Jail Russian activist Alexei Navalny for 10 years - prosecutors
Lawyers ask judge in Moscow to convict and sentence leader of anti-government protests and his brother for alleged fraud
Agencies in Moscow
The Guardian, Friday 19 December 2014 12.12 GMT
Russian prosecutors have demanded that the opposition activist Alexei Navalny be imprisoned for a total of 10 years on allegations of fraud.
In their closing arguments in a Moscow court on Friday, prosecutors asked a judge to convict Navalny, who led anti-government protests in 2012, and imprison him for nine years, with an additional year added because of a prior conviction. They asked that his brother Oleg be jailed for eight years.
Both men have said they are innocent of the charges and have dismissed them as part of a Kremlin campaign to stifle dissent.
The pair are accused of stealing from two firms, including an affiliate of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, between 2008 and 2012.
In a previous trial in 2013, Navalny was charged with embezzling 16m roubles from a state-owned timber firm and sentenced to prison, but he was released the next day after thousands protested in Moscow. Currently under house arrest, Navalny is serving a suspended five-year jail term for the timber conviction, which Kremlin critics also call a sham.
Prosecutor Nadezhda Ignatova told the court the 10-year term would cover those charges and the earlier conviction.
“The guilt of the defendant has been fully proven,” she said.
Navalny, a western-educated anti-corruption blogger, sighed after the prosecutor spoke and said: “At least it’s easy to count.”
‘Putin is destroying Russia. Why base his regime on corruption?’ asks Navalny
Russia’s opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner, held under house arrest, says president is using war to stay in power
Shaun Walker in Moscow
The Guardian, Friday 17 October 2014 18.04 BST
High in a dilapidated Soviet-era tower block miles from the centre of Moscow, the door opens to a small, tidy flat. It belongs to Alexei Navalny, once touted as the most potent threat to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to emerge in Russia in recent years.
Since February, the politician and activist has been under house arrest. A voracious social-media user with a talent for 140-character attacks on the Kremlin, the 38-year-old is banned from using the telephone or internet, though his wife can use them. He can only leave the confines of his flat when a police van drives him to hearings of his latest court case.
In a recent relaxation of the terms of his arrest, he is now allowed to speak to people other than his relatives, meaning that for the first time in six months, his colleagues and friends can visit him. He is also able to receive journalists, and the Guardian is the first of the international press to see him since his house arrest began.
Dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans, he pads barefoot through the small flat into the kitchen, where his wife, Yulia, pours tea. A tagging bracelet around his ankle ensures that if he leaves the flat, the police will be alerted immediately.
“I’m really sick of sitting at home,” he says, with a wry smile. In the corner of the living room is a cross trainer, the only way he can get exercise. “But I’ve had experience of real arrest for up to 15 days several times, and it’s much easier to put up with house arrest when you understand what the alternative is.”
Navalny was the great hope of the wave of street protests that shook Moscow in 2011-2012, with many opposition-minded Russians confidently predicting he would become the next president of Russia.
Those protests petered out after a vicious crackdown saw court cases against its leaders and some ordinary protesters, but Navalny is still the most worrying opposition figure for the Kremlin. Some uneasy liberals point to his nationalist streak and see in him a charismatic but dangerous demagogue.
What is clear is that he is able to win support among voters: despite smears on state television and little access to any normal type of campaigning, he managed to win 27% of the vote in last autumn’s Moscow mayoral elections.
Since then, a lot has happened, notably the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in east Ukraine. A summit in Milan on Friday attended by Putin, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, and other European leaders including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, failed to reinforce the faltering ceasefire.
Despite the fact that many Russian nationalists support the separatists in east Ukraine, Navalny feels Putin has laid the groundwork for his regime’s eventual collapse.
“There’s a lot of commentary now that Putin has shown he’s not about money, and about enriching his businessmen buddies, but he has decided to build a great nation, a great Russia or to resurrect the Soviet Union,” says Navalny, who first became known for his anti-corruption investigations, unveiling the secret mansions and foreign accounts of Putin cronies and government officials. “I think in reality it’s all much more simple. Putin has resorted to the method that various leaders have used for centuries: using war or military actions to solve internal problems and boost ratings. That happens even in democratic countries – look at Bill Clinton in Yugoslavia.”
Unlike most of the liberal opposition, who have never found a common language with ordinary Russians, there was always a sense in the Kremlin that Navalny could be dangerous; a fear that his nationalism and charisma could appeal not only to the Moscow hipsters, but equally to the provincial masses, tired of seeing rampant corruption blight the country’s governance.
Those in power have long been split about how to deal with the troublesome campaigner; some believe he should be locked up, others think he should be free but closely monitored. For a while in 2013, it looked as if an allegation of embezzling funds from a timber company in the city of Kirov would put him in prison; but he was released after a surprise about-face, given a suspended sentence, and allowed to run in Moscow’s mayoral elections.
His good showing there clearly spooked some of those in power. A second court case, based on claims that Navalny and his brother defrauded a Russian subsidiary of the French chain Yves Rocher, began. In February he was put under house arrest, and the case has been rumbling on since.
