Russian media roundup: The Open Russia opposition forum in Vilnius and the court case of Nadezhda Savchenko were two of the most important events of the week for Russian media.

A rally demanding freedom for Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko outside the Russian Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, March 9, 2016. Photo: AP 

One of the most important events of the past week was the Open Russia opposition meeting held in Vilnius, Lithuania. The event was attended by prominent members of the liberal opposition, most of them immigrants, who have long lived outside of Russia. In addition, the Russian media focused on the trial of Nadezhda Savchenko and new reports of lawlessness in Chechnya.

Opposition forum Open Russia held in Vilnius 

Among the forum’s participants were politicians, experts, journalists and businessmen. The main objective of this forum was to discuss the future of Russia on the eve of parliamentary elections in 2016. A secondary goal was to discuss the prospects of uniting the scattered opposition forces into a united front against the current government in Moscow. However, the representatives failed to agree on a unifying platform, while many loud statements and appeals were voiced.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia published an article by journalist Maxim Sokolov, who believes that this forum was ineffective and useless. Attending it were only speakers wishing to gratify their own egos – political figures who are deeply despised by Russian society and have no chances of winning in the upcoming elections. The opposition members deeply dislike contemporary Russia, considering other Russians to be “rag-tag nationalists” unable to mount any serious resistance to Vladimir Putin’s government.

Maxim Artemev, columnist for the analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii, believes that the Vilnius forum of the “opposition in exile” casts a shadow over the legal and registered opposition within Russia, which is faced with a dilemma: Should it support or reject the main theses voiced at this forum? 

“Supporting the ideas of the Open Russia forum means the de facto collapse of any political prospects in the elections to the Duma,” believes Artemev. “Because the Russian electorate is deeply conservative and fears any possible foreign interference in the national electoral process like the plague. This makes people hostile to any suggestions and ideas coming from outside the country.”

The Website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an article by Kristina Poputchik, member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, criticizing this opposition congress for its attacks on Russian journalists, as well as its behavior toward Russians in general. The opposition in exile called for the introduction of property and educational qualifications for people running in the elections, the blocking of Russian media broadcasts abroad, as well as the abduction of Russians who live or work in Ukraine, so that later they can be exchanged for Nadezhda Savchenko.

The Nadezhda Savchenko case

The case of the Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who is accused of killing two Russian citizens, both journalists of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) who worked on the territory of the self-proclaimed republics of Ukraine, last week entered the final review stage. 

On Mar. 9, Savchenko made her final statement, and on Mar. 21, the defendant will hear the court’s verdict. She faces 23 years of prison. The already tense situation is exacerbated by Savchenko’s declaration of a hunger strike and criticism of Russia coming from European countries and the U.S.

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta focused on the defiant behavior of the pilot throughout the court process, as well as during her final statement to the court. Savchenko jumped up on a bench, made obscene gestures, used foul language, while her entire speech was devoted to the fact that she was not guilty, and she did not recognize the jurisdiction of the Russian court. 

The newspaper reminds its readers that this Savchenko case has complicated already tense Russian-Ukrainian relations, and it also became the reason behind an attack on the Russian Embassy in Kiev, an attack that has evoked anger from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

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Yulia Latynina, a columnist at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, wrote that Savchenko’s case was completely fabricated and inhuman. She believes that Savchenko is being used as one of many “trump cards” by the Kremlin in its endless bargaining with the West for the lifting of sanctions against Moscow. Russian authorities intend to use the release of Savchenko in exchange for the full lifting of sanctions, because using such a major trump card for smaller tactical tasks, such as the release of Russian military personnel, would be foolish.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that the Savchenko case is largely a stalemate. Moscow cannot drop this case for fear of losing face, but then again, the pilot’s eventual death in prison from a hunger strike is also an extremely unpleasant prospect for the Kremlin, being fraught with the possibility of a new round of sanctions and criticism coming from the West.

Probably, they note at the newspaper, the Kremlin will have to implement a compromise scheme – for example, condemn Savchenko, but then pardon her in exchange for a partial or full removal of sanctions or the performance by Kiev of a number of Minsk Agreement conditions.

Russian sports star Maria Sharapova fails a drug test 

A new doping scandal rocked Russia last week. Perhaps this news would not have made it to the front pages of major media if the case did not involve a major Russian sports star, beloved by millions of fans around the world – Maria Sharapova.

On Mar. 7 during a press conference, the Russian athlete admitted that she used meldonium, not knowing that it had been placed on the list of banned products as of Jan. 1, 2016. This meldonium doping scandal also involved other top athletes, once again raising the possibility of systemic use of doping drugs by Russian athletes.

The business newspaper Kommersant, quoting Russian officials, speculated about a possible meldonium conspiracy being launched against Russian athletes. The newspaper reminds its readers that when it comes to meldonium, there is disagreement among medical practitioners as to its actual effects as a doping drug (this being denied also by the creators and producers of the medication), and even the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) did not provide well-founded evidence when deciding to ban the use of meldonium. 

Whether this is true or not is still unknown, however, we can say for sure that many Russian athletes have already paid for using it, not only with their sports careers, but also with commercial endorsement prospects as this scandal gains momentum, notes Kommersant. 

Yulia Latynina, at the opposition Novaya Gazeta, spoke up in defense of the athletes, noting that a long time ago, WADA had turned itself into an organization existing for the sake of being an organization. In addition, the point of view of WADA is the following: “If an athlete is still a champion – this is not due to his or her own merits, but to a deficiency in WADA.”

