Russian media roundup: Republican Donald Trump becomes the 45th  U.S. president, the Russian Federal Security Service prevents terror attacks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Mikheil Saakashvili leaves his post as Odessa region governor.

A poster during a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo: AP

Republican candidate Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8 was unexpected for many and it galvanized the attention of the Russian press. This was the most covered event in the Russian media over the last few months.

The public in Russia has many expectations from Trump, but the most significant of them is a potential improvement of bilateral relations with Moscow. This would not have been possible if Democrat Hillary Clinton had won the post. At the same time, the media assessed what factors helped to bring about Trump’s victory and prevented Clinton from winning the presidency, despite her relatively effective campaign.  

On the domestic policy front, on Nov. 12 the Russian Federal Security Service announced it had prevented a series of terror acts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Ten terrorists, mainly of Central Asian origin, were detained. Russian media discussed the implications of the event.

The scandal over the detained opposition activist Ildar Dadin’s case remains in the focus of the Russian media. Sentenced to two and a half years in prison for illegal street protests, Dadin claimed he was being tortured and threatened with murder. This is the first time in recent memory when the discussion of the cruel treatment of prisoners received wide attention in the Russian media.

Mikheil Saakashvili, a Ukrainian and former Georgian politician, resigned from his post of Odessa region governor on Nov. 7. This news quickly received wide coverage in Russian press, which has been closely following his activities ever since he was president of Georgia. Officially, Saakashvili stated that he left his post after being unable to fulfill his pledges to fight corruption in Ukraine.

Also read: "Why Russia has no reason to celebrate a Trump presidency yet"

Trump’s victory

Yulia Latynina from the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta explained that Trump’s victory partly represents a victory of rationality over political correctness. Those people that told pollsters that they would vote for Clinton in reality supported the billionaire, who offered an opportunity to change the system.

The establishment, of course, will influence Trump and his initiatives, but the businessman has already pushed the American political system towards radical change. As a result, serious shifts in the country’s ideology and decision-making can be expected over the short term. However, the newspaper warned against being too enthusiastic about the potential revival of Russia-U.S. dialogue: Trump’s statements about Russia were only a small part of his overall election campaign.

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets called Trump a “100 percent challenge to the system,” quoting Russian experts on the U.S. His victory is a result of the establishment’s unwillingness to answer the interests of the average American citizens whose problems differ significantly from those of the ruling elite. The people want changes. They want to start believing in the “American dream” once again and here Trump’s image of a successful businessman fits quite well. Yet, the experts are confident that the Republican will face challenges in the new position given that the system itself puts serious limitations on the activity of the head of state.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia gave voice to Rostislav Ishenko, who believes that even though there is a chance for an improvement in Russia-U.S. relations, one should not overestimate it. The pragmatism of a new leader and his aspiration to rid foreign policy of ideological aspects significantly decreases the level of confrontation, but does not eradicate it completely. No president of the U.S. ever was an easy partner for Russia and Trump will not be any different, Ishenko concludes.

Terror acts prevented in Moscow and St. Petersburg

The business newspaper Vedomosti reported that terror acts were planned to take place according to the “Paris scenario,”  in which a number of explosions would have occurred simultaneously in different parts of the city. The terrorists also planned to carry out mass shootings in public places. The newspaper noted the high effectiveness of Russian law enforcement and warned of new attempts by the terrorists to carry out attacks on the public provoked by the Russian operation in Syria.

According to the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian law enforcement found connections between the detained and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). The special operation to arrest the terrorist had a large-scale character and required participation of Central Asian countries as many of the arrested individuals were citizens of states such as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. The development showed that the ISIS terrorist network does not only work in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region, but on a wider scale around Russia’s Southern borders.

Ildar Dadin case

The business newspaper Vedomosti analyzed the reasons why the case of a largely unknown opposition activist received so much attention, including that of the Kremlin. Even the presidential spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, who usually avoids commenting on such topics, called the situation unacceptable. This, on the one hand, might mean that the state propaganda machine seeks to use its full  capacity to cover this issue. On the other hand, there might be a darker motive: Dadin’s case could be used as a reminder for the population of what discontent and opposition activity might lead to.

The online publication believes that it might take a while before the situation with Dadin is resolved. There are different assessments of the developments, with some arguing that Dadin might have deliberately exaggerated the situation, lying about the torture and humiliations. The situation gets even more complex, since doctors have avoided giving their accounts on Dadin’s health examination.

