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First thoughts on arrest and sacking of Russian economy minister

Former Russian Economics Minister Ulyukaev has been dismissed in disgrace after being arrested on corruption charges. Though there is probably no political motive behind his arrest and dismissal, more will become clearer when Putin names his successor.

Alexander Mercouris

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Following swiftly from the dramatic news of the arrest of Russian Economy Minister Alexey Ulyukaev comes confirmation of his dismissal by President Putin. 

The wording of the Kremlin’s statement confirming Ulyukaev’s dismissal is short and simple but could not be clearer, and leaves no doubt that he has been dismissed in disgrace:

“Vladimir Putin signed Executive Order dismissing Alexey Ulyukaev of his duties as Economic Development Minister due to the loss of trust.”

It is important to say that so far Ulyukaev has not been convicted of anything, and that he denies the charges of bribe taking brought against him.  His lawyers say that he considers himself to be the victim of a “provocation”. 

The news that Putin has summarily dismissed him for “loss of trust” is however a sure sign that Russia’s president at least accepts the validity of the charges against him.

In truth, though there is much about the case that of necessity at this point remains obscure, the evidence against Ulyukaev appears to be compelling.

Essentially the charge against Ulyukaev is that he abused his position to extort $2 million worth in bribes from the Russian state oil company Rosneft, threatening, unless the bribe was paid, to obstruct Rosneft’s acquisition of 50.08% of the shares in the Bashneft oil company, which is based in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan.

The sale of Bashneft’s shares to Rosneft has not been uncontroversial, and I will take a little time to explain this tangled affair since it is certain to feature prominently in Ulyukaev’s defence. 

Bashnet was originally privatised in 2002 and 2003, following which it was acquired by Sistema, a Russian holding company owned by the Russian businessman Vladimir Yevtushenkov.  Yevtushenkov was arrested in September 2014 on money laundering charges in connection with Sistema’s acquisition of Bashneft, leading to the seizure of 72% of Bashneft’s shares by the Russian government. 

Yevtushenkov was, however, released in December 2014, and in January 2016 all charges against him were dropped, with the Moscow Arbitration Court ordering the government to pay Sistema $1.1 billion compensation for the wrongful seizure of Bashneft.

There was speculation back in 2014 that the person who was ultimately behind the case against Yevtushenkov was Igor Sechin, the powerful CEO of Rosneft, with rumours circulating that Sechin had concocted the case against Yevtushenkov as part of a plan for Rosneft to gain control of Bashneft. 

Needless to say, when it became known this year that Rosneft was indeed acquiring a majority stake in Bashneft after the Russian government decided to sell its stake, those who alleged that Yevtushenkov’s arrest had been arranged by Sechin to enable Rosneft to gain control of Bashneft claimed that they had been proved right.

Given that it was Rosneft which apparently tipped off the police that Ulyukaev was extorting a bribe from them by threatening to obstruct Rosneft’s acquisition of Bashneft’s shares, there will inevitably be those who will say that the case against Ulyukaev is also the result of Sechin’s intrigues, and that far from being a bribe taker, Ulyukaev has fallen victim to a set up fabricated by Sechin.  

Whilst I strongly suspect this will be the defence Ulyukaev and his supporters will eventually come up with, I will now in advance express my skepticism.

Though Sechin is unquestionably a tough and forceful manager of Rosneft, I doubt that he is remotely capable of manipulating Russia’s police agencies in the way this complicated scenario would require.

Also, it seems that Ulyukaev has been under observation for some time because of suspicions he was engaging in extortion and bribe taking, and that his telephone was being tapped since at least the early summer, with Putin being informed of the concerns about him, and being kept regularly updated on the conduct of the investigation into his activities. 

As I have said, the fact that Putin hurried to dismiss Ulyukaev so soon after his arrest, and the wording of the dismissal with the pointed use of the words “breach of trust”, points to Putin believing the charges that have been brought against Ulyukaev. 

Also, whilst we obviously do not have the full details, the Investigative Committee (Russia’s equivalent to the FBI) says Ulyukaev was caught red handed, and that the case against him is foolproof.

When a member of the Russian government is publicly arrested and dismissed in this way, it is inevitable that many search for a political motive behind what has happened.

The most common view in Moscow at the moment is that Ulyukaev’s dismissal is the first step in the purge of the liberals from the Russian government, that many have been long talking about and long expecting.

All I would say about that is that though Ulyukaev is undoubtedly a liberal and is one of the last survivors of the team of liberal reformers brought into the Russian government by Yegor Gaidar, (Boris Yeltsin’s ultra liberal acting Prime Minister of the early 1990s), he has always seemed to me somewhat detached from the dominant liberal grouping within the government, which consists of Kudrin, Central Bank Chair Nabiullina, and Finance Minister Siluanov.

