Russian media roundup: The G20 Summit in China, a meeting between the leaders of Japan and Russia, and the death of the president of Uzbekistan all made headlines last week.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, Sept. 3, 2016. Photo: RIA Novosti
At the Eastern Economic Forum, which took place Sept. 2-3 in Vladivostok, one of the highlights of the event was a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two leaders appear to be getting closer to a compromise agreement on the Kuril Islands, and the Russian media discussed possible terms of such an agreement.
On Sept. 4, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, the G20 Summit officially started. President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in China has already led to new speculation in the Russian media about the Moscow-Beijing relationship. The Russian media are paying attention not only to the meeting of the leaders at the summit, but also to the prevailing general atmosphere at the event.
Putin-Abe talks on the Kuril Islands
For a long time now, Russia and Japan have been trying to find opportunities for full normalization of bilateral relations, which have been marred by the absence of a formal peace treaty and the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. The results of the Putin-Abe meeting cannot be called a breakthrough, but the Russian media have suggested that the parties are closer than ever before to a compromise.
The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets surveyed Russian experts on the subject of a possible agreement between Moscow and Tokyo. The experts believe that the memorandum of 1956, under which Japan lost half of the disputed islands, could serve as the basis for any compromise agreement. This option is the most realistic – and certainly more realistic than the transfer of all the islands in exchange for economic cooperation and investment.
The Internet website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an article by journalist Alexey Mikhailov, who made an unexpected suggestion: Moscow wants to get from Tokyo formal recognition that Crimea belongs to Russia, in exchange for the disputed islands. Today, he points out, there are no other reasons to be engaged in the Kuril Islands issue, a long-running conflict, which the Russian authorities have always treated without much enthusiasm or interest.
A potential agreement with Japan could be useful for Moscow. Japan, as a member of the G7, seems to be a potentially beneficial and convenient partner, as well as a potential lobbyist for the interests of the Kremlin in the West.
The independent media publication Slon also wonders what Russia expects in exchange for these islands. Most likely, in one form or another, any agreement will involve the memorandum of 1956. However, the Japanese Prime Minister, despite his positive attitude, still does not have full authority to sign a deal. As a result, he likely will not be able to convince the country’s elites that getting two of the four islands represents a victory for Japan.
At the same time, Slon emphasizes that any speculations about the potential of a special relationship between Russia and Japan – including a breakup of the Washington-Tokyo union and recognition of Crimea – are still just the dreams of the most optimistic experts. In reality, Russia and Japan have nothing in common.
Also read: "Is Russia the VIP guest at the 2016 G20 Summit?"
The G20 Summit in China
Moskovsky Komsomolets emphasized a stark contrast with the G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia (2014), when the atmosphere was tense, and frankly, hostile, especially towards Russia. Back then, the Western countries, and even the host state, openly declared their unwillingness to see the Russian president and have talks with him.
In China, the situation is quite different – here Putin was received with great respect and attention, which is directly connected with the emerging strategic relationship between Russia and China. This time around, all the unpleasant moments involved U.S. President Barack Obama – with China even forgetting to send the staircase on time to Air Force One for Obama to disembark.
The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta suggested that the highlight of the summit would be the meeting between Putin and Obama, which was agreed upon at the last minute. Citing unnamed sources in the Russian delegation, Rossiyskaya Gazeta emphasizes that the initiative came from the American side.
The independent media publication Slon noted another important meeting within the framework of the G20 – the meeting between Putin and newly appointed British Prime Minister Theresa May. No one expected any breakthroughs from this meeting, and the entire discussion focused solely on security issues and the fight against a common enemy – international terrorism.
The death of the president of Uzbekistan
All last week, rumors circulated in the media about the possible death of the long-time leader of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who served as the President of Uzbekistan ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He was regularly criticized for his authoritarian style of management, curtailing of democratic rights and freedoms, nepotism and corruption. On Sept. 2, the media finally confirmed the death of the Uzbek leader.