The strategy for now seems to be to shut him up without causing too much of a scandal. To a large extent, it has worked. There has been little outcry over the fact that he is under house arrest – after all, he is not in jail – but at the same time, working on his anti-corruption investigations has become impossible and he has largely disappeared from public discourse.
With everything else happening in Russia, even the hearings of the second court case receive just a fraction of attention that the Kirov case received. Navalny says about 30 prosecution witnesses have been called so far, and “all of them ended up testifying in our favour – it’s stupid and completely absurd.”
Navalny with his wife, Yulia, in Moscow after his release from jail in Kirov in 2013. He was imprisoned for embezzlement but unexpectedly released. Navalny with his wife, Yulia, in Moscow after he was unexpectedly released from jail in Kirov in 2013. Photograph: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
He puts the strange zigzagging in the case down to the fact that nobody lower down in the system knows what to do with him.
“Obviously it will be a guilty verdict, but what the sentence will be can only be decided by one man, and that man has a lot of stuff on his plate besides me at the moment. He’s fighting a war against Obama, against the west, against God knows what else.”
The authorities continue to keep Navalny on his toes, and there is always the threat of new criminal cases. Sometimes the charges appear so flimsy they veer into the realm of the absurd. Over the summer, his flat was raided by investigators who seized a picture. The picture had been drawn by a street artist in the town of Vladimir, and been on display on a public wall. Someone pilfered it, and gave it to Navalny as a present.
“The artist has given interviews everywhere saying he never sells his art, that he doesn’t care that it was taken, that he doesn’t want there to be a court case, but they just ignore him – the case exists. From the case materials we can see that FSB [security services] generals are working on the case. They have six top investigators working on it!” Employees of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation have been questioned, searches carried out, computers and telephones seized.
Indeed, Navalny is such a toxic figure in Russia that any association with him can lead to trouble. In the Kirov court case, a former business partner was hauled into the dock alongside the politician; his brother Oleg is also on trial in the current case.
“That’s one of the most unpleasant parts of my work, because everything that happens around me is basically one giant court case, which spreads out to engulf the people that are close to me,” he says.
It was hinted at several times that he would be better off leaving the country, but he decided to stay. Is he really more use to the opposition cause under house arrest, or potentially in jail, than he would be from abroad?
“Why should I leave? I have not committed any crime. You can agree or disagree with my political position but it’s absolutely legal. And along with me, 90% of Russians think corruption is high, and 80% of Russians think we should bring criminal cases against corrupt officials. It’s also an important matter of trust. If I want people to trust me, then I have to share the risks with them and stay here. How can I call on them to take part in protests and so on if they are risking things and I am not?”
He says it is pointless to make predictions either about his own fate or about how much longer Putin will be in power. Navalny has set up a political party, although it is not able to contest elections, and says he still harbours ambitions that one day he will be actively involved in politics, “including fighting for the top job”.
As for how Putin will finally end up leaving the Kremlin – through a split in the elite, a violent revolution or a democratic transition – Navalny believes one thing is for certain: “In Russia, it will not be elections that provide a change of government.”
Navalny in his own words
On Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly owner of Yukos, Russia’s biggest oil company, who was jailed in 2003, released in 2013 and now lives abroad:
“Perhaps if he had stayed an oligarch, I would have had a lot of points of dispute with him, particularly on the rights of minority shareholders, which I worked on as a lawyer. Yukos was famous for various corporate battles. But that was 10 years ago, and discussing it is pointless. I don’t see any position that Khodorkovsky has now that I don’t share.”
On Putin’s reaction to Ukraine:
“Out of nowhere, without any warning, boom: suddenly a genuine, anti-criminal revolution. This was a terrible blow for Putin, a hundred times more painful that the Georgian events, than [former president Mikheil] Saakashvili and his anti-corruption reforms. He cannot allow this in Ukraine. So I think one of his strategic goals in the coming years will be to do absolutely everything to undermine the Ukrainian state, to ensure that no reforms work, so that everything ends in failure.”
On the consequences of Russian actions in Ukraine:
“Putin likes to speak about the ‘Russian world’ but he is actually making it smaller. In Belarus, they sing anti-Putin songs at football stadiums; in Ukraine they simply hate us. In Ukraine now, there are no politicians who don’t have extreme anti-Russian positions. Being anti-Russian is the key to success now in Ukraine, and that’s our fault.”
On what he would ask Putin
“I would be interested to understand his motivations, particularly on Ukraine. Because he is destroying our country. It will all collapse, and surely he can’t not understand that it’s all going to collapse.
“If he wants to be an authoritarian leader, then that’s one thing. But why doesn’t he want to be a Russian Lee Kuan Yew? Why does he want to base his authoritarian regime on corruption? There are other ways of doing it.”
On finding the ‘Putin account’:
“I think there are probably a number of numbered accounts in Swiss banks where money is kept that Putin considers his personal money. But in the main it is all kept by nominal holders, like [head of Russian Railways Vladimir] Yakunin or the Rotenbergs [two billionaire brothers, who are childhood friends of Putin]. The money is communal.
