Friday, December 28, 2012

Putin Signs Anti-Magnitsky Act into Force

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed into law controversial parliamentary legislation banning the adoption of Russian children by American families. The law also introduces visa and financial sanctions against foreigners "committing crimes against Russian citizens" and bans the activity of Russian NGOs financed from the US or headed by Americans. The law -- retaliation for a US law punishing Russian officials implicated in the 2009 prison death of the whistle-blowing attorney Sergei Magnitsky -- will come into force on January 1, the Kremlin said. The highly contentious law is widely regarded as the toughest piece of anti-US legislation during Putin's 13-year rule and has prompted objections not just from activists but even some cabinet ministers.

Russian Police Publishes Manga Comic

Japanese graphic arts are about the last thing that Russian police is associated with, but in a sudden bid to be hip, the force put out an instruction on how to avoid fires and pedophiles done manga-style. The instructional manual, available on the Interior Ministry’s website since Thursday, contains 24 pages of advice, as well as games for preschoolers. The book covers some pretty tense situations, including on how to spray an attacker with aerosol should a can be at hand and how to arrange clothes when walking down a dark alley (jewelry should be removed and the skirt hitched down). Emergency numbers and guidelines on how to cross the street are also included.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

US: Russian Anti-US-Adoption Bill "Misguided"

The State Department is criticizing an effort by Russian lawmakers to halt adoptions of Russian children by American parents. Russia’s Parliament has approved a bill to ban Americans from adopting Russian children, and President Vladimir Putin has indicated he will sign the measure. It’s seen as retaliation for U.S. sanctions against human rights violations in Russia, which were included in a wide-ranging trade bill recently signed into law by President Barack Obama. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell says the U.S. regrets that Parliament approved the adoption ban, instead of embracing an agreement the two countries reached last month.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Russia Slams US Opposition to UN Anti-Nazi Resolution

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday criticized the United States’ refusal to back the Russian-proposed UN resolution against the "glorification of Nazism." The UN General Assembly adopted the resolution on Thursday. A total of 130 countries approved the document, while the US, Canada, and Palau voted against it and another 54 countries, including the Baltic States, abstained. "We are highly perplexed and regret the fact that the US, Canada and Palau voted against this document, while the delegations of EU member states abstained during the vote on the resolution, which was backed by the overwhelming majority of UN member states," the ministry said. The resolution condemns the construction of memorials in honor of former Nazis and Waffen-SS soldiers and the holding of public pro-Nazi demonstrations. This apparently refers to the practices of some post-Soviet countries, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In fact, the UN adopts similar resolutions every year since 2006 – and every year, some countries refuse to support these resolutions. UN General Assembly resolutions are not obligatory for UN members.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Russian Duma Adopts Anti-Magnitsky Act

The Russian State Duma (parliament's lower chamber) approved in the final reading the law intended to be a response to the US Magnitsky Act. The bill introduces visa and financial sanctions against foreigners "committing crimes against Russian citizens." In addition, the bill bans the activity of Russian NGOs financed from the US. Finally, the bill bans the adoption of Russian children by US citizens. The latter measure has been subject to especially sharp criticism in Russia, not only by the general public but also by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Education Minister Dmitry Livanov. President Vladimir Putin, however, supported the adoption ban during a recent press-conference. To enter into force, the law must be approved by the Federation Council (the upper chamber) and signed by President.

Navalny Charged with Fraud, Money Laundering

Investigators in Russia have formally charged leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg with fraud and money-laundering. The charges were published on Thursday on the website of the Investigative Committee. The brothers are accused of stealing 55 mln roubles ($1.8 mln) in 2008-11 while working in a postal business. The amount is the three year turnover of their mail delivery company. The investigators say that the delivery was "in fact carried out" by a subcontractor of the brothers' company, and  the "real price" of the services was 31 mln roubles. Reacting to news of the inquiry last week, Mr Navalny described the charges as "complete nonsense". Alexei Navalny, a lawyer known for his campaigning against corruption, spearheaded protests against the Kremlin a year ago after disputed parliamentary elections. In October, he came in first in a leadership ballot organised by Russia's opposition parties. The charges of fraud and money-laundering carry fines or prison sentences of two and three years respectively. 

Court Reduces Khodorkovsky Sentence by 2 Years

The Moscow City Court has announced a two-year reduction in the prison sentences for former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev. On December 20, the court cited changes in Russian laws on economic crimes. Both were convicted of evading taxes and for stealing oil from the Yukos oil company and laundering the proceeds. The decision means both could be released in 2014.

