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Russia suggests that an expected US report that could sanction Kremlin-linked oligarchs is an attempt to influence its March presidential election.

The treasury department report is expected to detail the closeness of senior Russian political figures and oligarchs to President Vladimir Putin, who is standing for re-election.

US officials accuse Russia of meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the forthcoming report would be analyzed.

During 2017, President Donald Trump enacted new sanctions on Russia but he accused Congress of overreaching itself and preventing him from easing penalties on Russia in the future.

President Trump has repeatedly rejected any allegations that his campaign staff colluded with Russia to help him defeat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton at the November 2016 presidential election.

The allegations voiced by the US intelligence community are currently being investigated by Congress and Robert Mueller.

Dmitry Peskov said the US report was a “direct and obvious attempt to influence the elections” on March 18.

However, the spokesman added that he was sure the list would not affect the vote.

Russia Election Hacking: Robert Mueller Likely to Interview Donald Trump

Donald Trump: “President Putin Feels Insulted by Allegations of Russian Interference in US Election”

The Kremlin has pledged to help limit further damage to Russian oligarchs and businesses that could be on the list.

In 2018, President Vladimir Putin reportedly met top businessmen behind closed doors to discuss the issue.

Vladimir Putin is seen as the clear favorite to win the March elections.

His main opposition rival, Alexei Navalny, has been barred from standing in the race.

Alexei Navalny was briefly detained during a protest rally on January 28.

The US treasury department has to finalize the document on January 29, after which it is expected to hand the report over to Congress.

It is not known whether the names of those on the list will be publicly revealed or kept secret or indeed how many people and entities are on the list.

Being on the list does not automatically trigger sanctions but such penalties could be activated any time later by the United States.

Donald Trump Jr. has released an email chain showing he was keen to accept “sensitive” information on Hillary Clinton from a Russian national.

Publicist Rob Goldstone tells Donald Trump Jr. that there is information that is “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”.

Donald Trump’s son replies: “If it’s what you say, I love it.”

The emails led to a meeting in New York with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.

It appears to be the first confirmation that a Trump associate attended a meeting in the expectation of being handed sensitive information from Russian officials.

US officials are currently investigating alleged Russian meddling in the US election.

Donald Trump Jr. Admits Meeting Russian Lawyer During Campaign

President Donald Trump issued a brief statement in support of his son, describing him as “a high-quality person” and applauding his transparency.

Image source Wikimedia

The emails to Donald Trump Jr., which he released on Twitter, say “the crown prosecutor of Russia” (a role that does not exist) had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father”.

The email chain was also forwarded to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, and campaign manager Paul Manafort.

All three later met Natalia Veselnitskaya at New York’s Trump Tower.

Russia Investigation: Jared Kushner Is under FBI Scrutiny

Since he was elected, Donald Trump has been dogged by allegations that Russia tried to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The president has denied any knowledge of this and Russia has also repeatedly denied interfering.

In May, the DoJ appointed ex-FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to look into the Russian matter.

The New York Times first reported on July 8 that a meeting had taken place on June 9, 2016, between Natalia Veselnitskaya and the Trump team.

It later reported that Donald Trump Jr. had earlier been offered alleged damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

The Times had been expected to publish emails connected to the meeting, but Donald Trump Jr. pre-empted this by posting the email chain on Twitter.

He had earlier admitted meeting Natalia Veselnitskaya but insisted she had provided “no meaningful information”. He said she had wanted to talk about adoptions.

Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has been linked to the Russian government, has insisted she was never in possession of information that could have damaged Hillary Clinton.

The Russian lawyer said Donald Trump’s son and two senior campaign aides may have met her last summer because they were “longing” for such information. She has denied any connection with the Kremlin.

The email chain released by Donald Trump Jr. shows that:

  • On June 3, 2016, he received an email from intermediary Rob Goldstone promising documents from Russia that would incriminate Hillary Clinton and her supposed dealings with Russia;
  • One email from Rob Goldstone said the information they had been promised was “obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”;
  • The person who was to meet Donald Trump Jr. in New York was described as “a Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow”;
  • Within the week, a meeting had been arranged which included Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort.

