Russian media review: The Kremlin appears to be battening the hatches as it deals with the impact of Western sanctions. And that could impact the way it views the return of Mikhail Khodorkovsky to politics.

Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a news conference in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, April 27, 2014. Photo: Reuters

This week, the Russian media devoted the most attention to the following three events: the new constraints on foreign investor participation in Russian media companies; the case against Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s new political platform. All of them hint at the changing political and economic climate in Russia in the wake of stepped-up Western sanctions.

New rules for Russian mass media

Of course, the draft legislation on the media could not but cause a stir among Russian journalists. The Russian Duma’s proposal to cap foreign ownership of Russian media companies at 20 percent caused a storm of indignation in the opposition and independent mass media (Snob, Ekho Moskvy, Vedomosti, Forbes– and a complete absence of reaction in the pro-government press. In fact, not one single important pro-government publication or TV channel paid any attention to this draft law.

The reaction was sharp in the media where the share of foreign capital is significantly higher than the proposed 20 percent. In particular, Vedomosti author Ksenia Boletskaya severely criticized the deputies, emphasizing their lack of professionalism and absence of knowledge of global practice in this sphere. The journalist ties this to the aggravation of confrontation with the West.

"All of the deputies' arguments boil down not to the economy or business, but to war," she writes. "There is an information war being waged against us! No more variety of interpretation or imported ideology! Every social-political media outlet with foreign capital is now just like a company of saboteurs; an entertainment channel is a fighter pilot, and a glossy magazine – a real armored division."

Igor Vagan, a journalist from Forbes also criticizes the lack of professionalism of the State Duma members. He examines international practice in some detail and comes to the conclusion that the arguments of the legislators are unsubstantiated.

"Thus, only one question remains: What do our authorities want to achieve with these amendments?" he states. "One of my acquaintances gave me an excellent answer: You cannot interrogate foreign shareholders or intimidate them, but your own are always near. See, Vladimir Yevtushenkov now knows this."

The chief editor of Snob, Nikolay Uskov, also evaluates the consequences of adopting the law negatively, noting, however, that Vedomosti and Forbes are not the real target.

Forbes and Vedomosti are called the targets of this bill, but I do not agree this is so. I think that it is plain corporate raiding," he writes. "Neither Forbes, nor Vedomosti, with their aggregate audience of a maximum of 100,000-200,000 people can present a serious threat to the current government. The well-functioning, quite profitable, and totally apolitical businesses that are being hit today just turn into easy prey." 

Uskov thinks that "they will lose everything, but readers most of all," because until recently the entertainment and educational sectors were governed by market laws.

"Today administrative resources have entered the market," he writes. "I do not rule out that tomorrow it will be applied to more successful competitors, and even if they pose no threat to the country's security or the stability of the current government."

Ekho’s opposition blogger Matvey Ganapolsky points out the absurdity of the law. “When the enemy could invest 50 percent of the money in the media, then he came and said, ‘Half of the money there is mine – publish something anti-Putin!’ And the chief editor cried, but published it. And now, at 20 percent, the enemy comes and you will push him out the door saying, ‘You don’t have enough money here for me to publish anything anti-Russian,” he writes.

Yet another disgraced oligarch

The situation around one of Russia’s richest people – Vladimir Yevtushenkov – has seriously perplexed the Russian press, which this week as well continues speculating on the possible reasons for his arrest. The opposition (Slon, Novaya Gazeta) and business (Kommersant, Forbes) papers are most active in this regard. The pro-government outlets (Izvestia,Channel One) are silent and limit their content to statements of the facts.

Novaya Gazeta journalist Yulia Latynina sees in the arrest of Yevtushenkov the consequences of economic sanctions against Russia and the necessity of getting as much benefit as possible.

"And now, after the sanctions, the concept has changed: There is no money to buy our way out, on the contrary, we have to rob to plug the existing holes," she writes. "So we must rob from our own because we already took everything from everyone else a long time ago. Yevtushenkov was one of their own to a high degree and, I remind you, he bought Bashneft in 2009 at the very zenith of Putin's power, so it is impossible that Putin did not pay attention to this and approve of it. And suddenly you! Six years later it turns out something there was not paid in full."