Putin Offers Depardieu Russian Citizenship

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that legendary French actor Gerard Depardieu, who recently renounced his French citizenship, can count on getting a Russian passport if he wants one. Le Monde quoted the actor, who has recently settled in the Belgian border town of Nechin, as saying on Wednesday that three countries have already offered him citizenship: Belgium, Montenegro and Russia. “Putin has already sent me a Russian passport,” Depardieu joked. “If Gerard really wants to have a Russian passport or a residence permit, then he can consider the matter settled,” Putin said on Thursday. Depardieu’s decision to settle in Belgium came ahead of the Socialist government’s planned implementation of a 75 percent tax rate on annual earnings above $1.30 million. By comparison, Russia has a fixed 13 percent income tax.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dead Russian Deputy Votes for Anti-Magnitsky Law

Vyacheslav K. Osipov, a governing party lawmaker, was absent on Wednesday but still cast 31 votes in the lower house of Parliament, all of them ayes. You might say he was in an agreeable mood, except that he was dead. While it was not known exactly when Mr. Osipov died, his colleagues in the Russian Parliament held a moment of silence in his memory at 5:39 p.m., a little more than an hour after he was recorded as voting in favor of banning American adoptions of Russian children (the law is intended to be one of counter-measures against the US Magnitsky Act). When Mr. Osipov’s ability to legislate from the beyond caught public attention, his allies explained that he had designated colleagues to vote on his behalf. “The Duma’s regulations allow it,” said Vyacheslav S. Timchenko, another lawmaker from United Russia.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Moscow Police Detain 20 People at Rally Against US Adoption Ban

Police detained about 20 people staging a picket Wednesday morning outside the State Duma, ahead of the second hearing of a bill that would ban US citizens from adopting Russian children. The law is meant to be a Russian “response” to the US of the Magnitsky Act – a US law introducing visa bans and asset freezes for Russian officials. Dozens of people gathered outside the Duma building near the Kremlin in downtown Moscow to protest against the adoption ban that critics say would leave Russian children stranded in outdated state care institutions. The police detained two dozen activists holding placards. Dozens more, not holding banners or placards, remain outside the building, despite requests from the police that they disperse.

Strasbourg Court Blasts Russia for Non-Investigation of Disappearances in Chechnya

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held Tuesday that Russia has systemically violated fundamental rights in connection with disappearances that have occurred in the Northern Caucuses since 1999. The case at hand, Aslakhanova and Others v. Russia, specifically involved the cases of eight men who disappeared from Chechnya between March 2002 and July 2004. All of these disappearances occurred after the men were arrested by groups of armed, masked men. In many cases, these groups were wearing camouflage and/or driving military vehicles. Having concluded that the claimants presented a prima facie case that state actors had been behind the victims’ abductions, the burden of proof shifted to the state to convince the court otherwise. Ultimately, however, the burden was not satisfied; no compelling alternative explanation was advanced. The court thus held that Russia violated the rights of its citizens to life (Article 2), liberty and security (Article 5), and effective remedy (Article 13), as well as the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3). Noting that it had dealt with 120 similar cases connected with disappearances that have occurred in the region since 1999, the ECHR asserted that at its core, this problem is based on the state’s failure to investigate these crimes. The ECHR thus supported the recommendation that Russia should establish a body charged with solving disappearances in the Northern Caucuses, and that body should have unfettered access toward that end. Finally, the court held that Russia should pay tens of thousands of Euros to each set of claimants in damages.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Burger King Sues Muscovite for Trademark Infringement

Burger King Corporation, a major US fast-food company, has filed a lawsuit with the Moscow Commercial Court against Muscovite Alexei Makoveyev, who registered the and domains in his own name, Izvestia daily reported on Monday. Burger King believes that he unlawfully infringed upon their trademarkrights. Izvestia reported that in addition to the ban on further use of the trademarks, Burger King is seeking 500,000 rubles ($16,292) in compensation from Makoveyev.