“If intelligence services really wanted to find Putin’s money there would be ways of doing so, but all we can do is work with open sources and the information we get from insiders. We can’t show up at a Swiss bank and seize documents or analyse transfers. Corruption in Russia is so open that even we can find a huge amount. But to find Putin’s accounts, that’s beyond our capabilities.”
On how he spends his time under house arrest
“I’m reading a huge number of books; basically doing what everyone dreams of doing but never has time for. I’m watching the ‘250 best films ever’ one by one. All this American nonsense like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and other old films.”
I feel no responsibility for rouble’s collapse, says Putin
Russian president offers few solid solutions during annual press conference, but promises economy will overcome crises
Shaun Walker in Moscow
The Guardian, Thursday 18 December 2014 18.19 GMT
Vladimir Putin has promised that Russia will weather the rouble crisis, adding that he feels no responsibility for the currency’s fall.
During his annual press conference on Thursday, the Russian president appeared to rule out drastic measures such as introducing capital controls or reshuffling the government. But he offered little in the way of solutions, instead suggesting it was inevitable that oil prices would recover soon, and with them the Russian economy.
The rouble, which fell to a record low of nearly 80 to the dollar on Tuesday before recovering on Wednesday, stayed reasonably stable at between 60 and 63 during the speech, suggesting the markets were neither horrified nor encouraged by Putin’s words.
The rouble began the year at 34 to the dollar, and while Putin began the session talking about record harvest levels and positive economic figures, it was not long before he was forced to acknowledge what was on every Russian’s mind.
“Our economy will overcome the current situation. How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavourable circumstances I think it will take about two years,” he said.
Putin denied that his government’s domestic policies and actions in Ukraine have been in any way responsible for the currency collapse.
Unsurprisingly, he also used the conference to rail against the west. Had Russia not annexed Crimea earlier this year, Putin said, the west would have found another reason to target his country, which he compared to a bear.
“Sometimes I wonder, maybe the bear should just sit quietly, munch on berries and honey rather than chasing after piglets, maybe then, they would leave it alone? But no, they wouldn’t, because they will always try to chain it up. And as soon as they chain it up, they will pull out its teeth and claws.”
By teeth and claws, Putin said he meant Russia’s nuclear weapons. The west was circling round to destroy Russia, so it could steal its natural resources, he continued. “Once they’ve taken out his claws and his teeth, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal.”
Putin covered everything from parking tickets to farmers’ pensions in the three-hour session, but the two key themes were foreign policy and the economy. There was much less of the minor regional issues that have often dominated previous conferences.
Putin was asked whether he felt bad for talking about a “fifth column” in society last year and about a renewed crackdown against the political opposition. He was asked if he was able to distinguish between opposition to his rule and being a traitor.
“It’s very difficult to answer that. I’m being honest. Because the border between opposition and fifth column is very difficult to place,” he said.
Quoting the 19th-century poet Mikhail Lermontov, who he described as a patriot who had also been in opposition to the tsarist authorities, Putin said the key difference was whether people supported their country in their hearts or were serving the interests of another country. Russia’s opposition and human rights community have often been accused of serving the interests of the west.
Although Putin went on for more than three hours, he did not come close to beating his record, set last year, when he took questions for four hours and 40 minutes.
He began the session looking somewhat out of sorts and with a persistent cough, but soon got into his stride, and appeared to be enjoying himself, dodging the tougher questions and making jokes about the friendlier ones. At one point, a regional journalist told him her aunt’s friend had wanted to know whether he had time for much of a love life since his divorce. Putin smirked, said hello to the aunt’s friend, and said that “everything is fine” in that department.
There was a chance for Putin’s favoured dark humour as well: when it was suggested to him that some of his close circle had, in private, blamed him for Russia’s economic position, the president cracked a broad smile and said: “Give me their names!” He brushed off the possibility of a “palace coup” by saying the elite had no palaces, so would be safe.
Key quotes from Putin’s speech
On fairness in geopolitics: “We have heard it even from high-level officials that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia, with its immense resources, belongs to Russia in its entirety. Why exactly is it unfair? So it is fair to snatch Texas from Mexico, but it is unfair that we are working on our own land – no, we have to share.”
On a new Berlin wall: “Didn’t they tell us after the fall of the Berlin Wall that Nato would not expand eastwards? However, the expansion started immediately. There were two waves of expansion. Is that not a wall? True, it is a virtual wall, but it was coming up. What about the anti-missile defence system next to our borders? Is that not a wall?”
On the western response to the Sochi Olympics: “Let me remind you about the preparations for the 2014 Olympics, our inspiration and enthusiasm to organise a festive event, not only for Russian sports fans, but for sports fans all over the world. However, and this is an evident truth, unprecedented and clearly orchestrated attempts were made to discredit our efforts to organise and host the Olympics. This is an undeniable fact! Who needs to do so and for what reason?”
On his love life: “One of my friends in Europe, a big boss, asked me recently: “Listen, do you have love in your life?” I said: “What do you mean?” He said: “Do you love anyone?” I said: “Oh, yes.” He asked if anybody loved me back, and I said: “Yes.” He obviously thought I’d become an animal. He said: “Thank God” and raised a vodka to me. So everything is fine, don’t worry.”
