The Russian press this week focused mostly on domestic issues, including “Black Tuesday” and Vladimir Putins annual press conference. But the media also picked up on the detente in relations between Havana and Washington.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the tenth annual press conference at the World Trade Centre in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

“Black Tuesday”

On “Black Tuesday,” as December 16, 2014 has become known, the ruble dropped by a dramatic 20 percent amid a general market rout. By Wednesday the situation had calmed, and the ruble reclaimed some lost ground over the rest of the week.

The pro-government press largely downplayed the currency’s decline (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Izvestia), referring to the “undervaluation of the ruble,” a term civil servants are fond of employing. The opposition press (Snob, Slon) castigated the government and especially the Central Bank for failing to control the situation.

Snob polled a number of experts who almost unanimously declared the governments actions to have failed. In particular, the portal quoted former Chairman of the Central Bank Viktor Gerashchenko who argues that "the government has failed to deal with its economic tasks, and the situation will change only if the government resigns."

"The measures have to be not just economic, but disciplinary. Currency restrictions need to be imposed instead of trying to use the interest rate to ward off speculators,” he told.

Economist Alexey Mikhailov from the Slon media outlet analyzed in detail the Central Banks decision to increase the interest rate to 17 percent, concluding that the Bank’s actions were inappropriate.

“Raising the rate cannot stop the ruble from falling, as the previous five attempts this year have shown,” he wrote. “There was no need to step on this rake a sixth time…. It is high time to realize that the fall of the ruble is neither a game being played by speculators nor a conspiracy on the part of Western investment funds. It is an objective process caused by the drop in global oil prices, Western sanctions hampering Russias private sector from refinancing its huge foreign currency debts, and the already stagnant economy.”

People wait to exchange their currency as signs advertise the exchange rates at a currency exchange office in Moscow, Russia. Source: AP

Roman Markelov of Rossiyskaya Gazeta stressed that the decision of the Central Bank to increase its key interest rate to 17 percent was correct. RG experts agree that the move will help calm the foreign exchange market: “Raising the key rate a few days ago by one percentage point did not yield the expected results. Therefore, the regulator was forced to hike the interest rate sharply. However, it should have been done earlier,” believes Alexey Mamontov, president of the Moscow International Currency Association.

Izvestia largely passed over the drop in the currency, citing only the widely publicized comment by Central Bank governor Elvira Nabiullina on the mispricing of the ruble: “We believe that the ruble is now undervalued by all parameters — the state of the economy as well as the balance of payments. But it will take time for it to reach a valuation based on fundamentals.”

Vladimir Putins press conference

A journalist in the screen asking Russian President Vladimir Putin a question at the annual press conference. Photo: RIA Novosti

Against the backdrop of the collapsing ruble and rising anxiety about the economy, the President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference was eagerly anticipated. Some reporters expected fireworks: Perhaps the resignation of the Central Bank chief, or at least a public dressing-down? The political establishment was looking for clues about who would be in for 2015, and who would be out. Members of the public wanted to know if the crisis had peaked or if there was more to come.

After the fact, the pro-government press (Aktualniye Kommentarii) gave Putin’s performance a positive assessment, noting that even in the face of such serious problems Putin is staying calm and trying to convey this feeling to the nation at large. The opposition media (Echo of Moscow radio station, Novaya Gazeta) was less complimentary, saying the president was long on words and short on action. Business newspaper Kommersant tended toward ambivalence, but still leaned towards supporting the Russian president.

Aktualniye Kommentarii cited political analyst Alexey Mukhin, who said, “Putin tried to straighten out the distortions in peoples minds arising from the external, hard-impact informational exposure they are subjected to.”

“In setting fairly clear benchmarks for top officials with a view to the numerous political, economic, social and other challenges, Putin did not renege on any social, political or economic commitment previously made, thereby instilling, in my view, a certain amount of confidence... in the public, at least those people who followed the press conference,” Mukhin said.

Echo of Moscow blogger Konstantin Borovoy is very critical of the press conference.

“Putins press conference had all the signs of spam,” he reckoned. “Hes still peddling the same old product now long past its sell-by date, which cannot be advertised to consumers through the usual channels. His press conferences merely clog up the information space with dubious theses and arguments — its pure spam.”

The “emptiness” of Putins speech was also mentioned by Novaya Gazetas Kirill Martynov.

“The Russian economy is feverish and the situation is out of control. People and business are panicking, desperate to offload their rubles,” he said. “But the president spoke as if nothing untoward is happening. Russia is just defending its independence in spite of the wider world. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Kommersant deputy editor-in-chief Gleb Cherkasov took a different approach by focusing on Putins lack of a tough response to the Central Bank’s questionable actions.

“When Vladimir Putin says that the actions of the government and the Central Bank are correct, when he says that mistakes in personnel always happen, strongly implying that no changes will be made, it does not necessarily mean that he is happy with his subordinates,” he writes. “It is more likely that Putin simply refuses to bow to external pressure on such matters. The presidents personnel policy suggests that he alone has the right to determine who to fire and when.”

The island of freedom from Russia

It remains to be seen if the U.S. and Cuba will be able to restore diplomatic relations. Photo: AP

To the surprise of many in Russia, Cuba and the U.S. are restoring diplomatic relations. The Russian press links the shift in U.S. policy not only to Obamas attempts to score political points at home (pro-government Aktualniye Kommentarii), but to Washingtons desire to limit Russias options in Latin America (RIA Novosti news agency, also known as Rossiya Segodnya). Moreover, a handful of media (in particular opposition Slon) think that it is still far too early for Cuba to celebrate victory.

Aktualniye Kommentarii talked to politician Sergei Stankevich, who believes that “for the United States of America as a nation and for President Obama personally, the establishment of relations with Cuba is a powerful step ... He [Obama] wants to be remembered for something other than the obvious failures in Libya, Iraq and, soon most likely, Afghanistan."

News agency RIA Novosti came out with some strikingly anti-American headlines. The agency quoted international affairs expert Alexey Arbatov, who noted that “Cuba will become less dependent on Russia. I think that is one of the motives behind Washingtons diplomatic veer. If it works, Cuba will become less dependent on Russia, and Russias influence in Cuba and other Latin American countries will decline.”

Slon analyst Maxim Samorukov believes that Cubans should not rush to celebrate victory over the United States, since greater openness and involvement in the American sphere of influence are precisely what will put an end to the Cuban regime.

“After five decades of contempt and stonewalling, it [Washington] is suddenly asking: dear Cuban leaders, what would you like?” he comments. “Diplomatic ties, an easing of the embargo, more remittances from Cubans in Miami, more trips? Everything and more, cries a joyful Havana and triumphantly clutches the trophy of American concessions, not realizing that they harbor the imminent downfall of the Cuban regime.”