Russian media roundup: The parliamentary election campaign in Russia and the rapidly changing situation in Syria made headlines last week.

The parliamentary political campaign in Russia is in full swing. Photo: RIA Novosti

The first week of campaigning for Russia’s parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to take place on Sept. 18, started with televised debates among the candidates, including representatives of the opposition. In contrast to already well-known political heavyweights like Vladimir Zhirinovsky from the Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and Gennady Zyuganov  from the Communist Party, lesser-known opposition candidates taking part in the debates were able to attract the interest of the audience.

The other newsworthy event of the past week was the new Turkish military operation in Syria. On Aug. 24, supported by aviation of the coalition led by the United States, Turkish tanks and armored vehicles entered Syria to free the border town of Jarablus from the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). While Damascus sees this operation an “invasion” and a “violation of sovereignty,” Moscow expresses concern, and Washington approved it.

Start of pre-election debates and the first week of campaigning

Dmitry Drize, deputy chief editor of the business newspaper Kommersant, argues that the Russian parliamentary election campaign had a very interesting start. The credit for this belongs to the opposition, in particular, to a rising star from People's Freedom Party (PARNAS), Vyacheslav Maltsev. On live TV, he called for the impeachment of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Also read: "The most important facts about Russian parliamentary elections"

Drize believes that the current campaign is designed, in part, to satisfy the thirst for change in Russian society and bring the bright new faces in politics. However, even the appeal of individual candidates is not making the 2016 elections a large media event there is very low interest in the debates because society is resigned to the victory of the ruling United Russia Party, and does not see the point of becoming politically active.

The online publication argues that Maltsev’s hard punch delivered during the debate obviously shocked not only his opponents, but also allies in his own party. Experts interviewed by the publication believe that the opposition, through Maltsev, is seeking to inject life into the debates and to attract attention.

At the same time, analysts say that the involvement of this radical politician is also profitable for the Kremlin it not only scares off a large number of voters from supporting anti-Kremlin forces, but also creates the appearance of having competitive elections, which the opposition has virtually zero chances of winning.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta emphasizes that these debates in Russia cannot be called real debates. It sees the performances of the speakers as “dull, formal and illiterate.” Moreover, the debates lacked any real discussions on substantive policy issues and look like a farce.  

Turkish operation in Syria

Russian media attempted to analyze the causes and consequences of the new Turkish military operation in Syria. Hence, the business newspaper Kommersant, quoting Russian Middle East experts, emphasized that the operation is only being disguised as the fight against terrorism. In reality, the operation is directed against the Kurds, who have become too powerful as a result of the Syrian conflict.

Recommended: "What the Turkish offensive in Syria means for Russia"

Operation “Euphrates Shield” became an unpleasant surprise for Moscow, which just last week was ready to believe in Ankara’s intention to establish bilateral relations. This current “diversion” on the part of Turkey puts the normalization of relations in jeopardy, especially in light of the emerging thaw in relations between Turkey and the U.S.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia, on the contrary, believes that in Moscow, as well as in Damascus, they knew about the forthcoming operation by the Turkish armed forces. Otherwise, the reaction would have been much sharper, not to mention the fact that, overall, the fight against terrorism in Syria requires considerable coordination of various coalitions. The consensus appears to be that the operation is being carried out to undermine the growing power of the Kurds near the Syrian-Turkish border, which has already been established as a “Kurdish zone.”

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets argues that the operation is a blow to U.S. relations with some of the Syrian Kurds, who until recently, have been considered to be allies of the Americans in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The “Euphrates Shield” operation is clearly directed against them, and with the direct support and approval of Washington. The main question is, however, how far the Turkish army will penetrate into Syria. There are fears that it may move towards Aleppo, which would mean a direct confrontation with government troops of Assad, and a worsening of the conflict. 

Talks between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva

On Aug. 26, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva. The topic of discussions was the Syrian conflict, and in particular, the possibility of coordination between the two powers in Syria. There was no breakthrough achieved in the negotiations, although the parties noted some progress in certain areas.

The Internet website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an opinion piece by Alexander Shumilin, who feels confident that Lavrov and Kerry are just going through the motions of the negotiation process. Overall, he says, the two have not been able to achieve anything. Disagreements between the parties as to the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and who is to be considered a terrorist and who an opposition member, can hardly be reduced to a common denominator.

Also read: "Have Moscow and Washington managed to agree on Syria?"

The “successes” and “achievements” of the last few meetings, which Kerry and Lavrov voiced, are in fact just generalities and broad statements. The bloodshed in Syria is growing, while Moscow and the Washington still cannot agree on joint actions.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia, to the contrary, positively assess the results of the talks, referring to the official statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry. According to the publication, the parties managed to reach an understanding on a number of issues, with the majority of them being of a technical nature, for which there needed to be prior agreements reached in Moscow. The only obstacle to a full-fledged agreement is a disagreement as to who should be considered the opposition, and who the terrorists, according to the newspaper.

The information portal also interviewed a number of experts who believe that Washington is purposely delaying the process of delimitation, hoping to use separate groups, which Moscow considers as terrorists, for their own purposes. In particular, this is the Al-Nusra Front, which the U.S. Administration considers a serious lever of pressure on the Assad regime. In addition, is confident that Kerry and Lavrov discussed the Turkish operation in Syria, although no significant statements on this subject were made.

Quotes of the week:

Co-leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, Saleh Muslim, on Turkey’s operation in Syria: “Turkey is in a Syrian quagmire. It will be defeated as Daesh (was).” [Daesh is an alternative name for ISIS – Editor’s note]

Russian opposition leader Vyacheslav Maltsev about Vladimir Putin during a televised debate: “The situation is, as it always has been, blame the boyars, and not the tsar. If the tsar does not know what is happening in the country, then such a tsar should be put in the loony bin.”