Donald Trump Jr. also posted a statement saying he was releasing the email chain “to be totally transparent” and reiterated that the Russian lawyer had “no information to provide”.

Rob Goldstone has previously denied any knowledge of involvement in the election by the Russian government.

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Commodities trader Glencore and Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund are together buying a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, the Kremlin has announced.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “It is the largest privatization deal, the largest sale and acquisition in the global oil and gas sector in 2016.”

The surprise move sees Glencore and Qatar paying $11.3 billion for the stake in Rosneft, where BP already owns 19.75%.

However, the state will keep the controlling stake.

The long-planned sale is part of the Russian government’s efforts to sell some state assets to help balance the budget amid a two-year recession caused by a drop in global oil prices and Western sanctions.

Image source kremlin.ru

Image source kremlin.ru

A deadline for the sale was missed, and speculation grew that Rosneft was struggling to find a buyer.

The deal also marks a turnaround for London-listed Glencore, which had seen a collapse in its share price amid a plan to sell assets and cut its huge debts.

Glencore’s shares have rebounded this year. The Qatar Investment Authority is one of the biggest investors in Glencore.

Speaking at a TV meeting with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, Vladimir Putin noted that the deal follows a rally in global oil prices after OPEC’s decision to cut production.

Russia, although not a member of OPEC, has agreed to cut its output in line with the cartel, and will attend a meeting with its member countries on December 10 to discuss specific details.

Igor Sechin said that Glencore and the Qatari fund will form a consortium and have equal stakes. He added that Rosneft had conducted talks with more than 30 potential bidders before striking the deal.

It had been thought that the US and EU sanctions imposed on Russia following the Ukraine conflict would deter huge investment in Russia, although companies were not explicitly prohibited from participating in the Rosneft sale.

Donald Trump’s election as US president has, however, raised speculation of a thaw in relations with Moscow.

In a statement, Glencore said that it would finance part of the deal by putting up €300 million of its own equity, with the rest financed by banks and by the Qatari sovereign fund. QIA had yet to make a statement.

Glencore stands to benefit by gaining access to Rosneft’s crude output, while Qatar will further establish itself as a major investor in some of the world’s biggest businesses.

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Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev has been detained after being charged with taking a bribe to endorse a state takeover.

According to the country’s Investigative Committee (SK), Alexei Ulyukayev received a payment of $2 million.

He is the highest-ranking Russian official held since the 1991 coup attempt in what was then the USSR.

The SK said Alexei Ulyukayev had “threatened” to create obstacles for Rosneft’s operations when it took a 50% stake in another state oil company, Bashneft.

According to SK spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko, “Ulyukayev was caught red-handed”, receiving a $2 million bribe on November 14 for giving a favorable assessment of the Rosneft deal.

Image source kremlin.ru

Image source kremlin.ru

The apparent sting operation came after months of electronic surveillance, including phone-tapping, officials said.

Alexei Ulyukayev’s arrest was big news on Russia’s state-run TV channels, under the headline “Battle against corruption”.

If found guilty, Alexei Ulyukayev could face a prison sentence of between eight and 15 years.

Alexei Ulyukayev, 60, was appointed economy minister in 2013. An economic liberal in the 1990s, he became deputy chairman of Russia’s central bank in 2004.

It was only in October that Rosneft, an oil giant controlled by the Russian government, bought 50% of Bashneft for 330 billion roubles ($5 billion). Bashneft itself was one of Russia’s largest state oil companies.

Russia is in the middle of an economic slump, largely because of the fall in crude oil prices, and had lined up several state companies for privatization to replenish state coffers.

The sell-off of Bashneft had been shelved in August, reportedly by the Kremlin because of a dispute over who would take it over.

The controversial privatization returned to the agenda early last month, apparently because of the government’s need to raise money.

Alexei Ulyukayev promised last month that the entire sum paid by Rosneft would go to the Russian budget.

Economic liberals had fiercely opposed the idea of a state-owned company acquiring the government’s share in another state oil firm. It was seen as a victory for Rosneft’s chief executive, Igor Sechin, who has long been a close adviser to President Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin said last month that he had been “rather surprised” by the government’s earlier position to delay the deal as Rosneft was “strictly speaking” not a state company as part of it was owned by BP.