Everything’s fine, says Putin in press conference – including my love life
A classic example of the Russian leader’s annual conference: just don’t mention the rouble or military involvement in Ukraine
Shaun Walker in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 18 December 2014 20.39 GMT
With flirtatious questions about his love life, noir wisecracks, earthy animal metaphors and forceful anti-western rhetoric, on the surface this was a classic Vladimir Putin press conference. The Russian president puts on the marathon performance annually, assembling more than 1,000 journalists to hold forth on everything from geopolitics to parking tickets.
But this year was nevertheless somewhat different. If Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in east Ukraine earlier in the year only served to boost Putin’s ratings among the populace, the dramatic slide of the rouble in recent weeks has raised the spectre of previous Russian crises and undermined the main tenet of his 15-year rule over the world’s largest country: stabilnost (stability).
Putin, who opened by reeling off a number of positive economic indicators including the year’s “record harvest”, could not ignore the elephant in the room for long, but he brushed off the crisis as something that would pass. Indeed, it was not even fair to call it a crisis, he said, despite the rouble having lost around half of its value against the dollar and the euro since the beginning of the year.
“Our economy will overcome the current situation,” said Putin. “How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavourable circumstances, I think it will take about two years.”
The rouble, which started the year at 34 to the dollar, fell to a record low of nearly 80 on Tuesday before recovering on Wednesday, staying reasonably stable at between 60 and 63 to the dollar during Putin’s speech. This suggested the markets were neither horrified – nor hugely encouraged – by Putin’s words.
On the one hand, Putin is likely to have reassured them that drastic measures are not around the corner: there was no talk of capital controls, no hints that heads would roll in the government or at the central bank, as some had feared.
But at the same time, there was very little by way of concrete solutions. Essentially, the message was that Russia would wait for the oil price to go back up and then everything would be all right. Putin denied that the government’s own domestic policies and actions in Ukraine have been in any way responsible for the currency collapse.
Although the president went on for more than three hours, he did not come close to beating his record, set last year, when he took questions for four hours and 40 minutes. He began the session looking somewhat out of sorts and with a persistent cough, but soon got into his stride, and appeared to be enjoying himself, dodging the tougher questions and making jokes about the friendlier ones.
There were a number of combative questions during the session, most notably from a Ukrainian journalist who demanded Putin justify the “punitive operation” he had launched in east Ukraine.
“As the commander in chief of the army, what have you said to the families of dead Russian officers and soldiers,” asked the journalist, taking the rare opportunity to ask Putin in public about the Russian military intervention in east Ukraine that the Kremlin has denied ever happened.
But the format of the annual press conference means there is no chance for dialogue or follow-up questions. Events in east Ukraine “really are a punitive operation, but one carried out by the Kiev authorities, and not vice versa,” said Putin. On the issue of serving Russian soldiers and military equipment crossing the border, he simply dodged the question.
Unsurprisingly, Putin also used the conference to rail at the west. He said if Russia had not annexed Crimea, the west would have found another reason to target Russia, comparing the country to a bear.
“Sometimes I wonder, maybe the bear should just sit quietly, munch on berries and honey rather than chasing after piglets, maybe then, they would leave it alone? But no, they wouldn’t, because they will always try to chain it up. And as soon as they chain it up, they will pull out its teeth and claws.”
By teeth and claws, Putin said he meant Russia’s nuclear weapons. The west was circling round to destroy Russia, said Putin, so it could steal its natural resources.
“Once they’ve taken out his claws and his teeth, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal.”
Putin covered everything from the traffic police to farmers’ pensions in the three-hour session, but the two key themes were foreign policy and the economy, and there was much less of the minor regional issues that have often dominated the conferences in the past.
Nevertheless, there were surreal moments, such as when a man from the town of Kirov grabbed the microphone to complain that major supermarkets such as the French chain Auchan were refusing to stock the locally made brand of kvas, a fermented bread drink.
“I don’t want to offend Coca Cola,” said Putin, in support. “But we have our own traditional drinks.”
Within hours Auchan announced it would invite the kvas company to submit a tender to supply its product, now it had the leader’s blessing.
At one point, a regional journalist told Putin her aunt’s friend had requested her to ask him if he had time for much of a love life since his divorce. Putin smirked, said hello to the aunt’s friend, and said that “everything is fine” in that department.
The combative questions from Russia’s embattled liberal journalists were mainly about the newly toxic atmosphere in Russian society, and whether Putin felt guilty for talking about a “fifth column”, which heralded a renewed crackdown against the political opposition. Was he able to distinguish between opposition to his rule and being a traitor?
“It’s very difficult to answer that. I’m being honest. Because the border is very subtle. It’s difficult, I think, to give a scientific definition of where opposition ends and “fifth column” begins.
Quoting the poet Mikhail Lermontov, who Putin said was a patriot who had also been in opposition to the Tsarist authorities, the president said the key difference was whether people supported their country in their hearts or were serving the interests of another country. Russia’s opposition and human rights community have often been accused of serving the interests of the west.
