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By John Helmer, Moscow

Andrei Kostin, 61, the head of the state-owned VTB Bank, has enjoyed a long career as a state official and state banker.  His reputation among his international banking peers does not highlight expertise in treasury operations  or investment ingenuity. Rather, Kostin is reputed for being the trusted executor of his shareholders’ instructions, deliberative, loyal, cheerful.

Since Kostin was head of Vnesheconombank (VEB) between 1996 and 2002, and head of Vneshtorgbank (VTB) since then, the instructions Kostin is trusted to follow come from the President, the Prime Minister and the senior state officials who rule the VEB and VTB boards, as well as from the security services with which Kostin was acquainted early in his government career. President Vladimir Putin made an exceptional public token of this trust by honouring Kostin’s 61st birthday last month with the gift of a Chimes wristwatch. 

When Kostin makes public statements in western media, it is understood he aims to reflect what the Kremlin has decided; he is not lobbying a personal or factional policy line before the decisions are made. So what were Kostin’s instructions when in Davos this week he declared, in reply to a question about the threat of US Government sanctions against Russian oligarchs: “I don’t think that everyone will now start to run away like cockroaches that disappear through the floorboards. The business community is generally calm”?

International bank sources in London and New York say they regard the remark as uncharacteristically vivid for Kostin. “In the first place, Kostin doesn’t think of the oligarchs as cockroaches,” commented a source who has known Kostin professionally for years.  “In the second, he knows they have already run away with their money, leaving Kostin and other state bankers holding their debts. In the third place, everyone knows they are anything but calm right now.” (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Next to the certainty that President Vladimir Putin will win re-election on March 18, there is a doubt which no Russian pollster, political sociologist or official of the Central Election Commission dares to discuss on the record. That is the evidence from polling surveys of how many voters will cast ballots on the day – the turnout percentage.

The Kremlin and the president’s campaign boosters have announced a target of 70/70; that is 70% turnout, 70% vote for Putin.

The available evidence indicates that intention to vote, the projected turnout, has been sinking into the 50th  percentile. This level is so low, the Central Election Commission (CEC) has been ordered to do everything possible to raise turnout. Everything possible may include the method of President Boris Yeltsin’s administration; that’s the inclusion of voters who are dead but whose names remain on the registers. Named after the Nikolai Gogol story,   the Dead Soul vote is estimated by experts, who don’t wish to be named,  at between 3% and 7%; up to 10% in some regions.   (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

In criminal trials the rule for prosecuting and defending lawyers is the same. Never ask a witness a question unless you already know the answer. The corollary rule for defending lawyers is – if the answer to your question will incriminate your client, don’t ask it, and hope the prosecutor fails to do his job.

Glenn Simpson, a former employee of the Wall Street Journal in New York, is currently on trial in the US for having fabricated a dossier of allegations of Russian misconduct (bribes, sex, blackmail, hacking) involving President Donald Trump and circulating them to the press; the objective was to damage Trump’s candidacy before the election of November 8, 2016. Simpson was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22, 2017; then the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on November 8 and again on November 14, 2017. So far, Simpson’s veracity and business conduct face nothing more than the court of public opinion. He has not yet been charged with criminal or civil offences. That will happen if the evidence materializes that Simpson has been lying.

Simpson’s collaborator in the dossier and his business partner, Christopher Steele, is facing trial in the London High Court, charged with libels he and Simpson published in their dossier.  Together, they are material witnesses in two federal US court trials for defamation, one in Miami and one in New York.  If they perjure themselves giving evidence in those cases, they are likely to face criminal indictments. If they tell the truth, they are likely to face fresh defamation proceedings;  perhaps a civil racketeering suit for fraud;  maybe a false statement prosecution under the US criminal code.

One question for them is as obvious as its answer. Who do an American ex-journalist on US national security and an ex-British intelligence agent go to for sources on Russian undercover operations outside Russia in general, the US in particular?  Answer — first, their friends and contacts from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); second, their friends and contacts from the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6, as the UK counterpart is known.

Why then did the twenty-two  congressmen, the members of the House Intelligence Committee who subpoenaed Simpson for interview, fail to pursue what information he and Steele received either directly from the CIA or indirectly through British intelligence?    

