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Russian Court Issues Suspended Sentence Against Putin Critic

By Nikolaus Von Twickel, dpa (TNS)

MOSCOW — A Russian court on Tuesday found opposition leader Alexei Navalny guilty on corruption charges and gave him a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence, in a case widely criticized as politically charged.

Navalny’s supporters were especially incensed that the activist’s brother, Oleg, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail on the same charges. Oleg Navalny was arrested directly in the courtroom, according to the brothers’ lawyer, Vadim Kobzev.

Alexei Navalny will continue to serve pretrial house arrest until the full verdict is published, Kobbzev told dpa. The arrest was prolonged by the same court earlier this month until January 15, with the judge arguing that Navalny might otherwise influence the trial.

The Zamoskvoretsky district court also fined both brothers 500,000 rubles (8,800 dollars) each and ordered them to pay more than 77,000 dollars in damages.

Navalny reacted with disgust to his brother’s sentencing. “Of all possible verdicts, this is the foulest,” he wrote on Twitter.

Both brothers have called the charges fabricated. Fellow activists denounced the decision as state-sponsored hostage-taking.

“The sentence for [Navalny’s brother] means we’re now taking family members hostage,” Moscow-based political analyst Lilia Shevtsova wrote on Facebook.

The judge did not read out the verdict’s explanation on Tuesday. However, the charges read that a company linked to the brothers defrauded at least 30 million rubles (500,000 dollars) from French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

Prosecutors have argued that the company, Glavpodpiska, offered freight services at above market prices and that Navalny used his “administrative resources” to force Yves Rocher to accept them.

A company representative has said during an earlier court hearing that total damages amount to 55 million rubles, more than 800,000 dollars at the time.

Navalny earlier this year published a letter from Yves Rocher in which the company retracted its initial accusation.

Prosecutors had asked for 10 years in prison for Alexei Navalny and eight years for his brother.

Navalny’s lawyer, Kobzev, said that prosecutors’ wanted to include a five-year suspended sentence that was handed down in 2013 for a separate corruption case. “They court did not grant this,” he told dpa.

Kobzev added that he will appeal the brothers’ verdicts.

Tuesday’s court session was originally planned for mid-January, but was moved up abruptly Monday. A court spokeswoman explained the decision by saying that the verdict was “already prepared.”

Opposition activists said the decision was motivated by authorities’ fear of protests announced for the original court date on January 15.

They called for a demonstration to support Navalny in central Moscow Tuesday evening.

AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov

Ruble Plunges To New Depths Despite Massive Interest Rate Hike

By Nikolaus von Twickel, dpa (TNS)

MOSCOW — The Russian ruble plunged to record lows Tuesday, defying a massive 6.5-point interest rate hike by the central bank.

The euro soared to 100 rubles in afternoon trading while the dollar rose to 80 against the ruble, meaning that the Russian currency lost more than 20 percent of its value in a single day.

The ruble recovered later to 85.5 to the euro and 68.6 to the dollar, but Russian media reports suggested that banks, especially in regions outside Moscow, limited or stopped the sale of foreign currency.

The collapse, dubbed Black Tuesday by some media, is a slap in the face to the Central Bank of Russia, which tried to shore up the currency with an interest rate hike to 17 percent during the night.

The bank’s first deputy chairman, Sergei Shvetsov, admitted that the situation was critical. “One year ago, we would not have believed in our worst dreams what is happening now,” Shvetsov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The official added that the bank will use various measures to stabilize the situation.

Finance Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said after an urgent Cabinet meeting that the central bank should have acted earlier, but stressed that the government has no plans to introduce capital controls.

“The current exchange rate does not reflect the macroeconomic fundamentals and it is clear that it has uncoupled from oil prices,” Ulyukayev said, according to an official transcript.

Central bank Chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina said earlier the ruble was undervalued and time was needed to return the currency to its equilibrium value.

The bank had only raised its key interest rate by one point to 10.5 percent Thursday, but that did not stop the ruble from tumbling further.

Tuesday’s crash is the second in a row. On Monday, the Russian currency already lost more than 10 percent of its value against the dollar.

The ruble traditionally closely follows oil prices. The price for a barrel of North Sea Brent on Tuesday dropped below $60, down from $62.60 Monday.

The Moscow stock exchange followed suit with the leading RTS index crashing more than 12 percent.

The bank is believed to have spent tens of billions of dollars to defend the ruble this year. It continued interventions on a smaller scale even after freeing the course, spending $8.3 billion in the first two weeks of December, according to data published on its website.

The ruble has lost almost half its value since the start of 2014, first because of international tensions over Ukraine but later mainly because of falling oil prices.

The Russian economy strongly depends on oil and gas, which make up about 60 percent of its exports.

The U.S. said the free fall of the ruble and a sharp increase in interest rates illustrate the impact of international sanctions on Putin’s government.