Ukrainian Judge Found Decapitated

The decapitated bodies of a judge and his family have been found at a flat in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Investigators say the heads of the four people, including 58-year-old Vladimir Trofimov, are missing. Ukraine’s interior minister and general prosecutor have flown to the eastern city to investigate. (video)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Russian Supreme Court Authorizes Wiretapping of Oppositionists

The Russian Supreme Court recognized as lawful the wiretapping of a regional opposition member, Maxim Petlin, on Thursday, upholding earlier decisions made by a court in Yekaterinburg. The Supreme Court (in a decision by Judge Istomina) ruled that spying on Petlin, now Yekaterinburg head of the opposition party Yabloko, and hacking into his phone was lawful. A lower court in Yekaterinburg allowed “special investigative activities” due to signs of “public calls for extremist actions” detected in his words. The records from Petlin' s phone were among evidence in an extortion case opened against him in 2011 which he called trumped-up. Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko’s national leader, said the case would become a precedent for the whole judicial system and result in a new period of persecution of political activists. According to the Supreme Court, the "signs" of extremism, being the ground for wiretapping, were: (1) calls to change "the regime of Putin and Medvedev," (2) calls to eliminate the "monopolism in politics, economy, and information," (3) calls for the democratization of the country, (4) refusal to cooperate with the current authorities, (5) organizing protest actions, (6) criticizing the current authorities "against the background of financial and economic crisis", (7) distributing opposition newspapers and leaflets, (8) organizing economic and human rights consulting centers, (9) participating in actions in support of the Article 31 of the Russian Constitution (freedom of assembly), (10) sharp criticism of the current authorities in public meetings, (11) a negative appraisal of the expansion of the State Security Service (FSB) powers. (Supreme Court document)

Opposition Rallies in Moscow Despite Ban

A considerable crowd of opposition activists braved subzero temperatures and police cordons to attend a peaceful, unsanctioned rally in Moscow on Saturday, marking the first anniversary of mass protests in Russia. The event upped the ante for the leading opposition figures, who refused to compromise with the authorities in obtaining permission for the rally as they had done in the past, risking a crackdown. The police allowed people to gather in Moscow’s downtown Lubyanka Square, only cracking down on the staunch few who stayed on after the main crowd had dissipated. City police put the turnout at 700, about 300 of them bloggers and journalists. Reporters from Ekho Moskvy radio, Russian Reporter magazine and Ridus news website estimated the crowd at between 3,000 and 7,000. At least 69 people were detained at the event, according to OVD-Info, an independent website covering alleged police abuse. Police put the figure at “about 40.” Police also detained four opposition leaders in the early stages of the event, including whistleblowing lawyer Alexei Navalny, leftist opposition figure Sergei Udaltsov, liberal politician Ilya Yashin and socialite-turned-political activist Ksenia Sobchak. Most detainees, including Navalny, Udaltsov and Sobchak, were released the same evening. None of the protest leaders faced any charges. (video)

UPDATE: Lubyanka rally participant sentenced to 10 days in jail

Friday, December 14, 2012

New Criminal Case Launched against Navalny

Russian whistleblower and opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused on Friday of defrauding an unspecified firm of 55 million rubles ($1.8 million) in phony shipping charges. The case against Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has accused state officials of embezzling billions of rubles, comes a day ahead of a banned opposition rally that Navalny endorsed. The Navalnys face up to 10 years if charged and convicted of large-scale fraud and money laundering, the Investigative Committee said on its website. “This is HELL. Complete nonsense. Complete!” Alexei Navalny wrote on Twitter on Friday. “I see that I alone am not enough, so they’re cracking down on my family?” Navalny added.

Putin Vetoes Skolkovo Law

Russian President Vladimir Putin vetoed legislation passed by parliament on changes to the Skolkovo innovation hub, a project championed by Premier Dmitry Medvedev, threatening to widen a rift between the two men. The bill needs additional work to determine measures for evaluating the program’s effectiveness, the Kremlin said today in an e-mailed statement.  Skolkovo, unveiled in 2010 and based outside Moscow, was a hallmark of then President  Medvedev’s efforts to modernize the Russian economy.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Moscow Slams US Recognition of Syria Opposition

The recognition by the United States of Syria’s opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people shows that Washington is gambling on a military victory by the coalition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday. “I was somewhat surprised to learn that the US, through its president, has recognized the national coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” he said. “That is at odds with the agreements recorded in the Geneva communiqué calling for an all-Syria dialog between the country’s government representatives on the one hand and the opposition on the other.” US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday the United States has decided formally to recognize the Syrian opposition rebel coalition that is fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. "We've made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," Obama said in an interview with the ABC television network. He described the move as a “big step.”

Moscow Bans Opposition Rally

The municipal authorities in Moscow refused on Wednesday to approve a planned opposition Freedom March, city security chief Alexei Mayorov said. “The negotiations are over. Regrettably, the event has not been approved,” he said. The negotiations started on Monday. The organizers insisted that the march route end at one of the city’s central squares, a demand that the Moscow government turned down. Firebrand leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the opposition Left Front movement, confirmed to RIA Novosti that the Freedom March will not go ahead because the organizers and city authorities failed to agree the route. The Opposition Coordination Council announced in late November the decision to hold the Freedom March in Moscow on December 15. About 50,000 marchers were expected to turn up.