Ulyukaev has long been a critic of the Central Bank’s tough monetary policy, pressing continuously for a lowering of interest rates, and my distinct impression at SPIEF this June was that he and Central Bank Chair Nabiullina were personally on extremely bad terms.  When Ulyukaev’s name was mentioned by a member of the audience at a panel that Kudrin, Nabiullina and Siluanov all attended – but from which Ulyukaev was pointedly excluded – it seemed as if a chill had descended on the room.

In addition, if Ulyukaev really was dismissed as part of some sort of purge I don’t understand why Putin felt the need to go about his dismissal in such a complicated way.  Ulyukaev is neither popular nor a major power broker, and if Putin simply wanted to get rid of him I can’t see why he didn’t just sack him.

Unless more information comes to light that more is involved than appears on the surface, my operating hypothesis will be that Ulyukaev has been dismissed for the reason the Russian authorities have said – because he was caught extorting bribes – and for no other reason than that. 

I appreciate that most people probably won’t agree with me, but until I see some evidence that more is involved, I shall accept the official explanation, which seems to me sufficient to explain what has happened. 

More should become clearer when Putin announces who Ulyukaev’s successor will be.

There is one further point I do, however, want to make.  This is that though there is a general blanket assumption that corruption is rife in high places in Russia, the sort of people who get caught with their hand in the till invariably seem to be liberals: former Prime Minister Kasyanov, former Defence Minister Serdyukov, former governor of the Kirov region Belykh, and now of course Ulyukaev.

Whether that is because liberals are more prone to corruption than other officials – as many Russians believe – or because liberals are more likely to be targeted for corruption investigations than other officials – as many liberal commentators in Russia and outside claim – the fact speaks for itself.  For the record my opinion is the former.

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Vladimir Putin calls new Ukrainian church ‘dangerous politicking’

President Putin said creation of the “Orthodox Church in Ukraine” is against Church canon and that the West drove Constantinople to do it.

Seraphim Hanisch

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In an interview with the Serbian newspapers Politika and Vecernje Novosti ahead of his visit to Serbia, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted the creation of the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine”, a schismatic agglomeration headed by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists was “dangerous politicking.” He further noted that:

The establishment of the new religious entity in Ukraine is nothing but an attempt “to legalize the schismatic communities that exist in Ukraine under the jurisdiction of Istanbul, which is a major violation of Orthodox canons.”

“Yet, hardly anyone in the U.S. or in the Ukrainian leadership worries about this,” Putin said.

“Once again, this has nothing to do with spiritual life; we are dealing here with dangerous and irresponsible politicking,” he said.

President Putin had more things to say in the interview, and we present what he said in full here (emphasis ours), as reported on the Kremlin.ru website:

Question: The Serbian Orthodox Church has taken the side of the Russian Orthodox Church in the context of the ecclesiastical crisis in Ukraine. At the same time, a number of countries are exerting pressure on Patriarch Bartholomew and seek to ensure recognition of Ukrainian ”schismatics“ by Local Orthodox Churches. How do you think the situation will evolve?

Vladimir Putin: I would like to remind your readers, who are greatly concerned about the information regarding the split in the Orthodox community but are probably not fully aware of the situation in Ukraine, what it is all about.

On December 15, 2018, the Ukrainian leaders, actively supported by the USA and the Constantinople Patriarchate, held a so-called “unifying synod”. This synod declared the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, with Patriarch Bartholomew signing the tomos (decree) granting it autocephaly on January 6, 2019. Thus, it was attempted to legalize the schismatic communities that exist in Ukraine under the jurisdiction of Istanbul, which is a major violation of Orthodox canons.

Yet, hardly anyone in the US or in the Ukrainian leadership worries about this, as the new church entity is an entirely political, secular project. Its main aim is to divide the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, sowing seeds of ethnic as well as religious discord. No wonder Kiev has already declared ”obtaining complete independence from Moscow.”

Once again, this has nothing to do with spiritual life; we are dealing here with dangerous and irresponsible politicking. Likewise, we do not speak about the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It is de-facto fully controlled by Istanbul. Whereas Ukraine’s largest canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has never requested autocephaly from Patriarch Bartholomew, is absolutely independent in its actions. Its connection with the Russian Orthodox Church is purely canonical – but even this causes undisguised irritation of the current Kiev regime.

Because of this, clergymen and laymen of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are being persecuted and deprived of churches and monasteries, and attempts are made to deny the Church its legitimate name, which raises tensions and only leads to further discord in Ukrainian society.

Evidently, Ukraine’s leaders have to understand that any attempts to force the faithful into a different church are fraught with grave consequences. Yet, they are eager to put interconfessional concord in the country at stake in order to conduct the election campaign of the current Ukrainian President based on a search for enemies, and to retain power by all means.