The answer noone in the US wants to say aloud is the possibility that it was the CIA which provided Simpson and Steele with names and source materials for their dossier, creating the evidence of a Russian plot against the US election, and generating evidence of Russian operations. If that is what happened, then Simpson and Steele were participants in a false-flag CIA operation in US politics.

This isn’t idle speculation. It has been under investigation at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)  since Simpson and Steele decided in mid-2016 to go to the FBI to request an investigation, and then told American press to get  the FBI to confirm it was investigating. At the fresh request this month from the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the FBI is still investigating.   (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

American reporters are so mesmerized by Russia-related investigations of the Trump family, Trump businesses, his election campaign and the presidential transition, they can no longer see the obvious. The recently released Senate Judiciary Committee interrogation and testimony of Glenn Simpson (lead image) proves — if it proves anything at all – that Glenn Simpson and Christopher Steele, authors of the Golden Showers Dossier, are liars who fabricated claims about Russians which they then promoted to reporters and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) without double-checking or independent verification.

Simpson appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22, 2017. His interrogation by senators and their staff lasted almost eight hours, beginning at 9:34 in the morning, and ending at 7:04  in the evening. Lunch took forty minutes. There were nine toilet breaks, one every hour, averaging just 6.9 minutes. Long enough to empty bladders;  too short for golden showers. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

On January 10, Oleg Deripaska (lead image, front left), the Russian oligarch who controls the state aluminium monopoly Rusal and electricity producer EN+, ordered his personal lawyers, Bryan Cave, into the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. There, court papers reveal that Deripaska is charging Paul Manafort (rear left) and his associates with “fraud, gross negligence, blatant disloyalty, and rapacious self-dealing”. Deripaska’s allegation is that between April and July of 2008 he was swindled out of $26.3 million.

The court papers represent Deripaska to be a naïve partner in a business in Odessa, Ukraine, for which Deripaska did no due diligence; took no security over assets; kept no records; saw no accounts; and did nothing at all for almost a decade.  In the New York court papers, Deripaska confesses himself to be unable to manage the smallest of businesses, let alone several multi-billion dollar enterprises vital to the economic security of the Russian state.

“Of course, Oleg Vladimirovich doesn’t think that,” responds a Russian business figure who knows Deripaska well. “This is Deripaska’s alibi in case his name is listed as one of the oligarchs liable for the next round of US sanctions. He is saying he hasn’t been buying favour from Americans close to [President Donald] Trump; he says they have cheated him. And if Deripaska’s name turns out not to be on the new US list, it’s also his alibi when the Kremlin asks why.”

“The Russian oligarchs are between the hammer and the anvil,” explains an international banker who has served on a leading Russian corporation board. “It’s bad enough if the coming US sanctions list puts their US business and assets at risk. It’s even worse if they aren’t on the list, and [President Vladimir] Putin suspects them of disloyalty and of cutting a secret deal with the Americans.” (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Alcoholics have ruled Russia in the past, but for the first time in Russian history a producer of alcohol, a winemaker, is running for president in the March election.  

Boris Titov, owner of Abrau-Durso whose shares are listed on the Moscow stock exchange, is careful to avoid speaking to the voters about what he knows best.  If elected president, is Titov intending to make alcohol cheaper, or more expensive, he was asked ahead of the launch of his campaign last month. Does he propose to raise or lower the price of beer, wine and vodka by increasing or cutting state excise taxes?

Titov replied through a spokesman:  “He will not discuss alcohol taxes.  There are no plans concerning alcohol regulation in his programme.”  Supporting him, and one of the advisors to Titov’s “Party of Growth”,   is Alexander Mechetin, owner of the Beluga vodka brand, and one of the four vodka oligarchs who dominate the Russian vodka market (lead image, 1st left; to right, Rustam Tariko; Andrei Strelets; Vasily Anisimov).

