RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Oct 3, 2014

TODAY: Putin woos investors with optimistic address at VTB conference; evidence and opinion continue to mount against him; oil output is at a new high but prices are dropping; Gref castigates wasteful government inefficiency; Mechel will survive by selling assets; Romania goes after Lukoil; UK Tories snub ECHR.

Speaking in Washington, former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky vowed to lead a political movement against President Vladimir Putin by re-establishing his Open Russia foundation. ‘It’s not just Putin that needs to be replaced. The entire system needs to be changed.’ The President spoke at the VTB Russia Calling investment conference yesterday (click for a brief video excerpt), where he made a number of comments about the current financial situation and forecast aimed at appeasing investors.  He said that Russia would remain an open market economy in spite of stupid’ Western sanctions; that the plan to privatise the country’s key energy companies, including 20% of Rosneft, will go ahead, though he gave no time-frame for this; and generally assured investors that sanctions will not hamper economic development, despite ongoing arguments and mounting evidence to the contrary. The Economist for example paints a very bleak picture of the current situation, arguing that sanctions are ‘dramatically accelerat[ing]’ the worst-case scenario, and that, according to Alexei Kudrin, Russia will be ‘balancing on the edge of recession all the time’ over the next few years.  Putin’s claim that Russia needs to make a ‘true industrial breakthrough in the coming years reflects a real and urgent need, but this rhetoric is rather late; Putin’s failure to implement a new growth model in 2012 may have been due to the ‘troublesome political implications’ of shifting away from oil and gas revenue.  Russia’s oil output hit a new post-Soviet record last month thanks to foreign-led projects, but oil prices are at their lowest since June 2012.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Oct 2, 2014

TODAY: Putin says internet isolation plan is for information security, not censorship; Russians see Western sanctions as affront, China support grows since Ukraine crisis; Russia pulls out of FLEX after gay adoption; conscription begins this fall, Arctic military command structure planned; Kasparov warns of Putin’s long-term goals; IMF halves its 2015 Russia growth forecast; new NATO head.

President Vladimir Putin indicated that he supports a plan to isolate Russia’s internet from the rest of the world, but insisted that the Kremlin is ‘not even considering’ censorship of sites. ‘Media freedoms, the right of people to receive and disseminate information — these are basic principles of any democratic state and society. They must be strictly adhered to.’  The plan, he says, is geared towards information security and protection from foreign political and military threats; Russian media nonetheless have likened it to China’s ‘Great Firewall.  Russia is possibly responding to concerns that the West might try to shut off its global internet access, in connection with claims made recently by Edward Snowden that the NSA caused an internet outage in Syria in 2012.  71% of Russians polled by the Levada Center see Western sanctions as an attempt to weaken and humiliate their country, with 68% supporting current policy in Ukraine; Chinese popular support for Russia has risen by 19% since the Ukraine crisis began.  Russia has pulled out of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), a Russia-U.S. exchange program, after a participant was adopted by a same-sex couple in the U.S.  Ukraine has revoked its agreement to jointly construct with Russia a bridge over the Kerch Strait.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Oct 1, 2014

TODAY: E.U. decides to keep current sanctions; Sechin says sanctions won’t sway Putin; Central Bank capital controls rumour sent ruble to new lows; Finance Ministry purchases VTB shares; suppression of revolt to have lasting effects; Kremlin rights council advises against bill limiting foreign media ownership; Sechin accuses Yukos of murder; state news says Hong Kong protests are U.S.-led.

The European Union decided yesterday that it will keep in place its current package of economic sanctions against Russia’s finance, defence, and energy sectors, citing ‘encouraging developments’ on the ground in eastern Ukraine. ‘We are keeping the status quo.’  But Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin says sanctions will not influence Vladimir Putin, because the president’s decisions are never made under pressure; he added that the personal impact on his own situation (Sechin is currently banned from entering the U.S.) was mostly ‘creative’. It was rumoured that the Central Bank was considering the introduction of temporary controls to limit capital flight if net outflows intensify significantly; the barest hint of such a move sent the ruble tumbling to a new all-time low against the dollar, briefly falling below the level at which the Central Bank usually intervenes.  In response, the bank issued a statement saying that it had no plans to implement ‘any kind‘ of capital controls.  Investment banks are preparing to weather a heavily sanctions-impacted winter by ‘surviving on low volumes’.  VTB announced that the Finance Ministry has purchased $5.43 billion worth of its preferred shares.  The Economist evaluates Russia’s new budget, still in draft form – noting that $17.8 billion worth of spending plans have been cut, and discussing the likelihood of Russia getting the oil price it needs to keep things afloat.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Sept 30, 2014