All of this does not go unnoticed by Orthodox Christians.

Naturally, Russia does not intend to interfere in ecclesiastical processes, especially those happening on the territory of a neighboring sovereign state. However, we are aware of the danger posed by such experiments and blatant interference of the state in religious affairs.

The situation continues to degrade in Ukraine, and though the Orthodox faithful of the Autonomous but Moscow-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church are the hardest hit, worry over Ukrainian lawlessless-made-law has the Jewish community in that country nervous as well. This is perhaps to be expected as the Azov Brigade, a neo-Nazi aligned group that is hypernationalist, is a good representation of the character of the “hate Russia at all costs” Ukrainian nationalists. A parallel piece in Interfax made note of this in a piece dated January 17th 2019:

[A] bill passed by the Verkhovna Rada introducing a procedure by which parishes can join the new Ukrainian church makes it easier to seize places of worship, and supporters of autocephaly have already started doing this across the country, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said.

“They need this law to seize our churches. You can’t just come with a crowbar to someone else’s barn, but now the law allows you to do so. They aren’t creating something of their own, but are trying to steal what’s ours,” Ukrainian Orthodox Church spokesperson Vasyl Anisimov told Interfax on Thursday.

The religious entity set up in December with Constantinople’s involvement and called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine “in fact doesn’t yet exist in nature. It’s fake. It doesn’t have any parishes of its own or government registration,” he said.

However, “the supporters of autocephaly don’t have plans to create anything of their own at all, so they have chosen the path of takeover, and the authorities are helping them in that,” Anisimov said.

“Hence, the legislation passed by the Verkhovna Rada today is in fact absolute lawlessness,” he said.

“If you pass legislation affecting an industry, you should talk to industrialists, and if it’s legislation on the agricultural sector, talk to farmers. And here legislation on a church is passed, and moreover, this legislation is aimed against this church, it is protesting, and Jews are protesting, too, because this legislation may affect them as well – but nobody is listening, and they change the law for the sake of an absolutely absurd and unconstitutional gimmick. But, of course, it’s the people who will ultimately suffer,” Anisimov said.

 

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May survives ‘no confidence’ vote as UK moves towards March 29 deadline or Article 50 extension (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 168.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the ‘no confidence’ vote that UK Prime Minister May won with the a slim margin…meaning that though few MPs have confidence in her ‘Brexit withdrawal’ negotiating skills, they appear to have no problem allowing May to lead the country towards its Brexit deadline in March, which coincidently may be delayed and eventually scrapped altogether.

Meanwhile Tony Blair is cozying up to Brussels’ oligarchs, working his evil magic to derail the will of the British people, and keep the integrationist ambitions for the UK and Europe on track.

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Via RT


The UK government led by Theresa May, has survived to fight another day, after winning a no-confidence vote, tabled by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, following parliament rejecting the PM’s Brexit deal, earlier on Tuesday evening.

The no-confidence vote was defeated by 19 votes – the government winning by 325 to 306. It’s a rare positive note for May’s Tory cabinet after the humiliating Brexit defeat.

Speaking immediately after the vote, a victorious May said she was “pleased” that the House expressed its confidence in her government. May said she will “continue to work” to deliver on the result of the Brexit referendum and leave the EU.

May invited the leaders of parliamentary parties to meet with her individually, beginning on Wednesday evening.

“I stand ready to work with any member of this House to deliver on Brexit,” she said.

Responding to the vote, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the House had “emphatically” rejected May’s deal on Tuesday. The government, he said, must now remove “clearly once and for all the prospect of the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit from the EU and all the chaos that would result from that.”

Labour will now have to consider what move to make next. Their official Brexit policy, decided by members at conference in September, states that if a general election cannot be forced, then all options should be left on the table, including calling for a second referendum.

Liberal Democrats MP Ed Davey also called on May to rule out a no deal Brexit.

The way forward for Brexit is not yet clear and May’s options are now limited, given that the Brexit deal she was offering was voted down so dramatically on Tuesday.

Gavin Barrett, a professor at the UCD Sutherland School of Law in Dublin, told RT that May will now have to decide if her second preference is a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum. Her preference will likely be a no-deal Brexit, Barrett said, adding that “since no other option commands a majority in the House” a no-deal exit is now “the default option.”

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Final Steps in Syria’s Successful Struggle for Peace and Sovereignty

The war of aggression against Syria is winding up, and this can be observed by the opening of a series of new embassies in Damascus.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The situation in Syria evolves daily and sees two situations very closely linked to each other, with the US withdrawal from Syria and the consequent expansionist ambitions of Erdogan in Syria and the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) takeover in Idlib that frees the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian aviation to liberate the de-escalation zone.