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President Vladimir Putin has unexpectedly dismissed his chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin has announced.

Sergei Ivanov, 63, has been part of the Russian president’s trusted inner circle for many years.

He has now been made a special representative for environmental and transport issues.

A statement from the Kremlin said that President Putin had “decreed to relieve Ivanov of his duties as head of the Russian presidential administration”, but gave no reason.

Photo Russian Government

Photo Russian Government

Sergei Ivanov’s deputy since 2012, Anton Vaino, has been appointed as his successor.

Anton Vaino, 44, is a former diplomat. Born in the Estonian capital Tallinn in 1972, he graduated from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and served in the Tokyo embassy. Later he managed presidential protocol and government staff, the Kremlin website says.

On being appointed, Anton Vaino told Vladimir Putin: “Thank you for your trust. I think the administration’s most important task is to support your activity as head of state in terms of drafting laws and control over how your instructions are implemented.”

President Putin told a Russian TV station on August 12 that Sergei Ivanov had asked to leave the post, and recommended that Anton Vaino should replace him.

In remarks to Vladimir Putin, quoted on the Kremlin website, Sergei Ivanov said: “It’s true that in early 2012 I asked you, in a conversation, to entrust me with this very complicated post, even – you could say – troublesome post, for four years.

“Well, it turns out that I’ve been presidential chief of staff for four years and eight months.”

Sergei Ivanov took up the post in December 2011. He served previously as a deputy prime minister and defense minister.

He is a member of the Russian Security Council and a former member of the KGB state security service, like Vladimir Putin.

In the late 1990s, when Vladimir Putin was head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which replaced the KGB, Sergei Ivanov was appointed as his deputy. When Vladimir Putin came to power, he named Sergei Ivanov as one of the five people he trusted most.

It was once thought that Sergei Ivanov might become president of Russia after Vladimir Putin’s second term, as a third term for Putin would have been unconstitutional.

However, that post was taken by another close Putin ally, Dmitry Medvedev.

Vladimir Putin became prime minister, before returning to the presidency just three-and-a-half years later.

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Vladimir Putin has phoned Elton John and proposed a meeting, according to the Kremlin.

Elton John has said he wants to talk to the Russian president about his “ridiculous” attitude to gay rights.

The British star previously fell victim to pranksters who impersonated Vladimir Putin on the phone.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian media that President Vladimir Putin had this time called Elton John and asked him not to be offended by the hoax.Vladimir Putin calls Elton John

Vladimir Putin said on September 24 he was ready to meet Elton John – when their schedules allowed it – and discuss “any issues of interest” to the singer, Dmitry Peskov said.

Russia has faced international criticism for its laws against gay rights.

A report by Human Rights Watch in 2014 said Russia was failing to prevent and prosecute homophobic violence amid a rise in attacks against minorities.

Prankster Vladimir Krasnov admitted his involvement in the hoax phone call to Elton John.

He told Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that he made the call with his sidekick Alexei Stolyarov, known as “Lexus”.

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The Kremlin has released footage of President Vladimir Putin and PM Dmitry Medvedev sharing a morning workout at a government residence in Sochi.

Video and still images released by Russian state news agency Tass show Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in tracksuits lifting weights.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

Later the Russian leaders shared a breakfast, barbecuing some of the food themselves.

Vladimir Putin is known in Russia for his strong-man image and has previously been pictured fishing, horse-riding, and hunting.

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied rumors that President Vladimir Putin is unwell.

The rumors started after a trip to Kazakhstan, scheduled for March 12-13, was postponed.

Vladimir Putin’s last public appearance was on March 5 when he met Italian PM Matteo Renzi.

Dmitry Peskov said those making the claims had themselves caught “spring fever”.

“When the sun comes up in the spring, and as soon as spring is in the air, then the fever begins,” he said.

“We are calm on this fever, and respond to the questions with patience.”