Overall, the press conference was an attempt by Putin to portray business as usual. The take-home message for ordinary Russians was that the economic woes are a minor blip, and even if they are not, it is the west to blame for hounding Russia, and not Russia’s actions on the international stage that have caused the isolation.
If the economy continues to worsen, the Kremlin will be looking closely for signs of either a split in the elites or Putin’s popular support eroding, but the message on Thursday was that Putin himself is not worrying about either eventuality.
When it was suggested to him that some of his close circle have privately blamed him personally for Russia’s economic position, Putin cracked a broad smile and said, with his usual dark humour: “Give me their names!”
When asked if there might be a danger at some point of a palace coup in the future, he again smiled.
“Calm down. We don’t have any palaces. So there can’t be a palace coup.”
Putin Cites Claim About U.S. Designs on Siberia Traced to Russian Mind Readers
By ROBERT MACKEY
DEC. 18, 2014
Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Thursday, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, claimed that economic sanctions were not primarily a response to the annexation of Crimea but part of a long-running plot by Western powers to weaken his nation and steal its natural resources.
As evidence, Mr. Putin cited first what he called “direct and fully fledged support for terrorism in the North Caucasus” in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise.
Then, he said, even before Russia annexed Crimea earlier this year, “unprecedented and clearly orchestrated attempts were made to discredit our efforts to organize and host the Olympics” in Sochi.
Finally, after an extended detour into metaphor, with Mr. Putin comparing Russia to its national symbol, the bear — beset, he said, by enemies who wish to seize its territory — he referred to one last piece of evidence that he was only acting to protect his nation from the aggressive designs of the West. “We have heard it even from high-level officials,” he said, “that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety.”
U.S. imposes new sanctions against Russia ahead of peace talks with Ukraine
19 Dec 2014 at 20:55 ET
The United States imposed sanctions Friday on Russian-controlled Crimea as Ukraine announced the loss of five soldiers ahead of peace talks meant to end a war against Russian-backed insurgents.
President Barack Obama prohibited American exports of goods or services to Crimea, a strategic peninsula and vacation destination that Russian seized from Ukraine last March.
“The United States will not accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea,” Obama said in a statement.
Similar measures were imposed Thursday by the European Union as the West attempted to ratchet up pressure on Moscow over its seizure of Crimea and support for a rebellion by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine.
Canada also added new sanctions Friday, targeting separatist leaders and the oil and gas sector in Russia, where the government is battling a currency crash and economic crisis.
Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that threatened US sanctions “could undermine the possibility of normal cooperation between our countries for a long time.”
- Back to peace talks -
The united Western pressure came as Ukraine and the rebels prepared for talks meant to put a stalled peace process back in motion.
However, Ukraine’s military reported losing five soldiers on Friday, the highest toll since Kiev and the Russian-backed militias struck a December 9 truce designed to reinforce a tenuous September agreement.
The next stage is meant to be comprehensive negotiations.
Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko hoped to start these on Sunday, with the help of European and Russian envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk. But a top rebel said the insurgents would only be ready by Monday.
“We agreed the general list of issues we need to discuss,” rebel negotiator Vladislav Deynego told AFP by telephone. “But we still have no Minsk date.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were due this weekend to impress the importance of an immediate meeting during their third joint call to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko in the past few days.
- Dire economic situation -
The scale of the fighting has subsided with the onset of winter and heavy snows that make progress across the war-scarred fields and muddied roads all but impossible.
All sides are now busy looking for ways to ensure that millions of civilians who have been unable to flee the artillery shelling and rocket fire make it safely through the winter in apartments with little to no water or heat.
The United Nations believes the daily battles have killed more than 4,700 people and driven nearly a million from their homes.
Its children’s fund UNICEF said on Friday that “tens of thousands” of youth still lived in areas engulfed by violence.
“The situation for more than 1.7 million children affected by the conflict remains extremely serious,” the UN Children’s Rights and Emergency Relief Organisation said.
Any peace agreement is likely to include a requirement for fighters on both sides to let through humanitarian convoys they fear may be used to smuggle in weapons to their adversaries.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was essential for the Minsk negotiators to establish a buffer zone that sets the initial boundaries of areas overseen by the rebels within a unified Ukraine.
Steinmeier added after talks in Kiev with Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that the sides must also agree to swap their remaining prisoners and “resolve humanitarian relief issues”.
Although Russia is under growing financial pressure because of the sanctions and low oil prices, Ukraine’s situation is even more dire.
Standard & Poors lowered its credit rating for Ukraine on Friday to CCC- with a negative outlook, warning that dangerously low foreign currency reserves could prompt a default within months.
“The negative outlook reflects our view of the increasing risk that, without additional financial support, Ukraine may default on its obligations,” the credit rating agency said.
Russia Says New U.S., Canada Sanctions Will Fuel Ukraine Unrest
by Naharnet Newsdesk 20 December 2014, 12:54
The latest round of Ukraine-related sanctions by the United States and Canada hamper efforts to resolve the conflict, Russia's foreign ministry said Saturday.