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Saakashvili resigns from his post as the governor of Odessa region

The business publication RBC examined the potential factors behind Saakashvili’s resignation. On the one hand, the governor clashed with many key actors in Odessa, which significantly hampered his attempts to fulfill the promises to introduce reforms and fight corruption that he made during the election campaign. It is possible that Saakashvili preferred to leave “with a bang” rather than account for his failure to achieve results.

On the other hand, experts quoted by the media outlet argued that the former Georgian president had always seen the post of the Odessa governor as a way to enter the scene of Ukrainian politics. So, the further growth of his political ambition  is quite likely: He might attempt to create his own party and seek to participate in national elections to become prime minister of Ukraine.

The opposition Novaya Gazeta thinks that Ukrainian establishment played a key role in Saakashvili’s resignation. He openly spoke against the president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and his corrupt ties with criminal clans around the country. In the short term his resignation will benefit Poroshenko, but in the future, the former governor of Odessa region might create serious problems for the president.

If he joins the ranks of the opposition groups and creates his own political party, the opposition movement will become significantly stronger. As a result, Poroshenko might be trapped, said the paper.

The pro-government Aktualniye Kommentarii website published an opinion by Elena Bondarenko, who is confident that  Saakashvili’s decision to resign is not connected with his plans to expand his political activity in Ukraine. He rather plans to run away from responsibility given that the time of foreigners in Ukraine is reaching its close. Neither Saakashvili nor his close allies have anything to offer to prove their effectiveness so they naturally expect to be criticized. In this situation, early departure makes it possible to save oneself from a “sinking ship.”

Expert commentary

Sergey Veselovsky, Associate Professor at MGIMO University, on the future  of Russia-U.S. relations with Trump as U.S. president:

Trump’s victory in the U.S. election provoked a wave of positive reaction in Russian political circles. The Kremlin’s spokesperson even called his political views “phenomenally close” to those of Putin. These prompts one to examine whether such attitude is rational given that Trump is not a politician and lacks experience in this field. It is one thing to make pre-election promises and another to carry out everyday duties [of the presidency].

Trump’s term does not open a “window of opportunities,” but only provides a slight possibility to open the window a bit. It is good that there is no new escalation in Syria and Ukraine, but the key problem is Russia’s unwillingness to join Western society and this question is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. This is an existential long-term question. Russia will have to earn the right for its own view. No one will make concessions to Russia because in the current situation there are no preconditions for that.

Trump’s presidency offers only a glimmer of hope to improve bilateral relations but there are no steps yet made in this direction. The sooner we stop expressing our enthusiasm about his victory, the less disappointment we’ll experience in the future.

Evgeny “Sandro” Primakov, Russian journalist, TV presenter and Middle East expert, on how the Russian media covered the U.S. elections:

The Russian media covered the U.S. election campaign too emotionally. These emotions are the main characteristic of the media with regard to Russian foreign policy. For instance, last year in November when relations between Russia and Turkey hit their lowest point, the majority of Russian journalists were quick to give their own unbalanced accounts.

Today, when the state of relations between Moscow and Ankara returned back to normal, the media find it difficult to get back to explaining why Turkey is Russia's closest friend. Maybe the Russian media thinks that emotional coverage is the best and easiest way to prove their point in the eyes of the public, but this not always professional.

Covering the U.S. election campaign, the Russian media preferred to work with convenient sources whose opinions fit well with the Kremlin's emotional and political positions. However, it is also important to understand that there is an alternative point of view that needs to be explained to the public. It is not necessary to support it, but it is important to let it be heard and debated. This is the key objective of political observers and journalists. The main conclusion that Russian media needs to make is that it is necessary to work more with knowledgeable sources, rather than listening to what soothes one's ears.

Nevertheless, the state TV channels gave voice to State Duma members, as well as controversial writers and politicians who were not experts in a given field, but who could shout and quarrel on real-time TV. Such an approach could work well with the public, but it has some risks. When such unbalanced views and accusations influence expert assessments, a dangerous situation occurs. Experts start making their forecasts based on the populist statements of these showmen.

Hence, separating the professional expert community from media influence and allowing them to make objective assessments becomes problematic. Experts should not cross past a certain point of disagreement in their discussions, especially when talking about Russian-American relations. It is good that the Kremlin understands where this deadlock point lies and does not pay attention to the media's emotions. I think that with Trump's victory, the Russian leadership will get a chance to discuss all the bilateral problems in a calm, balanced and meaningful way.