Reuters quoted a Kazakh government source on March 11 as saying: “It looks like [Vladimir Putin] has fallen ill.”Vladimir Putin health status 2015

Insisting the president was “fine”, Dmitry Peskov said Vladimir Putin had meetings “all the time” but not all of them were public.

Besides the trip to Kazakhstan, Vladimir Putin was due to sign a treaty of integration between Russia and South Ossetia – a breakaway state formerly part of Georgia – but the ceremony did not take place.

There may be technical reasons for that – it was reported that the document had not been fully agreed.

Vladimir Putin had also been slated to attend a federal security meeting on March 12 but a government source told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency it was unlikely to go ahead.

RBC Daily, a Moscow business newspaper, reported that the video of Vladimir Putin posted to the Kremlin’s website on March 8, meeting a delegation for International Women’s Day, had been pre-recorded on March 5. One participant at the meeting told the paper the president had looked tired.

Since then, more videos of Vladimir Putin have appeared on the site. Footage of a meeting with the governor of Russia’s republic of Karelia was published on March 11.

The videos have been the subject of scrutiny, with pundits looking closely at Vladimir Putin’s clothes and the digits of a calendar in the background for clues about when the filming took place.

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been released from prison after serving a 15-day sentence for handing out leaflets to promote a protest rally.

Alexei Navalny left a Moscow detention centre a week after the killing of Boris Nemtsov.

The March 1 rally for which Alexei Navalny was leafleting instead became a mourning march for Boris Nemtsov.

Alexei Navalny says the legal cases against him are politically motivated.Alexei Navalny released from prison 2015

In 2014, Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg were found guilty of stealing 30 million rubles ($462,000) from two companies.

Oleg Navalny was given a 3-and-a-half-year jail sentence, while Alexei Navalny received a suspended sentence that prosecutors say they will appeal against.

Speaking to reporters after his release on March 6, he vowed to continue his work despite the murder of Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead outside the Kremlin walls in what his allies say was a political killing.

“Our activity won’t change at all, we won’t reduce our efforts, we won’t step back,” Alexei Navalny said.

“That terrorist act didn’t achieve its aim, it didn’t frighten anyone, doesn’t frighten me or my associates.”

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has held “constructive” talks with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on efforts to end the conflict in east Ukraine, a Kremlin spokesman says.

Dmitry Peskov said Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel met for more than five hours.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande had brought to Moscow a peace proposal whose details have not been released.

Russia is accused of arming pro-Russian separatists – a claim it denies.

The Kremlin also rejects claims by Ukraine and the West that its regular troops are fighting alongside the rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Clashes have left nearly 5,400 people dead since April 2014, the UN says.

A September ceasefire, signed in Minsk in Belarus, has failed to stop the violence. Since then the rebels have seized more ground, raising alarm in Kiev and among Ukraine’s backers.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

The peace proposal Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande took to Moscow on February 6 was crafted with the Ukrainian government the day before.

After the two leaders’ discussions with Vladimir Putin, French officials told AFP they had been “constructive and substantial”.

Dmitry Peskov said work was continuing on a joint document. Further talks will be held by phone on February 7, he added.

Earlier, Francois Hollande said the aim was not just a ceasefire but a “comprehensive agreement” – although Angela Merkel said it was “totally open” whether that could be achieved.

Major questions any plan would have to address include the route of any new ceasefire line – given the rebel advances of recent weeks – how to enforce it, and the future status of the conflict zone.

Moscow is still denying any direct role in the conflict, while Kiev insists above all that Ukraine must remain united, our correspondent says.

Washington is considering Ukrainian pleas for better weaponry to fend off the rebels, raising European fears of an escalation in the conflict and spurring the latest peace bid.

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Turkey’s new presidential palace costs about $615 million – nearly twice the previous estimate, officials say.

The controversial 1,000-room palace known as Ak Saray (White Palace) was built on a forested hilltop on the edge of the capital Ankara, on more than 1.6 million sq ft of land.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the palace on August 30 after becoming president.

His AK Party has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade.

The palace is bigger than the White House in Washington, the Kremlin in Moscow and even the Palace of Versailles near Paris.

Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, quoted by Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, said most of the 1.37 billion Turkish lira ($615 million) cost had been paid, but another $135 million had been budgeted for it in 2015.