TODAY: Iranian President offers support to Russia; Putin says relations with Azerbaijan are developing; Merkel says E.U. may need to rethink its energy strategy with Russia; 12 killed in eastern Ukraine; Investigative Committee and Ukraine launch criminal cases against each other; Moscow Helsinki Group ceases operations; Moscow City building and selling real estate; ruble at a new low.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says Western sanctions against Moscow are ‘the wrong tool’, and vowed to provide Russia with whatever support it might need.  President Vladimir Putin met with his Azerbaijani counterpart yesterday and spoke of ‘friendly and trusting’ relations in ‘the most sensitive spheres’.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her support for current economic sanctions, and suggested that the E.U. rethink its energy relationship with Russia in the event of the latter’s ongoing ‘violation of principles’ of national sovereignty.  Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. says Putin’s actions in Ukraine have destroyed European trust in Russia.  Despite the ongoing ceasefire, 12 people – both troops and civilians – were killed in clashes in eastern Ukraine yesterday.  The Investigative Committee says it will launch a criminal case against the Ukrainian government for its ‘genocide of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.  For its part, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has opened criminal proceedings against a number of Investigative Committee officials.  Paddy Ashdown suggests that poor relations between Russia and the West are due to a ‘personal animus’ between presidents Putin and Obama: ‘If so, get over it.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Sept 29, 2014

TODAY: Central Bank power grows with Putin’s; Yakunin says Russia should declare financial amnesty; Lavrov fights veto abuse allegations, calls for a new reset with the U.S., blames NATO for an unending Cold War; Fogh-Rasmussen says Russia a disappointment; Rosneft and ExxonMobil strike oil in Arctic; foreign media law to hit global players; Tiger Day.

Bank Rossiya, or the Central Bank, has seen its assets grow ‘in parallel with [Putin’s] career’ thanks to deals with state companies and government guidance, reports the New York Times, with a graph charting the bank’s assets, and a more detailed piece about its privileges, which describes it as ‘woven deeply into the Putin system’.  There is also a summary of Putin’s ‘inner circle, including incomes and net worth.  In an interview with ITAR-TASS, Vladimir Yakunin, whose salary in 2013 was $15 million, says Russia should declare financial amnesty and take steps to restore capital markets.  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia Today (click for the Russian language version) that accusations about Russia abusing its veto right in the UN Security Council are false; that Moscow has no desire to continue a sanctions war with the West; and called for ‘reset 2.0’ with the United States to return ties to normal, with the caveat that ‘it was not us who destroyed them’.  Talking to Bloomberg, he accused the U.S. of having a habit of ‘speaking for everyone’, and said he doesn’t think that the Cold War ever ended, citing NATO’s post-Soviet expansion as a violation of international agreements.  In an article for the Independent, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen calls Russia his ‘deepest disappointment of the past five years’, alleging that from the start of his role, the country rejected his attempts at establishing a strategic partnership.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Sept 26, 2014

Woman passes by the headquarters of Sistema JSFC in MoscowTODAY: Vladimir Yevtushenkov will stay under house arrest; state seeking to reclaim Sistema’s Bashneft shares; duma mulling bill allowing foreign asset seizure. Potanin fears Russian isolation; recent elections failed to be competitive, analysis shows; Norwegian Rights Group celebrates Agora lawyer; Lithuania’s President compares Russia to ISIS.

A Moscow court has ruled that Sistema tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov must remain under house arrest until at least November 16 in a money laundering case that has been dubbed ‘Yukos 2.0′.  Following the announcement, shares in Sistema fell by 8.8% on the Moscow stock exchange.  The news quashed hopes that he had been released, after reports last week that he had been contacted by telephone.  The Russian General Prosecutor’s office has announced it has filed suit to repatriate Sistema’s shares in oil company Bashneft to the state.  In response to sanctions, a draft law has been submitted to the state duma which would allow courts to seize foreign assets on Russian territory and would permit state compensation for an individual whose property is seized in foreign jurisdictions. ‘History has shown that the Russian government is not shy about seizing energy assets owned by companies deemed to be enemies of the state’.  Metals tycoon Vladimir Potanin explains to Reuters his concerns about the direction Russia is taking.  Read about a group of pro-Kremlin activists in Moscow defying sanctions through fashion here.
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How ‘Human Rights’ Became a Dirty Word

The topic of ‘human rights’ at one point garnered sympathy among the British public. The term would call to mind images of the courageous struggle of Burmese dissidents, apartheid in South Africa and an idealised battle for self-determination and justice. Nowadays, the concept of human rights has become a profanity in the public discourse: something dirty, cynical and exploited against national interests.