Latynina writes that this is not a campaign against Russian athletes, but rather, yet one more example of successful lobbying on the part of individual pharmaceutical companies or interested national federations (in particular, in the process of banning meldonium, an active part was played by the Anti-Doping Agency of the U.S., where meldonium is banned). As a result, the main beneficiary of this story is WADA itself, once again stressing its own importance in sports.

The online publication said that this scandal is the result of corruption in Russian sports, and this is not the first time that it has been the center of doping scandals. Of course, emphasizes, it is easier to see in this situation “political motivations” and a “war against Russian athletes,” but in reality, we are talking about the punishment of dishonest athletes, those caught using illicit drugs. In this sense, Sharapova serves as an example of personal responsibility in sports, they concluded at

Attack on journalists and human rights activists on the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya 

On the evening of Mar. 9, on the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya, masked men attacked a bus travelling to Grozny and carrying Russian and foreign journalists and human rights activists working on the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The attackers called the passengers “traitors,” beat them up, and burned the bus. 

This incident caused a great public outcry, and Kremlin officials were quick to condemn the attack and call for a speedy investigation.

The independent media outlet Slon printed an article by opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, who believes that this crime will go unpunished. Kashin, himself a victim of a beating by unknown assailants in 2010, reminds readers that this is not the first attack on journalists and human rights defenders in contemporary Russia, with most of these remaining unsolved or “officially open.”

Of course, Kashin admits, Chechnya and Ingushetia are traditionally considered the most dangerous regions when it comes to human rights. However, the situation today is that such attacks are carried out with the federal government turning a blind eye. The government, says Kashin, prefers to pretend that no such problem exists. 

The business newspaper Vedomosti, in its op-ed section, also noted the inaction of the state apparatus in the face of flagrant violations of human rights and freedoms. One cannot simply place the blame on regional elites, emphasizes the newspaper. In this case, we are talking about a full-fledged campaign of the Kremlin, separating citizens into loyal and disloyal, which in some areas could be interpreted as a direct call to action. In such conditions, it becomes very difficult for the government to regain control over the situation and keep its monopoly on violence, according to Vedomosti.

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Moskovsky Komsomolets noted that it is almost impossible not to connect this event with the current leadership of the Chechen Republic, already well known for its tough negative attitude towards human rights organizations and independent journalists. Previously, the publication reminds its readers, the head of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov and his team, voiced aggressive verbal attacks against human rights defenders. Moreover, just recently, Kadyrov has become hard to predict because of his possible removal, which has led to a shift from words to deeds. The Kremlin must undertake urgent measures to curb this regional leader, they advise at Moskovsky Komsomolets.

New details on the death of former presidential aide Mikhail Lesin

This past November in a Washington, D.C. hotel, they found the body of Mikhail Lesin – former senior Russian government official and politician, former Press Minister of the Russian Federation and creator of one of the country’s largest media holdings. It was then officially announced that Lesin had died of a heart attack; however, new facts appeared last week about the death of this Russian citizen. 

On Mar. 10, American police released new information, according to which the cause of Lesin’s death was listed as injuries to the head, neck, torso, arms and legs. The presidential press secretary and the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded detailed information from the American side, while Russian media are constructing various possible versions of events. 

The liberal newspaper Meduza has collected all the facts and assumptions about the death of the politician. Among the conspiracy theories, the publication mentions that Lesin could have been killed on orders of the Kremlin (given that he was not planning to return to Russia, and was intending to cooperate with the F.B.I. and provide information about Russia’s elites). Then there is the version that Lesin is still alive and has been placed onto the U.S. federal witness protection program, and this is why there are so many inconsistencies surrounding the cause of his death. 

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However, at Meduza they did note that there exists no real evidence or facts to prove either of these scenarios. Therefore, we must wait for further news from investigators, who thus far are not considering this case as a possible murder.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, quoting close friends of Lesin, believe that his death was related to alcohol abuse, and there is no reason to talk about conspiracy theories or murder. The newspaper considers this death as the result of a domestic accident, and reminds its readers that the mere presence of injuries does not automatically mean murder – Lesin could have been drunk and disoriented, could have fallen or become involved in a brawl, could have been hit by a car, etc.

Alexander Panov, at the opposition Novaya Gazeta, although not denying that some versions of Lesin’s death seem to smack of mere conspiracy theories, still does not believe that they should be immediately rejected. In particular, it is known that a large conflict was brewing between Lesin and businessman Yuri Kovalchuk, a close associate of Vladimir Putin, and this could have, theoretically, pushed Lesin to cooperate with U.S. authorities to ensure his own safety. 

However, one should not entertain conspiracy theories without beforehand obtaining sufficient official information. “This is a case, that, in the absence of facts, can lead to reputational and image damage,” Panov points out.

Quotes of the week: 

Opposition leader and businessman Artemy Troitsky at the Open Forum in Vilnius: “They should be treated according to their own maxims. Thus, they believe that to be feared means to be respected. They should be beaten up, and then they will be afraid. But this is not the way the politically correct West is treating them.”

Opposition politician Alfred Koch at the Open Forum in Vilnius: “In general, everything was cheerful and fun. As always, the most interesting things occurred on the sidelines – acquaintances, contacts, conversations, debates... Among the constructive proposals were providing portable missile systems to the Syrian opposition, so that they could shoot down Putin’s aces.”

Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko in her final statement to the court: “I want the entire democratic civilized world to understand that Russia is a Third World country with a totalitarian regime.”

Maria Sharapova at her press conference: “But on January 1, the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance, which I had not known. I failed the test and I take full responsibility for it. I made a huge mistake… I let my fans down, I let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four and I love so deeply. I know with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”