The palace has sumptuous marble corridors and atriums, as well as high-tech systems to prevent electronic eavesdropping.

The controversial 1,000-room palace known as Ak Saray was built on a forested hilltop on the edge of Ankara, on more than 1.6 million sq ft of land

The controversial 1,000-room palace known as Ak Saray was built on a forested hilltop on the edge of Ankara, on more than 1.6 million sq ft of land (photo EPA)

Environmentalists accuse Recep Tayyip Erdogan of spending public money on lavish construction projects to the detriment of green areas. Activists defending Istanbul’s Gezi Park clashed with police in June 2013.

Hurriyet says the palace project was controversial because hundreds of trees were cut down to make space for it, in what had been a forest reserve bequeathed to the nation by modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The finance minister also said $185m would be spent on a new Airbus A330-200 presidential jet.

A presidential aide, Fahri Kasirga, said other presidential properties would be renovated next year, notably the Huber Palace in Istanbul and a guest house in Marmaris, on the Aegean coast.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved out of the more modest Cankaya Palace in Ankara, which will now be used by PM Ahmet Davutoglu.

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The Kremlin was forced to deny claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin has married former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva.

Rumors that the recently divorced Vladimir Putin was marrying in the town of Valdai swept the internet.

Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s most charismatic political rival, tweeted: “I’m told that Putin and Kabaeva are marrying today at the Iver Monastery. All of Valdai sealed off.”

However, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later dismissed the claims as “an internet exercise to relieve boredom”.

Valdai is in the Novgorod region, where Vladimir Putin, 60, was based last week for an international conference involving politicians and journalists.

The president’s aides have repeatedly denied he is involved in a relationship with gold medal-winning gymnast Alina Kabaeva, 30.

The Kremlin was forced to deny claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin has married former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva

The Kremlin was forced to deny claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin has married former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva

Claims that Vladimir Putin and Alina Kabaeva have children together have also been dismissed.

This week Vladimir Putin indicated he may stand for office again in 2018.

Vladimir Putin was first elected in 2000 and served two four year terms until he handed control of the country to puppet president Dmitry Medvedev who served until 2012 when Putin was reelected, this time for a six-year term.

If reelected, Vladimir Putin will have been in power for nearly a quarter of a century which will make him the nation’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin.

Vladimir Putin, who served two consecutive four-year terms starting in 2000, stepped out of the presidential limelight and became prime minister in 2008 to observe a limit of two consecutive terms.

However, Vladimir Putin maintained his grip on power from the shadows with his longtime ally, Dmitry Medvedev, serving as a placeholder.

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Vladimir Putin’s spokesman has admitted that Russia’s president is suffering from an injury, but denied media reports that it is affecting his work.

Dmitry Peskov said the president had “pulled a muscle”, adding that it was sports-related.

He dismissed claims that the injury had got worse after Vladimir Putin’s flight last month with Siberian cranes.

Vladimir Putin, 60, has recently postponed a series of foreign trips, and media reports suggested he had a back injury.

And in a recent TV documentary made for his birthday, the Russian leader was seen limping.

On Thursday, Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s Kommersant FM radio station that his boss indeed had “an old injury”.

“It’s a common sports injury – Vladimir Putin pulled a muscle,” the spokesman said, without adding any details about where the injury was.

Kremlin spokesman dismissed claims that Vladimir Putin’s back  injury had got worse after his flight last month with Siberian cranes

Kremlin spokesman dismissed claims that Vladimir Putin’s back injury had got worse after his flight last month with Siberian cranes

The speculation in Russia’s media started last week after Vladimir Putin had put off a summit with other leaders of counties from the former Soviet Union. He has also postponed trips to Bulgaria and Turkey.

But Dmitry Peskov said that the dates for those visits “have not been fixed”.

Kremlin officials earlier denied that the real reason for the much-curtailed schedule is that the president is suffering from a bad back and may need an operation.

Dmitry Peskov also said the president had hardly left his country house outside Moscow in the past two weeks because he did not like his convoy causing traffic jams in central Moscow.