"The sanctions are directed to disrupt the political process," the ministry said in a statement following the announcement of the latest measures on Friday.
"We advise Washington and Ottawa to think about the consequences of such actions," it said, adding: "We will start to develop counter-measures."
U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order prohibiting trade with Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in March.
Additionally 24 individuals and entities were added to the U.S. Treasury blacklist -- people from Crimea and separatist leaders involved in fighting in eastern Ukraine as well as several Russians supporting the insurgency.
Canada meanwhile slapped fresh measures on Russia's oil and gas sector and issued travel bans on several politicians in Russia and the separatist regions.
"Crimea is the original and inseparable part of Russia. Residents of Crimea today are together with the Russian people, who never have and never will bend under external pressure," the Russian foreign ministry statement said.
Instead of helping resolve the conflict, the sanctions "support Kiev's 'party of war'," it said, referring to Ukrainian officials who oppose negotiating with separatists.
Kiev is now preparing for a new round of talks with representatives of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk, the latest effort to put an end to fighting that has killed over 4,700 people since April.
Crimea's new leaders dismissed the U.S. sanctions, saying the peninsula will now seek investors from Asia. "If the West doesn't want to work with us, we'll work with the East," deputy chairman of Crimea's council of ministers Dmitry Polonsky told AFP.
"Nothing scary is going to happen," he said. "There won't be any serious consequences, we'll just change our partners."
The newest additions to the U.S. blacklist are commanders and ministers in the separatist east, most of them Ukrainian nationals.
It also includes Crimea's prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya whose looks and stern demeanor became a web sensation and inspired Japanese manga-style comics earlier this year.
Among the Russians now banned from travelling or owning assets in the United States are Konstantin Malofeyev, a businessman Kiev accuses of funding armed groups, and Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves, a pro-Putin motorcycle riders club, who is known as Khirurg (The Surgeon).
"I couldn't care less about what America does against me, but for me this is of course acknowledgement of my work for the Motherland," Zaldostanov told the Echo of Moscow radio, adding that his favorite bikes are Russian-made.
Source: Agence France Presse
Vladimir Putin invites Kim Jong-un to Moscow
North Korea’s leader may travel to Russia to mark the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany on 9 May as mark of closer relations
The Guardian, Friday 19 December 2014 14.11 GMT
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has invited the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to Moscow next year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in the second world war, the Kremlin’s spokesman said on Friday.
It would be Kim’s first foreign visit since taking the helm of the reclusive east Asian state in 2011. His personal envoy travelled to Moscow last month as part of efforts by the two Cold War-era allies to improve relations.
“Yes, such an invitation was sent,” a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the state news agency, Tass. Russia marks the former Soviet Union’s 1945 victory every year on 9 May.
Moscow needs North Korean cooperation to boost its natural gas exports to South Korea as Gazprom would like to build a gas pipeline through North Korea to reach its southern neighbour.
Pyongyang is also seeking support from Russia, a permanent veto-wielding member of the UN security council, against international criticism relating to accusations of human rights abuses and its nuclear programme.
A UN committee passed a resolution last month calling for the security council to consider referring North Korea to the international criminal court for alleged crimes against humanity.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has also said North Korea is ready to resume the stalled international talks on its nuclear programme.
North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States began talks in 2003 to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, but they were suspended after Pyongyang tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.
Why Russia is bolstering ties with North Korea
Angry with the West's response over Ukraine and eager to diversify its options, Russia is cozying up to North Korea. For Pyongyang, the timing couldn't be better, says Eric Talmadge
Associated Press in Pyongyang
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 June 2014 11.30 BST
Angry with the West's response over Ukraine and eager to diversify its options, Russia is moving rapidly to bolster ties with North Korea in a diplomatic nose-thumbing that could complicate the US-led effort to squeeze Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear weapons program.
Russia's proactive strategy in Asia, which also involves cozying up to China and has been dubbed "Putin's Pivot," began years ago as Moscow's answer to Washington's much-touted alliance-building and rebalancing of its military forces in the Pacific. But it has gained a new sense of urgency since the unrest in Ukraine and Pyongyang is already getting a big windfall with high-level political exchanges and promises from Russia of trade and development projects.
Moscow's overtures to North Korea reflect both a defensive distancing from the EU and Washington because of their sanctions over Ukraine and a broader, long-term effort by Russia to strengthen its hand in Asia by building political alliances, expanding energy exports and developing Russian regions in Siberia and the Far East. For North Korea, the timing couldn't be better.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the largesse it banked on as a member of the communist bloc, the North has been struggling to keep its economy afloat and has depended heavily on trade and assistance from ally China. Sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs have further isolated the country, and Pyongyang has long feared it could become too beholden to Beijing.
Better ties with Russia could provide a much needed economic boost, a counterbalance against Chinese influence and a potentially useful wedge against the West
Better ties with Russia could provide a much needed economic boost, a counterbalance against Chinese influence and a potentially useful wedge against the West in international forums and particularly in the US-led effort to isolate Pyongyang over its development of nuclear weapons.