Trump has promised to destroy Turkey economically if he attacks the Kurds, reinforcing his claim that Erdogan will not target the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) once the US withdraws from the area. One of the strongest accusations made against Trump’s withdrawal by his opponents is that no Middle Eastern force will ever trust the US again if they abandon the SDF to its fate, that is, to its annihilation at the hands of the Turkish army and its FSA proxies. This, however, is not possible; not so much because of Trump’s economic threats, but because of Damascus and Moscow being strongly opposed to any Turkish military action in the northeast of Syria.

This is a red line drawn by Putin and Assad, and the Turkish president likely understands the consequences of any wrong moves. It is no coincidence that he stated several times that he had no problems with the “Syrians or Syrian-Kurdish brothers”, and repeated that if the area under the SDF were to come under the control of Damascus, Turkey would have no need to intervene in Syria. Trump’s request that Ankara have a buffer zone of 20 kilometers separating the Kurdish and Turkish forces seems to complement the desire of Damascus and Moscow to avoid a clash between the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the SDF.

The only party that seems to be secretly encouraging a clash between the SDF and Turkish forces is Israel, criticizing Ankara and singing the praises of the SDF, in order to try and accentuate the tensions between the two sides, though naturally without success. Israel’s continued raids in Syria, though almost constantly failing due to Syrian air defense, and the divide-and-rule policy used against Turkey and the SDF, show that Tel Aviv is now weakened and mostly irrelevant in the Syrian conflict.

In Idlib, the situation seems to be becoming less complicated and difficult to decipher. Russia, Iran and Syria had asked Erdogan to take control of the province through its “moderate jihadists”, sit down at the negotiating table, and resolve the matter through a diplomatic solution. Exactly the opposite happened. The HTS (formerly al-Nusra/al-Qaeda in Syria) has in recent weeks conquered practically the whole province of Idlib, with numerous forces linked to Turkey (Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki) dissolving and merging into HTS. This development puts even more pressure on Erdogan, who is likely to see his influence in Idlib fade away permanently. Moreover, this evolution represents a unique opportunity for Damascus and Moscow to start operations in Idlib with the genuine justification of combating terrorism. It is a repeat of what happened in other de-escalation areas. Moscow and Damascus have repeatedly requested the moderates be separated from the terrorists, so as to approach the situation with a diplomatic negotiation.

In the absence of an effective division of combatants, all are considered terrorists, with the military option replacing the diplomatic. This remains the only feasible option to free the area from terrorists who are not willing to give back territory to the legitimate government in Damascus and are keeping civilians hostages. The Idlib province seems to have experienced the same playbook applied in other de-escalation zones, this time with a clear contrast between Turkey and Saudi Arabia that shows how the struggle between the two countries is much deeper than it appears. The reasons behind the Khashoggi case and the diplomatic confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia were laid bare in the actions of the HTS in Idlib, which has taken control of all the areas previously held by Ankara’s proxies.

It remains to be seen whether Moscow and Damascus would like to encourage Erdogan to recover Idlib through its proxies, trying to encourage jihadists to fight each other as much as possible in order to lighten the task of the SAA, or whether they would prefer to press the advantage themselves and attack while the terrorist front is experiencing internal confusion.

In terms of occupied territory and accounts to be settled, two areas of great importance for the future of Syria remain unresolved, namely al-Tanf, occupied by US forces on the Syrian-Jordanian border, and the area in the north of Syria occupied by Turkish forces and their FSA proxies. It is too early to approach a solution militarily, it being easier for Damascus and Moscow to complete the work to free Syria from the remaining terrorists. Once this has been done, the presence of US or Turkish forces in Syria, whether directly or indirectly, would become all the more difficult to justify. Driving away the US and, above all, Turkey from Syrian territory will be the natural next step in the Syrian conflict.

This is an unequivocal sign that the war of aggression against Syria is winding up, and this can be observed by the opening of a series of new embassies in Damascus. Several countries — including Italy in the near future — will reopen their embassies in Syria to demonstrate that the war, even if not completely over, is effectively won by Damascus and her allies.

For this reason, several countries that were previously opposed to Damascus, like the United Arab Emirates, are understood to have some kind of contact with the government of Damascus. If they intend to become involved in the reconstruction process and any future investment, they will quite naturally need to re-establish diplomatic relations with Damascus. The Arab League is also looking to welcome Syria back into the fold.

Such are signs that Syria is returning to normality, without forgetting which and how many countries have conspired and acted directly against the Syrians for over seven years. An invitation to the Arab League or some embassy being reopened will not be enough to compensate for the damage done over years, but Assad does not preclude any option, and is in the meantime demonstrating to the Israelis, Saudis and the US Deep State that their war has failed and that even their most loyal allies are resuming diplomatic relations with Damascus, a double whammy against the neocons, Wahhabis and Zionists.

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