The Rubicon was crossed when David Cameron gave in to pressure and sacked Attorney General Dominic Grieve as part of his July reshuffle. What had Grieve done wrong? He had the audacity to propose, rather insistently, that the UK remain incorporated in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

With tenacity and very little consideration, Britain’s tabloid media has successfully waged a war against human rights by linking them to two deeply unpopular themes: terrorism and European integration.

It’s a sad fact, but the British public is being gradually conditioned into believing that human rights represent a shameful refuge for criminals. In covering the terrible Omagh bombing, the Daily Mail has repeatedly circulated lurid headlines such as ‘Human rights law helps murderers not victims, say Omagh families’, while the Sun has been made to correct a revolting story which argued that the European Court made it easier for paedophiles to prey upon children.

Read the rest of Robert Amsterdam’s column in Spears.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Sept 25, 2014

5463-40-Putin-REUTERS_Alexander-Zemlianichenko_PoolTODAY: Ukraine ceasefire under threat; Obama hits out at Kremlin in UN speech; Crimean Tartars under pressure. Yevtushenkov appeal subject to delay; Bashneft will not sell UPC stake to Sistema; gloomy economic forecasts; FSB surveillance methods under scrutiny in Strasbourg; another plaudit for the President.

Reports have emerged of mortar fire striking an apartment block in the rebel-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, indicating that the ceasefire may be compromised.  The Investigative Committee has pledged it will undertake an enquiry into reports of a mass grave discovered near the city.  In a speech to the UN general assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama used tough rhetoric against the Kremlin’s ‘vision of the world‘, in which ‘civilised people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed‘.  At the same assembly Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged Western countries to uphold sanctions against Russia until all Ukrainian territory has been restored to Kiev’s control.  Ukraine’s President hopes that the state can apply for EU membership in six years.  It has been reported that the Mejlis, the principle representational organisation of Crimea’s minority Tatars, has been ousted from its office.  Crimean Affairs Minister Oleg Savelyev has warned that problems of power and water shortages loom large in the newly absorbed state.  The Kremlin is apparently mulling a $200 million project to bolster the number of Russian speakers in other former Soviet states.  Read More »

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Sept 24, 2014

5462-05-industry-tank-russiaTODAY: Rights advocates harassed in attempts to attend NYC conference; Russia to limit foreign ownership of media; military production thriving. Ceasefire in Ukraine holding; Russia concerned about U.S. airstrikes in Syria without Assad approval; Japan extends sanctions; Rotenburg’s Italian properties seized.

Five rights advocates have reportedly been prevented from leaving Russia to attend a UN-organized World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York by the authorities through a variety of ruses – including having pages torn from their passports in Sheremetyevo Airport.  Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky has said he does not plan to establish a new political party but hopes his Open Russia organisation will stimulate fundamental change.  A plan is afoot among lawmakers to curb Western ownership of Russian media to 20% as opposed to the current level of 50%, a move which would affect leading titles such as Vedomosti.  Russia is planning to increase its Black Sea fleet with more than 80 new warships by 2020; small wonder that production of military equipment is apparently largely responsible for the increase in the country’s industrial production rate.

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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Sept 23, 2014

File photo of a PetroChina logo at its gas station in BeijingTODAY: Russia committed to China oil exports despite sanctions; Gazprom remains unconcerned by strictures; why Europe cannot extract itself from Russian gas projects. South Africa Rosatom deal; Russia’s nuclear armed forces set for overhaul; Ukrainian peace plan gaining traction? Mechel in trouble; Putin hits kids TV thanks to tiger.

The Kremlin has asserted that despite sanctions limiting Russian access to Western technology, it will fulfil its plans of increasing oil exports to China.  Asian companies have apparently signalled an interested in replacing the U.S. companies which are now debarred from Arctic exploration with Russia.  French major Total, which owns 20% of the mammoth Yamal gas project, is looking for alternative sources of funding as a result of sanctions, whilst Russian major Novatek, which owns 60%, apparently has no problem financing its share.  Whilst acknowledging the complexities of the political situation, Total’s CFO Patrick de La Chevardiere noted that Europe’s reliance on Russian gas is such that it must continue to participate in energy projects with Russia.  Reuters reports that last week Austria unexpectedly received 20-25% less gas from Russia than contractually agreed.  Gazprom is confident that it can substitute all imported equipment that is subject to Western sanctions.  The company board’s Deputy Chairman, Alexander Medvedev, believes that in 15 years Asia-Pacific regional states’ aggregate annual gas import will almost double.  Having withdrawn from its other Russian projects, Exxon Mobile energy company is reportedly still active in the Far-Eastern Liquefied natural gas plant construction project.

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