Russian media roundup: Over the past week, Russian journalists focused on news and events that could impact the upcoming parliamentary elections, including the appointment of a new Minister of Education.

Russia's Science and Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva (L) and Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the All-Russian Conference of Teachers. Photo: TASS

The Kremlin continued to make personnel changes last week. This time it was the turn of Dmitry Livanov, the Minister of Education and Science, who was removed from his post by President Vladimir Putin. He will now become the special presidential representative on Trade and Economic Relations with Ukraine, while the new Minister of Education and Science will be Olga Vasilyeva, who previously worked in the Presidential Administration.

On the 25th anniversary of the failed coup attempt of August 1991, journalists and analysts also discussed what that event meant for the eventual course of modern Russia. Over time, they say, the ideals and principles that led to the tragic events of 1991 are steadily being forgotten by the Russian people.

The new Minister of Education and Science

Vasilyeva is known for her work in the field of patriotic education, as well as her close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. She has already caused a mixed reaction in society, when she said during an interview that her appointment was a “divine blessing.” She later explained that the reporter misheard what she had said, but the phrase has become her hallmark.

Also read: "What is lacking in Russia's strategy to reform its higher education?"

In addition to evaluating the candidacy of Vasilyeva, the Russian media attempted to guess who or what is behind the firing of the unpopular minister in Medvedev’s cabinet.

The business newspaper Vedomosti connects the removal of Livanov with the upcoming September parliamentary elections. The minister with the lowest approval rating had to be sacrificed, so that the ruling party (United Russia) could win the support of broad layers of the population.  

However, experts interviewed by the publication do not believe that the removal of Livanov will add to the popularity of United Russia or personally to that of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Kirill Martynov, observer at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, looks on this new appointment without much enthusiasm or optimism. Martynov says that despite all the complaints against Livanov, which no one denies, he was a modernizing minister, focusing on the implementation of modern educational standards, including those based on foreign practices.

The same cannot be said about Vasilyeva – she is a historian and a great friend of the Russian Orthodox Church. She will obviously be an ideological minister, even a reactionary one to some extent. Education could become an area for the application and implementation of certain concepts.

The pro-government Izvestia has a positive view of the appointment of Olga Vasilyeva to the post of Minister of Education. She has experience as a teacher and of that of an administrator, enabling her to successfully establish communications within the framework of her responsibilities, something that was often lacking in the outspoken Livanov.

In addition, Vasilyeva has extensive connections in all branches of the government, which can also help improve the quality of work of the Ministry of Education. Livanov has been the object of criticism on several occasions, and has received a reprimand from the President. And, earlier this year, he was even expelled from the supreme council of the United Russia Party.               

25 years since the August 1991 coup

On Aug. 18-21, 1991 a group of high-ranking Soviet officials made ​​an unsuccessful coup attempt with the goal of taking over power from the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev. Among their declared objectives was to prevent the signing of a new alliance treaty between republics of the USSR (under this new treaty, the USSR would have become a confederation of largely autonomous parts).

Also read: "Why the 1991 Soviet coup failed"

The coup plotters also considered Gorbachev’s reformist course a grave mistake. A state of emergency was declared in the country, military equipment was sent onto the streets of Moscow, and the situation escalated into bloodshed.

However, the attempt failed, the plotters were handed over to justice, and these events in 1991 actually led to the birth of modern Russia in its present form. Back then, an active opponent of the coup, Boris Yeltsin, led the country. 

The business newspaper Kommersant, with reference to the latest public opinion polls, notes that fewer and fewer people have sympathetic views of the plotters. The Communist legacy is gradually receding into the past, and the new generation of Russian citizens can no longer imagine a different form of life than exists in Russia today.

There are also fewer people within the population who remember the events of August 1991 and the role that they played in Russian history. The coup plotters, together with their ideas and dreams of restoring the leading role of the Communist ideology, will soon fall into oblivion.

The independent media outlet Slon explains the ambiguous attitude of modern Russian leaders to what took place 25 years ago. Putin, Medvedev and many current associates of the President back then opposed the coup, defending democratic rights and freedoms, seeking to prevent a return to the Soviet totalitarian system.

Now the Russian leader has become much more conservative, and for him the events of August 1991 have become “uncomfortable” and contrary to the current position of avoiding any interference in the political system, even if it means coming to the defense of democracy. 

According to writers at Slon, the authorities are deliberately consigning to oblivion the historic events connected with the August coup, because they would spoil the image of the current government. However, Russians should never forget the State Committee on the State of Emergency or the attempted coup, because the scale of the coup’s consequences can be compared with the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution.

The business newspaper Vedomosti published an article by analyst Dmitry Travin, who believes that the events of 1991 had nothing to do with democracy. Modern democrats and liberals in Russia yearn for the 1990s, considering this to be a period of truly democratic political processes. Travin believes that in fact the whole history with the failed coup led not to the triumph of democracy, but to its imitation, to a kind of game of elections, competitiveness, rights and freedoms.

Those who defeated the State Committee on the State of Emergency did not give the country what they had promised, and now Russia is slowly but surely returning to what once the participants of the coup tried to preserve. 

Russian parliamentary campaign enters its final phase

On Aug. 20, the final phase of the election campaign started with the launch of campaign ads in the media. The registered parties already held a drawing, in which free airtime for the period of this media campaign was allocated. The elections have long been one of the main themes of Russian media, but the official start of campaigning – complete with slogans and ads - has now filled media publications with specific messages of the candidates.

The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta noted that the current campaign is the first in which the parties must participate in formal pre-election debates. The publication considers this a major step in the development of the institution of democracy as well as free and fair elections in Russia, and hopes to see real political battles between the candidates.

The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii published an article by political scientist Daniil Parenkov, who emphasizes that the current campaign features a complete lack of a real message from the ruling United Russia party. The largest party of the country is obviously experiencing problems when it comes to conducting its election campaign, which is reduced to quotations from President Putin or answers to specific regional needs in the area of proposals.

Parenkov doubts that, in the remaining time before the elections, United Russia will be able to fill its election campaign strategy with at least some concrete proposals – and this will certainly have a negative impact on the final election results of United Russia.

The independent media outlet Slon, according to an article by opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, believes that the current campaign is the most boring and faceless in recent history. This amazingly quiet campaign seems extremely alarming, a kind of calm before the storm. It is obvious that the whole campaign is being controlled by the Kremlin, he says. At its own discretion, the Kremlin will be distributing the seats in parliament.

Kashin considers that a political storm will break out sooner or later. In a worst-case scenario, the elections may be disrupted and Russia will remain without a parliament. Possibly, the Kremlin will face public humiliation if the ruling United Russia party loses popularity, or if the government will be forced to give the opposition some ministerial appointments. One way or another, we should definitely wait for something radically new to occur after the elections.

Quotes of the week:

Olga Vasilyeva, the new Minister of Education, in response to a question about her feelings about being appointed to the new post: “As to my feelings – it is a divine blessing, if you understand. A divine blessing of what you are doing.”

Alexey Venediktov, chief editor of Echo of Moscow, on the appointment of Vasilyeva: “Because this is an ideological appointment, not having anything to do with management, it is a form of preaching. I think this is an absolutely obscurantist trend, and the continuation of this trend. It did not begin with her, but it is being continued, strengthened.”