"By strengthening its relationship with North Korea, Russia is trying to enhance its bargaining position vis-à-vis the United States and Japan," said Narushige Michishita, a North Korea and Asia security expert at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Michishita added that showing Washington he will not be cowed by the sanctions was "one of the most important factors" for why Putin is wooing Pyongyang now.
Moscow remains wary of having a nuclear-armed North Korea on its border. But over the past few months it has courted the North with various economic projects, political exchanges and a vote in the Duma, the top Russian legislative body, to write off nearly $10 billion in debt held over from the Soviet era.
It has pledged to reinvest $1 billion that Pyongyang still owes into a trans-Siberian railway through North Korea to South Korea a project that is still in the very early stages. That, together with a pipeline, would allow Russia to export gas and electricity to South Korea.
The same day the United Nations' General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russia and North Korea were busy signing an economic trade cooperation pact
Michishita noted that the same day the United Nations' General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russia and North Korea were busy signing an economic trade cooperation pact.
The warming began around July last year, but it has accelerated as Moscow's antagonism with the West has grown.
Moscow sent a relatively low-ranking representative to the 60th anniversary of the end of fighting in the Korean War that month. But since then, it has hosted North Korea's head of state at the opening of the Olympic Games in Sochi and, in March, sent its minister in charge of Far East development to Pyongyang.
A three-day visit in April by Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev, who is also the presidential envoy for Russia's far eastern federal district, marked the "culmination of a new phase in Russian-North Korean relations taking shape a sort of renaissance if you will," Alexander Vorontsov, a North Korea expert at the Russia Academy of Sciences, wrote recently on the influential 38 North blog.
"It is still an open question whether the current crisis in Ukraine will result in any more substantial shifts in Russian policy toward North Korea, particularly in dealing with the nuclear and missile issues," Vorontsov said in his blog post. "With the West increasing pressure on Russia as a result of differences over Ukraine, the very fact that Moscow and Pyongyang are subject to US sanctions will objectively draw them together, as well as with China."
The very fact that Moscow and Pyongyang are subject to US sanctions will objectively draw them together, as well as with China
Since 2003, a series of multilateral talks have been one of the primary means of pressuring North Korea to denuclearize and to coordinate policy between the six main countries involved China, Russia, the United States, Japan and North and South Korea.
Though still seen as one of the best tools the international community has to pressure Pyongyang on the nuclear issue, the talks were fraught from the start because of the North's unwillingness to back down and the lack of a unified stance among the five other nations.
With North Korea showing no signs of giving up its nuclear option, some analysts believe a widening rift between Russia and the US could weaken future six-party talks.
"North Korea's motivations and actions are driven by the leadership's perceptions, world view, and ideology," said Seoul-based analyst Daniel Pinkston, of the International Crisis Group. "That remains the same. As long as the leadership is wedded to son'gun (Military First) ideology, they will not denuclearize before the rest of the world does. And that's exactly what their government and media say repeatedly."
Michishita, the Japanese security expert, said the Moscow-Pyongyang thaw could just muddy the waters.
"North Korea will not denuclearize anyway," he said. "A better relationship with Russia might be a positive factor for North Korea in coming back to the six-party talks. But North Korea will certainly try to use it to enhance its position vis-à-vis not only the United States and Japan, but also China."
Eric Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief
Russian immigrants on rouble's free fall: sadness and indifference
theguardian.com, Friday 19 December 2014 20.09 GMT
In Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the fall of the rouble has not gone unnoticed.
The Russian currency has conspicuously crashed, driven in part by falling oil prices that help drive the Russian economy and economic sanctions from the US and Europe.
Life in Russia has become more difficult, in particular for the most vulnerable, such as pensioners on fixed incomes. Ordinary Russians have flooded shops looking to buy durable goods with little deprecation in value as they try to find any way to preserve their hard-earned salaries and savings.
After waves of immigration in the 1970s and 1980s, along with smaller moves in the 1990s and later, the US – and in particular New York City – has a sizable Russian expatriate community. The different immigration waves had different identities: refugees from the Soviet Union; emigres after the fall of communism; more recently, children of oligarchs.
The barrage of information on the Russian economy is top of mind for many, especially in traditional ex-pat enclaves such as New York City’s Brighton Beach.
Galina said she did “care about falling rouble and overall situation in Russia,” just as she cares about “the image of Russia in the international arena.”
She added: “And I think in general, Russians here [in the US] care about the situation there; that is why you saw protests outside the Russian consulate for fair voting in Russia, people still go and vote (those who have a right). Many of us have relatives and friends [there], and some own apartments that are pretty much falling in price as we see the rouble crumble.”
Marina and Oleg are a married couple. Marina, in her 50s, came to the US two years ago and still has many ties to Russia. Her husband, who is in his 60s, immigrated to the US more than 25 years ago and long ago established a new life here.
Marina’s grown children are in Russia, along with family, friends and an apartment she left behind when she moved. Marina believes in Putin, calling him her “boss,” and noting that she is often left defending Russia’s president to all her friends here.