“They are between a rock and a hard place in economic policy,” said Jason Furman, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. “The combination of our sanctions, the uncertainty they’ve created for themselves with their international actions and the falling price of oil has put their economy on the brink of crisis.”

He calls it “a serious economic situation that is largely of their own making and largely reflects the consequences of not following a set of international rules.”

President Barack Obama meanwhile was preparing to sign into law a measure that would authorize fresh sanctions against Moscow.

The measure, approved by Congress over the weekend, would authorize lethal aid to Ukraine’s military and tougher sanctions against Russian energy companies, but would give the president leeway in whether or not to implement the sanctions.

Spokesman Josh Earnest says Obama will sign the bill into law despite concerns it does not reflect ongoing consultations with allies about sanctions. However, he praised the bill for providing Obama with “flexibility” in putting new sanctions in place.

The currency’s collapse evoked memories of 1998 when Russia defaulted on its debt and devalued the ruble.

Analysts wondered whether the bank’s decision was enough to stop the ruble’s free fall. Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s former finance minister and a leading liberal, said the interest rate hike was not enough.

“This move needs to be followed by government decisions to raise investor confidence in the Russian economy,” he wrote on Twitter.

He said the ruble’s fall was not just a consequence of low oil prices and Western sanctions but also “a reaction to the government’s economic policies.”

The Kremlin refused to comment on the interest rate hike. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in radio interviews that the central bank is independent.

 (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)

Kiev Accuses Russia Of ‘Invasion’ As Aid Convoy Crosses Border

By Nikolaus Von Twickel, dpa

MOSCOW (dpa) — A huge Russian aid convoy entered Ukraine without an escort from the Red Cross on Friday, provoking talk of an “invasion” in Kiev.

Some 100 lorries had crossed the border by 2 p.m., Russian state television reported. The vehicles drove through the Izvaryne border post in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, an area under the control of pro-Russian separatists.

Kiev immediately slammed the move, which it described as a “well-planned dangerous provocation.”

“We call this a direct invasion,” said the head of the Ukrainian security service, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko.

Explaining its decision, Russia said it was fed up with “endless artificial delays.” Almost 280 Russian lorries have remained stationary at the border with Ukraine for a week.

Ukraine, which fears that the convoy might be a ploy to supply the pro-Russian insurgents, had been demanding detailed cargo lists.

The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed the lorries had crossed the border without its participation, thus ignoring a central demand made by the Ukrainian government.

“Right now I can say that we are not part of this convoy,” ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk told Interfax.

ICRC officials had said earlier on Friday that they needed fresh security guarantees to accompany the convoy through the conflict zone on the other side of the border.

Separatists in the self-declared “Luhansk People’s Republic” said that they would escort the lorries themselves.

“The convoy is moving under the protection of the insurgents,” an unnamed representative told Interfax.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that it had decided to send the convoy ahead without ICRC escort, but added that Red Cross workers were welcome to take part in delivering the aid.

The Ministry accused Ukraine of arbitrarily holding up much-needed aid for the embattled city of Luhansk. “All pretexts for further feet-dragging have been exhausted,” it said.

Luhansk, which has a peacetime population of more than 400,000, has been without mains water and electricity for 20 days. The rebel-held city has seen heavy fighting over the past week after government troops entered parts of it.

The escalation in rhetoric came a day before German Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to hold talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev and press for a ceasefire. Poroshenko is then expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin along with top European Union officials in Belarus on Tuesday.

“The trip to Kiev is difficult and is an expression of support,” said Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

“Our aim is for both sides to agree to a ceasefire,” Seibert said, stressing that Berlin wants a peaceful solution to a conflict that has plunged relations between the West and Russia to a post-Cold War low.

The visit was also expected to focus on what Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has called the “Merkel Plan” to revive Ukraine’s battered economy.

“Many speak of a form of Marshall Plan. Why not a type of Merkel Plan? Germany is leading the efforts for stabilization,” Klimkin told Germany’s ZDF television channel.

The Marshall Plan was a massive U.S. aid program in the late 1940s that helped bombed-out Germany rebound economically.

In other developments, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council confirmed that the rebels had shot down a Mi-24 helicopter gunship near Luhansk on Wednesday. “All crew members were killed,” Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in Kiev, according to local news reports.

Fresh fighting was also reported from Donetsk, the bigger rebel-held east Ukrainian city.

AFP Photo/Sergey Venyavksy

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Russia And Ukraine Reach Deal Over Aid Convoy

By Nikolaus Von Twickel, dpa

MOSCOW — Russia and Ukraine have reached an agreement on sending humanitarian aid to the embattled city of Luhansk, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says.

“Thanks to the support from the international community, we managed to avoid an escalation regarding the humanitarian aid from Russia,” Poroshenko says.