Аlexander Birman of Forbes thinks that the struggle for resources is behind all this but that this case and the Yukos case are not comparable: External factors have changed too much.

"Now any sort of repetition of the Yukos affair really reminds one of swimming past the buoys," he warns. "The sea is too rough now, and even the experienced swimmer risks sinking to the bottom after the oligarch that they painstakingly drowned.”

Kommersant provides an interview with Artur Airapetov, a member of the Moscow Chamber of Attorneys, who notes some legal discrepancies in the Yevtushenkov case.

“Something else surprises me, that this case has been initiated, among other things, on the grounds of being directly related to Yevtushenkov's work activities … but he is permitted to visit his place of work," he notes.

"Around all this there is a certain image component on the part of the Investigative Committee in imprisoning him under house arrest. A house arrest does not make sense for the goals being pursued because he is allowed to go to work even though he is accused of a crime related to his work."

Is Russia open for Khodorkovsky?

The freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky has made a series of dramatic declarations this week related to his future participation in politics. This event, again, has evoked much more interest in the opposition (Novaya Gazeta, Nezavisimaya Gazeta) and business (Vedomosti) press than in the pro-government (Izvestia) press.

Vedomosti published a long interview with the former Yukos head, in which Khodorkovsky talks of his plans and Russia’s problems.

"I very specifically answered the question: While the country is in a normal state of affairs I cannot (for legal reasons) and do not want (for personal reasons) to fight for the presidency. I am generally by nature and through experience a crisis manager," he says. "So when this government leads the country to a crisis (I'm afraid there's not long to wait – several years), and if people want to change the system of government to a more modern one (and not just replace Putin), then I am ready to carry out work at that stage (stabilization, constitutional conferences, redistribution of a significant part of presidential powers to parliament, the courts, and civil society).”

Forbes also writes about the restarted Open Russia, reviewing Khodorkovsky’s possibilities for influencing the political process in Russia quite positively overall.

"Khodorkovsky, like Kudrin or Navalny, is not a revolutionary but a reformist," the author of this edition notes. "Russia needs a new influential circle of reformists, a new great medium, a new network. The grounds for reformist optimism are now smaller than ever. Thus, this makes Khodorkovsky's attempt to start lending effort on his part to expand this circle all the more valuable."

Novaya Gazeta examines Khodorkovsky's policy statements point by point, coming to mixed conclusions about the former oligarch.

“The final task is formulated very simply (though it will be carried out with difficulty) – regime change, which will 'be a slow suicide,' and 'will pull the citizens after it to the edge of an abyss," writes one of the authors of the edition, Yuri Safronov.  

“But Khodorkovsky is certain that we will not go there, but to Europe,” continues the journalist. “That is there where power changes are practiced, where there are impartial courts and where human rights are respected. Russian citizens will happily accept these values as soon as they get the rights to use them.”

In the section “From the Editorship” of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Khodorkovsky’s latest announcements are also analyzed, along with how much Russia itself is prepared for such a political figure.

"The crisis in Russia's Left is more likely to result in the tightening of systemic barriers for independent social groups than in institutional transformation. And a transitional president with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s views is hardly to be in demand there," it said in the editorial.

The pro-government Izvestia gives voice to a Russian writer and philosopher Andrey Ashkerov who does not raise the issue of Khodorkovsky's ideas themselves but of the sudden change of his image. "Exiting from prison, the former oligarch strongly emphasized that there is nothing left of his past and that his former self perished in the 'depths of the Siberian mines and will never be reborn.'

At the same time, Ashkerov notes that 'it is rumored' that Khodorkovsky continued 'deciding things' even from prison, 'which means that he had never completely renounced his former methods or using his influence when after leaving the dungeon' he appeared before the feverish public 'as an ascetic and even a mystic almost.’”