Russian media roundup: The Geneva talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition and new U.S. accusations of large-scale corruption against Putin made headlines this week in the Russian media.

Syrian government troops walk inside the Kweiras air base, east of Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 11, 2015. Photo: SANA via AP

The Syrian conflict continues to dominate the attention of the Russian media. In addition, a new BBC documentary film purporting to show corruption within the highest levels of the Russian government also made headlines, as Russian bloggers and journalists attempted to make sense of new corruption accusations made by top U.S. officials.

Talks on the settlement of the Syrian civil war in Geneva

On Jan. 30 in Geneva, talks started between representatives of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian opposition groups, leading to more speculation about future next steps in the Syrian crisis. 

Business newspaper Vedomosti reported that negotiations have begun with ultimatums and tough requirements being issued on the part of the Syrian opposition, which can hardly be considered a successful start of this process. The opposition demands the lifting of the blockade of rebel-controlled areas, the stopping of their bombardment, and the release of prisoners. Only after these conditions re fulfilled, will the opposition be ready to begin talks with Assad.

The newspaper also highlights that the process is being negatively impacted by the absence of a significant number of parties involved in this conflict, including representatives of the Kurds, whose participation Moscow was not able to secure. 

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The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets also questioned the success of these negotiations in light of their bad start, as well as the absence in Geneva of many key players. The publication says that Saudi Arabia lies behind the conflicts and mistrust within the Syrian opposition, not wishing to see the “henchmen” of Iran from other segments of the opposition participating in the negotiations. In addition, Moskovsky Komsomolets noted that squeezing the Kurds out of the Geneva format would negatively affect the final results.

The pro-government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta directly pointed out that representatives of the fragmented Syrian opposition in Geneva are mere puppets, “whose strings are being pulled by numerous sponsors from Turkey and the Gulf monarchies.” This means that their actual capabilities to negotiate are practically zero.

Moreover, being unable to resolve even their internal contradictions among themselves, the opposition will either try to create a semblance of participating in these negotiations, or derail them altogether, and then accuse Damascus of this failure, predicts the newspaper.

Russians with foreign currency mortgages pose a new challenge for the Russian authorities 

Last week, the situation worsened for so-called foreign currency borrowers – people who took out loans, particularly mortgages, not in Russian rubles, but in foreign currencies.

The sharp rise in the U.S. dollar and Euro exchange rates, has made monthly payments on loans multiply by more than 2-2.5 times, and the amount of total payments on loans have significantly increased, which led to the staging of protests by mortgage holders across Russia.

Russian society is divided – some believe that this is only a problem for the concerned individuals themselves, who in the conditions of an unstable economy were unwise, and took risks when taking out loans in foreign currencies, while others believes that the state must intervene and act to help those suffering from a declining ruble.

Opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, on the pages of the independent publication Slon, argued in favor of providing support to borrowers. Mr. Kashin believes that the authorities are fully responsible for the plight of foreign currency borrowers, who now find themselves in a difficult situation, including through the fault of the current government.

Ridiculing and gloating over people in distress, he suggests, is a signal that we have serious social problems in Russian society today, which are inevitably being exacerbated during this crises, and this cannot be allowed. After all, some other social group may, sooner or later, become subject to public indifference, whether these be pensioners or residents affected by natural disasters in the regions. 

Blogger Ilya Varlamov, writing on the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station, insists that foreign currency mortgages are merely a question of personal and business financial literacy and responsibility. Those taking out foreign currency loans in the mid-2000s should have made their calculations and considered all possible options, especially in a country like Russia, suggests Varlamov.

Moreover, mortgage holders, by demanding government assistance, will lead to fair indignation on the part of others, who are no less negatively affected by the current crisis – having lost their jobs or accumulated savings, and now find themselves on the brink of ruin.

It is unclear, says the blogger, why these citizens should be considered as being any less worthy of receiving assistance than foreign currency borrowers, and why is it necessary to compensate with tax monies the losses that have resulted from someone’s questionable financial decisions.  

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The business newspaper RBC examined the history of this conflict, and quoted the opinions of experts – lawyers and financiers – on the prospects of borrowers for achieving their goals. The analysts agree: the situation is not favorable for mortgage borrowers, who in 2014 were offered various refinancing schemes. However, most mortgage holders ignored such proposed programs, considering them unfavorable. In addition, the Central Bank has been carefully avoiding this problem, which indicates the “reluctance of authorities to interfere in relations between individuals and the commercial banks.” 

The U.S. accuses Vladimir Putin of corruption

On Jan. 25, in an interview with the BBC, U.S. Treasury official Adam Szubin accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of corruption. This accusation was then included in a film broadcast by the BBC about corruption in the Russian government (“Putin’s Secret Riches”).

The half-hour film, and the participation in it of a high-ranking U.S. official, received very negative assessments from Russian authorities. Josh Ernest, an Obama Administration official, poured fuel onto the fire when he confirmed that Mr. Szubin’s statements corresponded to the position of the White House. 

The independent Slon underlined the fact that, for Russian and foreign audiences, this BBC film showed almost nothing new, as it largely repeated already published reports and investigations into Putin’s personal wealth, which is estimated at $40 billion.

The publication, moreover, questioned the reliability and impartiality of the sources that the filmmakers referenced, because often they were merely talking about some “unnamed, but reliable” sources.

The online newspaper tended to see behind this attack on Putin the intrigues being played out in the upcoming US presidential elections. Although Putin has long played the role of “favorite villain” for the American establishment, nevertheless, it has been a while since high-profile dignitaries have made direct accusations against him.

Quoting Russian and U.S. experts, predicts that there will not be any further accusations voiced, and says that this whole slander campaign was started by the ruling Democrats just to achieve internal political goals ahead of the upcoming elections. 

In this connection, we can expect new smear campaigns directed against Russia and Putin; however, these are unlikely to seriously affect U.S.-Russian cooperation, which is now focused on finding a settlement to the Syrian crisis.

Blogger Sergey Zhuravlev, writing for the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station, said that, in this case, the U.S. Administration might be the pot calling the kettle black. Zhuravlev explains that capitalist values ​​in the United States have long ceased to exist, having now been converted into a foundation for state corruption, thoroughly permeated by the activities of various interest and pressure groups. The U.S. is trying to spread this model also to other countries around the world, the blogger noted. 

Quotes of the week:

Salim Muslet, a Syrian opposition leader and spokesperson for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC): “We’re always optimistic, but the problem is, we’re facing a dictatorship there in Syria. Really, if he’s willing to solve these problems, we wouldn’t have seen these crimes in Syria, these massacres.”

Elvira Nabiullina, head of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, on foreign currency borrowers: “We must not forget that people are responsible for the decisions they make, and for what risks they assume.”

Opposition leader Alexey Navalny in support of foreign currency mortgage holders: “Against the background of the state pumping money into VTB Bank, the problem of foreign currency mortgage holders is a mere pittance.”

U.S. Treasury official Adam Szubin about Russian President Vladimir Putin: “We’ve seen him enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalizing those who he doesn’t view as friends using state assets. Whether that’s Russia’s energy wealth, whether it’s other state contracts, he directs those to whom he believes will serve him and excludes those who don’t. To me, that is a picture of corruption.” 

Presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov on allegations made by the U.S. Treasury: “Honestly, if I, for example, would allow myself to insult the President of the United States in the same manner, I would get fired.”