Investigators: Georgian Politician Behind Moscow Protests

The Russian Investigative Committee has evidence that Georgian politician Givi Targamadze controlled Russian opposition leaders during mass protests in Moscow earlier in the year, Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the committee, said. “Investigative materials have evidence that confirm[s] financing of the Russian opposition by Givi Targamadze as well as his definite role in the organization of mass disorders on the Bolotnaya Square, as well as direct management of actions of opposition leaders during the March of Millions in Moscow,” Markin said.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Skolkovo Partners with Russian Energy Companies

Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology signed an agreement with four energy  companies Wednesday, a move that could help speed up the modernization of Russia's power network and boost electricity exports to China.  The exact form of the agreement is undetermined, but it will likely involve an exchange of expertise and financial support for Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, or Skoltech.  New technology is particularly important for Russia's aging power distribution system, said Edward Crawley, the president of Skoltech and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The introduction of sophisticated technologies, such as smart-grid systems that respond with more flexibility to the needs of consumers, could also help Russia ramp up its electricity exports to China, said Artyom Volynets, chief executive of billionaire Oleg Deripaska's En+ Group. "Thanks to the technology that we will develop with Skolkovo Tech," said Volynets, "we believe that in several years time you will be able to wake up in Beijing, turn on the kettle and drink wonderful Chinese tea made using electricity from [Russian] hydroelectric stations."

Belarus Asks Kyrkyzstan to Pay Pension to Ex-President

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in an interview suggested to the authorities of Kyrgyzstan that they transfer the pension of the ex-president of the country Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in 2010 and fled to Belarus. Lukashenko said that Bakiyev “of course, will not die of hunger, we will not allow it, but it is necessary to transfer a pension.” Lukashenko also explained how Bakiyev turned to be in Belarus after the 2010 coup (aka the "April Revolution"). “We were not friends with Bakiyev. He had such friends as Putin, Nazarbayev. But he called me crying and asked to save children. I said: come,” the leader of Belarus recollected.  However, the Kyrgyz authorities refused to transfer the pension to Bakiyev.  Presidential adviser Farid Niyazov stated that Bakiyev is "charged in Kyrgyzstan with serious crimes" and that "the question of granting a pension to him should be solved in accordance with the legislation of Kyrgyzstan, which is only possible if the fugitive returns or is extradited to the homeland."

ECHR: Russian Courtroom Cages Violate Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has upheld an application filed by two Russian citizens who believe that their placement in a metal cage during court proceedings violated their fundamental rights.  Alexander Svinarenko and Valentin Slyadnev, who live in the Magadan Region, filed a complaint with the court. The men were brought to criminal court for various crimes. Svinarenko was acquitted and Slyadnev was found guilty and sentenced to 4.5 years in prison. During the hearings, the applicants were forced to sit in a metal cell in the court room. They claimed that the authorities violated Article 3 on prohibiting torture or inhumane or degrading treatment, and Article 6 on the right to a fair trial of the European Convention on Human Rights. ECHR sided with the applicants and awarded 15,000 euros in compensation for moral harm from the authorities.

30,000 Moscow Debtors Face Travel Ban

More than 30,000 Muscovites will be unable to holiday abroad over the New Year holidays due to a travel ban imposed on debtors, the city bailiffs service said on Tuesday. Moscow has the highest number of court-imposed travel bans over unpaid debts in Russia, bailiffs service deputy chief Sergei Bogdanov said in an interview with RIA Novosti. “In the first 10 months of 2011, 22,600 travel bans were imposed [in Moscow], compared to 29,700 in the same period this year,” he said, adding the number of bans by the end of the year should exceed 30,000.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Russia Restricts US Meat Imports

Russian health regulators announced formidable new barriers to the import of meat from the United States late on Friday, in a move some analysts saw as retaliation for American legislation (the "Magnitsky Act") punishing Russian officials linked to human rights violations. The new Russian regulation requires imported meat to undergo testing for and be certified free of ractopamine, which is added to animal feed in the United States to make meat more lean. The United States Department of Agriculture considers ractopamine safe and does not test for it. The move would potentially make the United States, which exports more than $500 million a year worth of beef and pork to Russia, significantly less competitive, giving advantage to Chinese and European Union meat producers, where ractopamine is banned. Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief health inspector and head of the state consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor, denied the requirement of testing and certifying meat imports was retaliatory.