Vladimir Putin – a black belt in judo – has over the years portrayed himself as a macho man.

Russia’s state-run TV has shown videos of him tagging whales, swimming in freezing waters, horse-riding bare-chested and even saving a TV crew from a tiger.

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As President Vladimir Putin turns 60 years old, it appears he is still a hit with the ladies as a new survey reveals one in five Russian women would like to marry him.

The active President, who is often pictured horse riding topless, hand-gliding and driving Formula One race cars, turns 60 tomorrow.

But that doesn’t seem to have had any impact on his charm – with 6% of Russian women saying they “definitely would” marry Vladimir Putin while a further 14% said they probably would.

Just 43% said they “definitely would not” want to walk down the aisle the President, who has ruled the country for 12 years, in the survey by the independent polling station Levada.

But while President Vladimir Putin may still appeal to a high percentage of the female population, it appears that he isn’t as popular with the remaining electorate.

Vladimir Putin has been facing growing pressure as protests continue against Russia’s rigid political system and repressive Kremlin laws that have provoked wide-spread discontent.

Utilities fees and other municipal payments rose during the summer and look set to continue to rise throughout the winter.

Analysts warn that the government would quickly run out of cash to pay wages and pensions if Russia’s energy revenues dry up. Even with the current relatively high oil prices, the Kremlin has been struggling to raise funds for a planned pension reform.

Vladimir Putin has pledged repeatedly to ease Russia’s dependence on energy exports, encourage high-tech industries, create incentives for small and medium business and improve the investment climate.

But oil and gas revenues still account for the bulk of the government budget, while red tape, rampant corruption and courts bowing to official orders have spooked investors and stymied economic development.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political consultant with past ties to the Kremlin, said: “Putin hasn’t moved a finger to change the economic model established during his 12-year rule, and he can’t be realistically expected to make any changes now.”

During the latest election campaign in March, Vladimir Putin made generous pledges to raise wages and pensions, as well as boost social programs and the military budget.

But even Cabinet officials have acknowledged that his promises can’t be fulfilled without destabilizing the economy – meaning he could face trouble whichever way he turns.

After his inauguration, Vladimir Putin cracked down on his foes with a slew of draconian laws that hiked fines 150-fold for taking part in unauthorized protests, decriminalized slander and required non-government organizations that receive foreign funding to register as foreign agents.

Vladimir Putin has suffered a gradual decline in popularity but he still enjoys majority support largely thanks to the absence of a strong alternative after years of Kremlin efforts to sideline the opposition.

But for now he seems safe in his position and his adoring supporters will come out in their masses to celebrate his birthday tomorrow in cities from Siberia to Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, where the ruling party’s loyal Young Guard will unfurl a banner on a bridge which they say symbolizes Vladimir Putin’s role by uniting Asia and Europe.

Opponents will make their feelings known much closer to home, protesting near Moscow’s Red Square under the banner: “We’re sending the old man into retirement.”

The organizers plan to send their own symbolic message by asking protesters to bring gifts suitable for a pensioner – anything, perhaps, from reading glasses to a pipe.

The man himself will be relaxing with his close family and plans no special celebrations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Just a few months into a third term as president, he may be reaching retirement age, but has no plans to retire.

After 12 years as Russia’s paramount leader, opinion polls show Vladimir Putin enjoys higher ratings than most Western politicians, but they are down from their peak during the oil-fuelled economic boom of his first presidency from 2000 until 2008.

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The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has announced it will close its offices in Russia following an order from the authorities there to cease operations.

The Russian government gave the US until 1 October to close the mission.

USAID has worked in Russia for two decades, spending nearly $3bn on democracy and other programmes.

Correspondents say the government’s antipathy towards pro-democracy groups may be to blame for the move.

USAID has announced it will close its offices in Russia following an order from the authorities there to cease operations

USAID has announced it will close its offices in Russia following an order from the authorities there to cease operations

The Russian authorities have become increasingly suspicious of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which it believes are using foreign funding to foment political unrest.

Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin alleged that protests surrounding his re-election were orchestrated by US-funded NGOs.

