Russian media roundup: Russia’s journalists covered the comeback of former finance minister Alexey Kudrin and the split within the Russian opposition ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections

Russia's former finance minister Alexei Kudrin speaks during the Gaidar Forum in Moscow. Photo: AP

Last week, the Russian media focused on two major events with possible implications for the nation’s political scene – the return of former finance minister and well-known liberal Alexey Kudrin to government, and the dissolution of the Democratic Coalition of the Russian opposition. Ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections, both moves could be potentially significant.

The return of Alexey Kudrin

Former finance minister Alexey Kudrin has apparently returned to the political stage, after a long hiatus on the sidelines. A few years ago, Kudrin was blocked from participating in politics, due to his overly critical attitude towards the government.

Yet, last week, Kudrin was appointed as the deputy chairman of the Economic Council under the President of Russia, as well as the chairman of the Center for Strategic Research, which is the main think tank that provides analysis for the Russian government. The Russian media have been analyzing what these new appointments could mean, and whether this means that large-scale reforms will be carried out in the near future.

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Tatiana Stanovaya, writing for the independent newspaper Slon, considers that Kudrin is not really returning to government, just “coming closer to it.” As a result of his appointments, she writes, we should definitely not be expecting any reforms in the country.

After all, Stanovaya points out, reforms mean risk and volatility, and no one is willing to undertake these during an economic crisis when the nation has a “besieged fortress” mentality. We should not forget that, notes Stanovaya, any liberal in Russia, once in government, becomes a cautious conservative technocrat, and this will apply to Kudrin as well.

“Based on this, we can say that Kudrin, in government, or close to the government, in practical terms, will change absolutely nothing from a qualitative perspective,” she points out.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, in its op-ed section, emphasizes that serious reforms are needed in the country, something that the Russian leadership cannot seem to undertake. However, the government tries to create the illusion of making such reforms through the involvement of politicians that enjoy an image as reformers.

In this sense, any appearance of liberals in the government is only a simulation of reforms, or reforms made in specific small areas, while the archaic power and economic structures of Russia remain in place. And Kudrin can hardly fix this situation, according to Vedomosti.

Collapse of the “Democratic Coalition”

Last week the so-called Democratic Coalition broke apart. This coalition includes the registered political parties PARNAS, Democratic Choice, and the unregistered Progress Party of Alexey Navalny, the December 5 Party and the Libertarian Party.

This coalition was first announced in April 2015, and was designed to improve the chances of small opposition parties in the 2016 parliamentary elections.  The coalition's candidates were expected to be elected on the basis of primaries, and then would run under the banner of the PARNAS Party.

In mid-April of this year, two major opposition leaders – Ilya Yashin and Ivan Zhdanov – decided to leave the Democratic Coalition. In addition, last week, Alexey Navalny and Vladimir Milov also decided to leave this union, which de facto puts an end to this so-called “Democratic Coalition.”

Experts agree that the opposition forces could not decide on who would lead their list of candidates, with Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader of the Parnas Party, having claimed that position. Besides, the participants of the coalition failed to agree on the distribution of financing costs.

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Kirill Martynov, a columnist for the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta argues that the Kremlin succeeded in cutting off the majority of opponents in the “non-systemic opposition,” including those grouped around Navalny and Yashin, from participation in future elections. The Democratic Coalition could not withstand even its first test of strength, falling victim to the ambitions of leading opposition figures, who are not ready to reach an agreement, even though they know that, on their own, they have no chances of being elected to the State Duma in September.

The analytical website Aktualniye Kommentarii, quoting Russian political experts, argues that the disintegration of the Democratic Coalition means that liberal forces have already lost, even before the full-scale launch of the parliamentary campaigns. The opposition will now have to fight for victory in certain single-seat constituencies, which they probably will do, but with much diminished resources and opportunities. In addition, the demise of the Democratic Coalition demonstrates the futility of such an undertaking, broadly speaking.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that the collapse of the Democratic Coalition could play into the hands of the other opposition party – Yabloko. The strategy of Yabloko in the upcoming elections includes not only nominating their own candidates, but also providing large-scale support to prominent independent candidates, thus giving them the opportunity to work with major opposition figures, newly “liberated” from the Democratic Coalition.

If they are successful in this, and Yabloko is be able negotiate with the representatives of Navalny and Yashin, the position of the party will be considerably strengthened in the upcoming elections.

Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars recognized as an extremist organization

On Apr. 26, the Supreme Court of Crimea declared the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars – the single highest executive representative body of the Crimean Tatars - to be an extremist organization and banned its activities in Russia. This judicial procedure was initiated by Natalia Poklonskaya, the Public Prosecutor of Crimea, who accused the Mejlis of anti-Russian activities and attempts to separate Crimea from Russia.

The Mejlis is an unregistered public organization bringing together the Crimean Tatar community of the peninsula. From the moment of Crimea's incorporation into Russia, the Mejlis has consistently opposed Russian presence on the peninsula. Russian media published various opinions on this decision.

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The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, quoting experts, considers this decision a mistake: Making activities of the Crimean Tatar minority illegal will only lead to the worsening of the confrontation with them. Crimean Tatars should be treated with great care and caution, as they are a sensitive group, and can easily pass from moderation to radicalism.

The business newspaper Kommersant emphasized that this decision has already been lambasted by human rights organizations and foreign countries. Meanwhile, the representatives of the Mejlis plan to appeal this decision and are ready to turn to the European Court of Human Rights.

Ivan Zhilin, special correspondent of Novaya Gazeta, points to Poklonskaya’s role in this process: In addition to initiating the proceedings, Poklonskaya also made an emotional speech during the court hearing, accusing the Mejlis of having links with international terrorism organizations, and making efforts to undermine the foundations of the constitutional system of Russia. At the same time, the decision to recognize the work of the Mejlis as extremist creates additional problems in the interaction between Russian and Crimean Tatar populations of the peninsula.

Quotes of the week:

Mikhail Kasyanov, chairman of the PARNAS party, on the exit of certain members from the Democratic Coalition: “We expected pressure to be put on us. However, we must continue moving forward. If we become afraid to move forward, the government will further increase its pressure on us. I believe that this decision [to withdraw from the coalition] is wrong.”

Public Prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaya on the activities of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatars: “Members and leaders of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people are puppets in the hands of large Western puppeteers. They are using the Crimean Tatar people as a bargaining chip.”

Nils Muižnieks, the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe, on Crimean Tatars: “The Mejlis is an important traditional and social structure of the Crimean Tatar people. Equating it with extremism paves the way for stigmatization and discrimination of a significant part of the Crimean Tatar community, and sends a negative message to that community as a whole. I strongly urge a reversal of this ban, in the interests of human rights protection and social cohesion on the peninsula.”