The independent media outlet Slon recalled that, during the time of its independence, Uzbekistan turned into one of the most authoritarian countries in the world, where even the most senior official could fall victim to Karimov’s anger. This is not to deny the merits of Karimov’s fight against Islamic extremism – Uzbekistan is almost the only country in Central Asia, where the problem has been solved very successfully, and where it is practically no longer on the agenda.
The problem is that the death of Karimov risks bringing down the Uzbek political system, which will wipe away all the progress made since independence. For Russia, the death of the Uzbek leader presents a great tragedy and a challenge, because there is nothing more dangerous than an unmanaged neighboring country, in which for many years all the forces, including extremist, were suppressed with an iron fist.
The pro-government newspaper Izvestia recalled the Uzbek leader’s primary achievements: upholding the independence and territorial integrity of the country during unresolved conflicts with its neighbors, the fight against Islamist extremism and his skillful balancing act in foreign policy between Washington and Moscow. The negative features of Karimov’s reign, according to Izvestia, include the “crackdown against the opposition,” removal of the Russian language, and leaving without appointing a successor.
Quoting experts, Izvestia explains that none of the daughters of Karimov is likely to become the head of state, and he has no sons. Due to the lack of an heir, the country could be plunged into a clan war, which would threaten instability not only for Uzbekistan, but also in neighboring countries, including Russia.
Moskovsky Komsomolets calls Karimov’s death a “truly important event.” That’s because the figure of Karimov in the post-Soviet space is unmatched, in terms of the level of influence within his own country or in the scale of independence in foreign policy. Karimov was a tough ruler, but a good manager and a strong leader.
However, unlike other media outlets, Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that the death of the president would not lead to the destruction of the political system that he built. The late leader’s strong and experienced team can easily take control of the situation, as all the institutions themselves are capable of functioning without Karimov.
The electoral campaign for the State Duma
The second week of the official campaigning for the parliamentary elections, which will be held on Sept. 18, received full attention of the Russian media.
The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta printed an article by Kirill Martynov, who stresses that the current campaign has an unusual character. The faceless and gray campaign of 2016 conceals the main problem – a huge crisis, not only economic, but also ideological and political. The parties, including the ruling United Russia party, have absolutely nothing to offer the voters, at a time of budget cuts and widespread economizing.
The government, he says, did not even stoop to the traditional “pre-election handouts of gifts” such as pension increases or extensions of benefits. “Worst of all is that in the current campaign, there was no place for even the traditional promises of prosperity in the future,” sums up Martynov.
The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii partly agrees with Martynov’s statement - the Duma election campaign lacks any substance, and looks more like a simulation of activities, than a real political process. This is reflected in the economizing measures being undertaken by the parties themselves, which are planning to spend their main campaign funds during the last two weeks before the elections.
Such an uninspiring campaign is already having an impact on voter turnout. In addition to the universal indifference to these elections, in which only about 40 percent of the population plans to participate, the faceless nature of the event is giving the limelight to the extraordinary candidates, and these are found only in the ranks of the opposition.
The business newspaper Vedomosti writes about the falling ratings of the ruling United Russia party and its leader, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Quoting Russian political scientists, the publication predicts record low results for the ruling party in the upcoming elections, which in itself is already making the current campaign stand out, compared to previous ones.
Moreover, when it comes to ratings, United Russia has always successfully relied on its connections to the figure of the president, but this time, this effect appears to be negligible. Moreover, in the case of Prime Minister Medvedev - perhaps the most criticized politician today - it may be having exactly the opposite effect.
Sergey Veselovsky, associate professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), comments on two of the major news events of the week.
On the death of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov: “We must not forget that Uzbekistan has been, and remains, the goal of Islamist extremist groups. It is possible that the same Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in 2014, will try to use this period of political transition to destabilize the situation in the country.”
On the possible agreement between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands: “Every politician in Japan knows that, by default, it would be great to resolve the dispute over the Kuril Islands. Of course, I understand that Shinzo Abe, who, judging by the attention paid to this issue, is determined to achieve, if not a final decision, then at least significant progress. The details of his plan are not fully known, but it is very likely that it is based on large-scale Japanese economic investments in the Far East of Russia.”