The reason for their sensitivity isn’t political. On current polling of Russian voter choice, Titov will be lucky to draw one percent of the vote on March 18.  There isn’t a temperance constituency in Russia to appeal to. Promising heavier taxes on alcohol will upset poor drinkers, hurt legal producers, and encourage an increase in the tax-evading trade in samogon (moonshine) and alcohol substitutes, which cause alcohol poisoning. Titov and Mechetin, like the other commercial alcohol producers, as well as the Republic of Tatarstan, currently the biggest volume producer of vodka in the country, say they want the alcohol market to stabilize at the current level of tax, while they produce and sell more alcohol domestically, as well as to the international vodka market.  They are looking to the federal government to use police methods to crack down on illegal, untaxed alcohol plants, while motivating regions like Tartarstan to deter the illegal trade by keeping in the region as much of the tax as they can collect.

Titov the winemaker isn’t going to spill the vodka bottle. Nor will any other candidate for the Russian presidency. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Four years ago almost precisely, on January 12, 2014 – just before the Anglo-American war against Russia began in earnest — we reported that the Moscow School of Management at Skolkovo was publishing what it called  a market atlas of the jobs and professions which will be newly needed by the year 2020, and those to be needed no longer.

One of the new ones was what the Skolkovo atlas called a cyber-cleaner (кибердворник). This is a specialist in removing from the internet and all digital data archives whatever information someone pays to have cleaned or deleted entirely, and its substitution with what the specialist is paid to put there – fake news, kompromat, disinformation, PR, advertising, fraud.  One of the professions the cyber-cleaners will replace, according to the atlas, is journalism. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the year since we last wished you well, Dear Reader, you have read on average three of our new stories every working week. Also, you’ve spent an average of more than thirty minutes reading each story. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Central Bank of Russia has called for state prosecutors in Moscow to investigate its most costly bank takeover and bailout,  the three-year refinancing and reorganization of National Bank Trust and Otkritie Bank, on suspicion of multibillion-dollar fraud by Vadim Belyaev, the former chief executive  and leading shareholder of Otkritie.

In fear of arrest,  Belyaev has reportedly taken refuge in the UK. According to a press leak  from the Central Bank on Wednesday, “Vadim Belyaev, the owner of Otkritie Bank, is hiding in London now and doesn’t intend to return to Russia. The [Central Bank] financial regulator sees no reason for cooperation with Belyaev any longer, and is ready to consider his activities at Otkritie as fraud.  At the request of the deputy head of the Central Bank,  Vasily Pozdyshev,  the General Prosecutor is studying transactions of Otkritie involving the [largescale] withdrawal of capital.” The Central Bank source reports “the weight of evidence suggests that 127 billion rubles [$2.2 billion] allocated to Otkritie for the rehabilitation of Trust have been despatched, not to their intended purpose but in an unknown direction.”

Other Otkritie Bank shareholders  involved in the transactions now under investigation by the prosecutors include Vagit Alekperov of LUKoil;  Ruben Aganbegyan of the Moscow Stock Exchange, and  Alexander Mamut,  an investor in the Russian insurer Ingosstrakh and the Polymetal goldmining group. 

Today the Central Bank refused officially to confirm or deny the details reported so far. Alexander Dmitriev, spokesman for Belyaev and the Otkritie board before its takeover by the Central Bank, also refused to respond to the reported allegations. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

A man who hates the subject of his writings is as pitiable as a coprophagic with haemorrhoids. The more he consumes of what he desires, the more painful he knows will be the consequence.

Termites and rabbits do plenty of the former, but Mother Nature has relieved them of the latter.  Russia-hating writers on Russia are not so favoured; they are the only cases I know which combine, and enjoy,  the perversity with the pain. In their cases, there’s always been something missing between their upper and lower holes – I mean more is missing than a sense of taste and a sense of humour.

Michel de Montaigne, the French politician and writer of sixteenth century France – inventor of the essay – is their antithesis. He deserves to be remembered for two mottoes we shall need in 2018. Re-read the essays in the translation by Donald Frame here.  Ignore the recent biography by a Chicago professor of French origin named Philippe Desan; he has spent an academic career and eight hundred fresh printed pages revealing his envy that Montaigne will be read for longer than Desan will be forgotten.  Envy like this will also have to be overcome to get through the coming year; more of that in a moment. (more…)