Among the groups likely to be affected is Golos, whose exposure of electoral fraud at last year’s parliamentary elections helped spark huge anti-Kremlin street demonstrations.

Golos is partly funded by USAID.

In announcing the closure of the USAID office, US state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said: “We remain committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia and look forward to continuing our cooperation with Russian non-governmental organizations.”

She would not be drawn on the reasons behind the Kremlin’s decision, but said there was a sense “that they don’t need this anymore”.

The United States began its operations in Russia after the end of the Soviet Union, spending around $2.7 billion on a wide range of human rights, civil society, health and environmental programmes.

USAID was due to spend around $50 million on its work in Russia this year.

 

Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Moscow to protest against Vladimir Putin and the alleged electoral fraud.

The protesters passed a resolution “not to give a single vote to Vladimir Putin” at next year’s presidential election.

Protest leader Alexei Navalny told the crowd to loud applause that Russians would no longer tolerate corruption.

“I see enough people here to take the Kremlin and [Government House] right now but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet,” Alexei Navalny said.

Protesters say parliamentary elections on December 4, which were won by Vladimir Putin’s party, were rigged. The government denies the accusation.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Moscow to protest against Vladimir Putin and the alleged electoral fraud

Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Moscow to protest against Vladimir Putin and the alleged electoral fraud

 

A sea of demonstrators stretched along Sakharov Avenue, a few miles from the Kremlin, in sub-zero temperatures.

Rallies were taking place across Russia, with the first big protest in the far eastern city of Vladivostok.

At least 28,000 people turned out in the capital, according to the Russian interior ministry, but rally organizers said the true number was around 120,000.

President Dmitry Medvedev announced political reforms this week, but many demonstrators say it is not enough.

They are demanding a re-run of the poll, which was won by Vladimir Putin’s party – but with a much smaller share of the overall vote.

Vladimir Putin poured scorn on protesters during a recent live chat on Russian TV, calling them “Banderlog” after the lawless monkeys in The Jungle Book, and likening their protest symbol, a white ribbon, to a condom.

However, Vladimir Putin also said protesters had the right to demonstrate if they kept within the law.

In Moscow, many protesters clutched white balloons and banners with the slogan “For Free Elections” while some mocked Vladimir Putin with images of condoms, to the extent that the first speaker, music journalist Artyom Troitsky, dressed himself up as one.

The resolution passed at Saturday’s rally built on demands expressed at an earlier rally in Moscow on December 10.

Another new point was a call for the creation of a new election monitoring body – the Moscow Voters’ Association – to investigate ballot-rigging.

Alexei Navalny, a prominent anti-corruption blogger who was jailed for 15 days over a street protest just after the elections, greeted the crowd with the words: “Greetings to the Banderlog from the net hamsters [internet activists].”

Condemning Russia’s leaders as “swindlers and thieves”, he listed victims of injustice including imprisoned former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in custody.

“Who’s the power here?” he shouted to cries of “We are” from the crowd.

Alexei Navalny promised that the next protest rally would be a “million strong”.

Alexei Kudrin, who recently resigned after serving a decade as Vladimir Putin’s finance minister, was booed when he took the microphone to call for early parliamentary elections and urge a dialogue between the Kremlin and the opposition.

“There needs to be a platform for dialogue, otherwise there will be a revolution and we lose the chance that we have today for a peaceful transformation,” he said.

A total of 22 speakers were lined up for the Moscow rally, with rival opposition figures addressing a crowd which mixed liberals with nationalists.

• In a video message, Russian rock musician Yury Shevchuk urged protesters to maintain their dignity and avoid “competing in hatred for the authorities”

• Billionaire and Putin election challenger Mikhail Prokhorov had been expected to address the rally but stayed in the crowd, saying he had heard presidential candidates were “not supposed to speak”

• Another presidential candidate, veteran liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, did speak, and called for a free electoral system

• Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 80, did not attend after all, sending a message of support instead. He later told Moscow Echo radio that Mr Putin should not stand for another term in office

Saturday’s rally in Moscow ended peacefully, with the last speaker a Grandfather Frost (Russian Santa Claus) figure who wished citizens of a “free Russia” a Happy New Year.

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