series of controversial decisions by the Russian courts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 5, 2013. Photo: AP

The major focus of the Russian media this week was President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to New York to attend the 70th anniversary meeting of the UN General Assembly. At a time when Russia faces criticism over its role in Ukraine and signs of weakness are appearing within the Russian economy – especially with regard to the ruble – the visit could become a watershed event for how Russia is viewed on the world stage.

Putin to speak at the UN General Assembly

On August 28, the Kremlin’s press service officially announced that Vladimir Putin would visit the U.S. to speak at the 70th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly. This event provoked a mixed reaction in the Russian media.

The general interest newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that for Putin, this speech at the UN will be an even more extreme adventure than his dive in the Black Sea bathyscaphe and flight with Siberian cranes combined. Putin will have to defend his country’s position before a notoriously hostile audience, and for him, this will be a real political test, proving his “mettle.”

The business newspaper Vedomosti reminded its readers that this is Putin’s first speech at the United Nations in a decade. In addition, it analyzed the composition of the Russian delegation. The publication noted the importance of this anniversary session and the high level of representatives attending it.

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The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station conducted a survey of its readers about Putin’s speech at the UN – and the question asked was: “Will there be any changes in Russian policy after Vladimir Putin’s trip to the UN Assembly?” 88 percent of site users answered in the negative.

The worsening position of the ruble against the euro and the dollar 

The last few weeks saw the ruble gradually losing value against the euro and the dollar. While at the beginning of this summer, it seemed that the situation on the currency markets had stabilized (the dollar was worth about 54 rubles, and the euro – 60), suddenly in August the situation worsened again.

On Aug. 20, the dollar was worth 67.4 rubles, and the euro – 76.3 rubles, and by Aug. 24 – these values surpassed 70 and 80 rubles, respectively.   

The opposition-minded Novaya Gazeta is predicting an eventual collapse of the ruble against the backdrop of falling oil prices and financial problems in one of Russia’s key partners – China.

Moreover, Russia’s cumbersome and archaic economic system is not able to cope with the challenges that the West has thrown at it, in the form of economic sanctions.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that the Kremlin will soon have to work on convincing people in favor of moderation and giving “priority to spiritual over material benefits.” The publication feels certain that the government is not planning any major economic reforms, which means that the economic situation will continue to deteriorate, and the state will only concentrate on fighting with a propaganda campaign, in which it will involve the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Moskovsky Komsomolets, given the currency fluctuations, counted the losses suffered by ordinary citizens due to ever-increasing food prices. The publication points out that, compared to the same period last year, even domestic products have significantly increased in price, raising concerns about the transparency of price formation by leading retailers.

Telephone conversations between Putin, Merkel and Hollande on the situation in Ukraine 

On August 29, Putin, Hollande, and Merkel in a telephone conference call discussed the conflict in the Donbas as well as the fate of the Normandy Format.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that the sticking point this time was the upcoming elections in the two breakaway republics, which, according to the West, are jeopardizing the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. The publication considers that Moscow would not abandon its support for the electoral process in the breakaway republics.

The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station informed its visitors about other details from the conversations of the leaders, in particular, the fact that all heads of state reaffirmed their intention to preserve and maintain the Normandy Format. The publication stressed that this was the first such discussion between the leaders in the last two months.

The Yevgenia Vasilyeva case

Back in the spring of 2015, sensational criminal charges were laid against Yevgenia Vasilyeva, a former state official from Oboronservis, who, according to the investigators, caused more than 3 billion rubles worth of damages to the government by running underground economic activities within the Defense Ministry. 

In May of 2015, Yevgenia Vasilyeva received a five-year sentence, from which was deducted the two and one-half years that she was under house arrest awaiting the trial. This Aug. 25, the court let the former state official out on parole. This unexpected court decision created a wave of disapproval in society and the media.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that releasing Vasilyeva on parole seems like “a betrayal of the ideals of national unity.” However, the publication does see a certain type of logic in the actions of the Russian authorities in this case. The author of the article believes that this was most likely due to a plea bargain deal – Vasilyeva would remain humbly silent and not interfere with the investigation, and the state would “graciously” let her go free after a couple of months.