Kazakhstan Wants Russia to Hand Over Space Town

Kazakhstan and Russia are in talks over returning the city of Baikonur in Kazakhstan - home to Russia's main rocket launch center - from Russian to local jurisdiction, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency (Kazkosmos) said on Monday. "Today both nations' governments have decided to set up a new intergovernmental commission for the Baikonur complex to be headed up by first or other deputy prime ministers," Kazkosmos head Talgat Musabayev told Kazakhstan's parliament. Kazakhstan has demanded reestablishment of the commission which previously oversaw the main aspects of the intergovernmental agreement on Baikonur, the site of the first Soviet rocket launches and Russia's most important space launch center. The issue of control over Baikonur and the rent Russia pays Kazakhstan to use the facility have been the subject of an ongoing dispute between the two nations ever since Kazakhstan gained independence from the USSR.

British Artists Probed for ‘Extremism’ in Russia

A duo of renowned British contemporary artists offered “extreme apologies” for an antifascist exhibit in St. Petersburg that is being investigated for anti-Christian hatemongering, media reported on Sunday. Brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman were disappointed to be accused of extremism by religious groups, and pledge to never again set foot in Russia, the BBC Russia reported. A Chapman exhibit titled End of Fun opened in the prestigious Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg in October. Among other things, End of Fun features a tiny crucified Ronald McDonald, which was seen as blasphemy by 117 Russian believers who wrote complaints to prosecutors asking to investigate the exhibit for extremism.

Russian Budget Theft Put at $250 Mln in 2012

The Russian state budget lost 7.9 billion rubles ($256 million) to graft between January and October of this year, the Investigative Committee said on Sunday, which is International Anti-Corruption Day. Only 1.3 billion rubles was returned to the state coffers so far, said the committee, a rough analogue of the FBI. Investigators opened about 20,700 corruption cases against various officials over the period, almost 7,000 more than in 2011, the committee said on its website. Two judges, 13 regional lawmakers and 19 prosecutors were among the people charged for graft this year, the report said.

Kremlin: Russia "Freer than US"

Political freedoms in Russia are unmatched by any country in the world, Kremlin official Vyacheslav Volodin, in charge of domestic policy, said on Sunday. “Our democracy was not just maximal – nothing like it was, and still is, to be found in other countries,” Volodin, first deputy chief of the Kremlin administration, said in Moscow. “Take countries that we see as blueprints for democracy – say, the United States – they don’t have such freedoms. They don’t have direct presidential elections or this multiparty system,” Volodin told a gathering of senior officials and aides to President Vladimir Putin.

Capital Outflow Forecast in Russia Down to $60 Bln

The Russian Finance Ministry slashed its annual capital outflow forecast to $60 billion, the ministry’s head Anton Siluanov said in Moscow on Sunday.  Siluanov predicted earlier that the capital drain would stand at $65 billion to $70 billion. The Russian Central Bank said capital outflow already reached $61 billion between January and October, and predicted the year-end figure to stand at $67 billion. The Economic Development Ministry’s capital outflow estimates for 2012 range from $60 billion to $70 billion.

Russia Vows to Retaliate against US Magnitsky Bill

Russia will take retaliatory measures in response to the US legislature's decision to adopt new laws imposing sanctions against certain Russian individuals believed to have been connected with the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian presidential aide said on Sunday. “The Magnitsky Act is an extremely unfriendly move. The most unpleasant thing is that we are forced to take retaliatory measures and we’ll certainly respond to this,” Yury Ushakov said. The US Senate repealed on Thursday the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik restrictions on trade with Russia and simultaneously passed the Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials deemed by Washington to have violated human rights.

Medvedev Calls Investigators "Jerks"

Russian Prime Minister Dnmitry Medvedev let his guard down after an interview with five Russian television stations when he failed to realise the cameras were still rolling. When one of the five journalists who interviewed him complained about federal investigators in an anti-opposition case arriving to search the home of a witness in an inquiry early in the morning, Medvedev told the journalist not to worry before stepping out of shot. But his microphone was still switched on when he said casually: "They are just jerks [kozly], so they come at eight in the morning. It's just their set of habits. I know many people who work in the police. They think if they come at seven in the morning they will get everything in the world."  This comment resulted in a scandal. In response Investigation Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin stated: "It was very strange to hear the comments not only insulting Investigation Committee officers but also undermining the authority of all law-enforcing bodies of the country." Later both Medvedev's and Markin's statements were removed from official sites. (video)