While Marina frets about the situation, Oleg takes a more stoic view. “I have no one and nothing left in Russia, so I have nothing to worry about”, he says, adding that he sees the situation “objectively, not like a resident of the country but like any outside observer, the same way I would look at a place like China”.
Oleg says he no longer discusses politics with his wife.
“It is a difficult situation”, Marina tells me. “But the price of food is still fine; in fact a loaf of Russian bread costs more here than it does in Russia. It is the luxury goods that no one can buy now – the European shoes – but you can still live, [and] buy food.”
Unfortunately, airline tickets fall into the luxury category. “My children were going to visit for Christmas, but airline tickets have to be bought in dollars or euros, so they can’t visit now”, Marina says.
Despite the potential hardships ahead for those that are near and dear, Marina is an optimist: “this is the fourth crisis in my lifetime,” she says with a half-laugh, half-sigh. “It will get better at some point.”
Runs on the banks have taken their toll. A relative of this reporter who years ago immigrated to Canada still owns an apartment in St Petersburg. As the rouble started its decline, this relative felt it was time to finally sell the place, which represented her last financial tie to the country.
But when she started to make inquiries, she was informed that even if she managed to sell it, the banks did not have the ability to exchange a large sum of roubles into dollars.
Too many people had gone straight to the bank with their savings to try to save what they had before the value of the rouble fell further. She can sell the apartment, but she would be left holding a lot of fast-falling roubles.
A friend of hers who moved to Bulgaria was already in that exact situation. Having sold her apartment in Russia recently, the newly minted Bulgarian now tries to exchange the roubles into euros each day. The amount she can exchange daily is capped, and each day she goes to the bank, the money in her hands grows ever smaller.
Immigrants fear speaking out
I was also born in Russia, though I was raised in the US. When I set out for Brighton Beach to speak to regular people about their views, my mother offered to accompany me. Considering she has not chaperoned me since I was about 14, I was a little surprised by the offer. But she was concerned about potential anger and political vitriol that my questions might elicit, and with her fluent Russian and better cultural understanding, she felt she could better help me navigate.
Much has been made of the cult of personality that exists around Vladimir Putin, and the incredible grip on power he holds. But I had not expected how far his – and the phantom Soviet reach – still held. Attempting to speak with people, what amazed me was the fear that remains in immigrants that some political retribution will befall their relatives in Russia if they speak about the turmoil in the economy with a newspaper.
After reassuring one woman in her 50s who has lived in the US for 15 years that her last name would not be used – so there was no way to identify her – she still refused to speak on the grounds that her mother still lived in Russia and could be put in danger.
When I tried to get a few points of view at a local bookstore in Brighton Beach, the staff panicked and shut down completely when I said I was a reporter.
At first, one woman at the bookstore said she did not understand my question, so I translated it into Russian – at which point she admitted, in Russian, that she understood everything I had said, and her eyes wide, muttered that she needed to go and ran from me.
A third woman, who has lived in the US for more than 30 years and has never been back to Russia since leaving in the late 1970s, said she could not talk even if no name was used at all, because she believed the Russian government could somehow still find out she had spoken to a newspaper.
That my question was about the recent fall of the rouble made little difference; this a part of New York has a deeply ingrained fear of denouncing the Russian government.
While the people living now in Russia had gotten used to occasionally hearing dissidents on non-state TV programs, to reading views against the government in some independent press, to seeing some demonstrations against the government on the streets, those living in the US for years still held fast to the Soviet views. They feared the retribution of past regimes, the secret police and most of all, the press, which for years was closely connected to the Russian government.
Clearly, the only people I was going to be able to speak to had to be young enough not to have lived through the worst of the Soviet Union or had to have left Russia at a time when the grip on free speech had been loosened a little.
Turning to online parenting groups for Russians with young children and connecting through friends of friends of friends, responses finally began to trickle in. They varied from concern and worry for those left behind to total disregard about the issue.
Veronica says she is “paying attention” but “disconnected from that region mentally and emotionally.” Oleg H summed it up best, saying that people who had moved to the US long ago were “disconnected” from Russia: “For those of us who left the communist state, Russia is no more important than France, or Germany or South Africa.”
Another Oleg put it succinctly when he said: “I care about falling Russian rouble no more than Japanese yen or Turkish lira”. Meanwhile, Inga joked that maybe it is “time for another Russian revolution”.
Felix, similarly, said he could not “give a shit about the currency or current financial situation”, adding that “Putin is a smug, arrogant SOB; Russia is no longer so powerful when oil is at $55 [a barrel]”.
Ksenia said: “Of course I care. The falling rouble affects the middle class and poor people the most. Those who were not able to afford a lot will be the most affected now. Frankly, my heart aches for all the Russian people who fell victims of the political games”.
Vladislav worried that “the brunt of the hardship will fall on regular people. I have no concerns about the fall of the currency; it actually benefits me, as my dollar can now buy more.
“I really feel bad for the people. The single mom, who is struggling to make ends meet. The families with many children, who were just getting by. The elderly, whose pensions just got tinier. Unfortunately, it will not change much. Just like in 1999, when Putin’s scapegoat was the Chechen people, he will find scapegoats again”.