In the meantime, in an editorial, Vedomosti said that the release of Vasilyeva, on a conditional parole, could be seen as a “mockery of society,” given that the Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison on the same day that Vasilyeva was let out of prison. In addition, the courts refused to let Russian opposition leader Denis Lutskevich, a participant of the Bolotnaya Square case, out on parole.

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The opposition Novaya Gazeta reported on the initiative of the Civic Chamber of Russia, which had filed an official request to the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into the actions of the judge who had freed Vasilyeva on parole. Members of this Chamber believe that certain legal procedures were violated.

The business newspaper Kommersant published the results of a public opinion poll – 70 percent of those questioned would not have released Vasilyeva on parole, and 60 percent believe that the initial sentence was too mild. The publication also noted that, after her release from prison, Vasilyeva was facing the freezing of personal assets and accounts in which millions of rubles were deposited.

The independent Slon was outraged at the numerous violations that were made ​​during the court trial, violations that gave clear advantages to Vasilyeva. The publication noted that a simple citizen accused of wrongdoing could not even dream of being given such indulgences.

Sentencing of Sentsov

On Aug. 25, two convictions were handed out in another high-profile case: Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kol’chenko (both Ukrainian citizens living in Crimea) were convicted of terrorist activities and given prison terms of 20 and 10 years, respectively.

This case received a great deal of publicity because of the political context of the incidents.

In the spring of 2014, Sentsov, disagreeing with the transfer of Crimea to the Russian Federation’s jurisdiction, set fire to the offices of several Russian organizations in Crimea (including the headquarters of United Russia Party), and was planning to destroy a monument to Vladimir Lenin. 

The actions of Sentsov and his accomplice were considered as terrorism, which caused mixed reactions from the media. The business newspaper Kommersant quoted the lawyer of the accused, who considers that this case was “politicized,” and pointed out that “material evidence in the case was also absent.”

Moskovsky Komsomolets also pointed to numerous inconsistencies in the Sentsov and Kol’chenko case, in particular, the absence of witnesses. As well, there was the absence of a formal and official appraisal of the damages suffered by the office of the United Russia Party (in fact, at that time, this political party did not yet have an office in Crimea).

The independent Slon published reactions of the EU and the U.S. on the sentence given to Sentsov. The United States and the EU consider this case as fabricated and politicized, and the entire court process as illegal.

Cancellation of the Russian delegation’s trip to the United States 

Last week, Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, was only issued a “limited visa” for her working visit to the United States. In response, the Russian delegation, as a whole, refused to attend talks within the framework of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Russian media noted that this is not the first time that the West applied personal sanctions, and that such reciprocal actions only lead to the further isolation of Russia.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that it was a mistake for the delegation to refuse to travel to the United States, thus driving Russia deeper into isolation. Referring to Russian and foreign experts, Vedomosti explained that a new “Cold War” atmosphere was gradually being intensified.

The pro-government TV network Channel 1 referred to the statement made by the Russian Foreign Ministry about the unacceptable behavior of the U.S. side, which it said has no right to decide who can and who cannot participate in the work of international organizations.

Moskovsky Komsomolets also quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry and reminded its readers that Matvienko was “black listed” back in March 2014, when Crimea joined the Russian Federation. The publication noted that for Russia, Matvienko’s visa was an important issue, because she is a high-ranking civil servant, who, inter alia, is an important representative of Russia in the international arena.

Quotes of the week:

Ella Pamfilova, Human Rights Commissioner in the Russian Federation, on Vasilyeva’s release on parole: “The start of the Oboronservis case was shameful, and the ending is shocking. This division into two levels of investigation and legal proceedings – one for the elites and one for the rest of the population – tarnishes the authority of the judiciary and law enforcement systems, and undermines the people’s faith in justice.”

Singer and parliamentarian Iosif Kobzon on the release of Vasilyeva: “This is, of course, a crying shame. I think that it was not authorized by our president.”

Convicted director Oleg Sentsov on the sentence that he received: “I will not beg anything from you [...], all is clear to everyone. A court of an occupier, by definition, can never be a fair one.”

Valentina Matvienko on the “limited visa” that she was issued: “This can be considered as an unfriendly step towards Russia. And this will not go unnoticed.”

Official statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry on Matvienko’s visa: “The actions of Washington – which is positioning itself as almost the main defender of democracy and freedom of speech in the world – are in fact designed to block the ability of others to present approaches that are different from American political attitudes and priorities.”