Finnish President Sauli Niisto says that Russia, Ukraine, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have reached an understanding.

“We heard that the humanitarian convoy is going forward,” he says after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

Ukraine, which sees Russia as an aggressor, had insisted that the convoy can enter the country only under the auspices of international organizations, such as the ICRC or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Moscow denies supporting the pro-Russian separatists and has rejected accusations that the vehicles could be carrying weapons.

Earlier Friday, reporters were shown some of the trucks from inside. They contained sacks with food aid and many of them were not even half full, a photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency said.

Ukraine also said that a Russian military convoy had entered its territory late Thursday.

Military spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkovsky said that the convoy headed from the Izvaryne border crossing to Molodohvardiysk, a city roughly half way between the Russian border and Luhansk, local media reported.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed media reports that Russian military vehicles have crossed the border into Ukraine, his office said Friday.

“Last night we saw a Russian incursion, a crossing of the Ukrainian border,” Rasmussen told journalists in Copenhagen, adding, “It just confirms the fact that we see a continued flow of weapons and fighters from Russia into the eastern Ukraine.”

“It’s a clear demonstration of the continued Russian involvement in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine,” he says.

Rasmussen called on Russia to “pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border, to stop the flow of weapons, fighters and money into Ukraine, to stop the support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine and engage in a constructive dialogue with the government in Kiev.”

The Russian border guard service said Friday that it could not confirm the incident, the Interfax news agency reported.

The Ukrainian government has complained for months that Russian military units are crossing into its territory.

EU foreign ministers, who discussed developments in Ukraine at emergency talks in Brussels, said they were alarmed at the reports.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that if there are any Russian military personnel or vehicles in eastern Ukraine, “they need to be withdrawn immediately or the consequences could be very serious.”

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that an incursion would be a “gross violation of international law.” His Lithuanian counterpart, Linas Linkevicius, accused Russia of using its humanitarian convoy for “distraction and covering” while escalation continues.

“The most efficient aid from Russia to Ukraine would be to call back all these terrorist leaders, to stop supporting them by weapons, by tanks, rocket launchers (and) heavy weapons,” Linkevicius said.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine continued unabated. Lysenko said that five soldiers were killed in fighting during the past 24 hours.

Authorities in the rebel-held city of Donetsk said Friday that 11 civilians had been killed during heavy artillery shelling on Thursday.

Authorities in Luhansk said that the city was cut off from electricity and mains water for the 13th day and that medical supplies were running short.

Ukraine sent its own humanitarian convoy to the region. Iryna Herashchenko, an aide to President Petro Poroshenko, said that trucks with 300 tons of aid have arrived in the Luhansk region and that Red Cross workers had begun unloading them.

AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov

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Russian Aid Convoy Stops Before Border With Ukraine

By Nikolaus Von Twickel, dpa

MOSCOW — A massive Russian aid convoy bound for civilians in eastern Ukraine stopped just short of the border on Thursday, while Kiev accused Moscow of acting unilaterally and sent its own aid convoy to the embattled region.

The almost 280 trucks carrying 2,000 tons of food and medicine were parked on a field near the Russian town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, a European Pressphoto Agency photographer said.

Kamensk-Shakhtinsky is located some 100 kilometres east of Luhansk, where more than 200,000 people have been cut off from access to water and electricity for 12 days.

It is some 50 kilometres from the Izvarino border post, which is being held by pro-Russian separatists, who also control much of the ensuing road to Luhansk.

Ukraine insists that the convoy can enter the country only after being inspected by its officials and representatives of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) should do the distribution.

Both the ICRC and the OSCE said Thursday that Moscow and Kiev must reach an agreement over the convoy before they can become involved.

ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson told Swiss news agency sda that the organization was seeking security guarantees from all sides and that it still needs a detailed inventory of the cargo.

An OSCE spokeswoman said that the security watchdog would help only once the Red Cross takes charge, and once Kiev, Moscow, and the Red Cross reach a deal.

Ukraine, which fears the convoy is a pretext for an invasion, initially insisted that Russia hand over the goods to the Red Cross before the border and that the vehicles then pass into government-held territory near the city of Kharkiv.

Kiev complained that Russia was sending aid uncoordinated to a conflict that it had fomented itself.

“Ukraine has not asked Russia for aid. Rather, Ukraine has asked Russia to take away its terrorists, mercenaries, stop sponsoring the fighters, and start recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty,” said Iryna Herashchenko, an aide to President Petro Poroshenko.

The government in Kiev sent a convoy of its own to Luhansk. Nineteen lorries left Kiev on Thursday, Herashchenko said, adding that a total of 71 vehicles would bring 773 tons of food to the Luhansk region.

Luhansk authorities said many civilians had been killed in artillery fire on Wednesday, but exact casualty figures were not yet available. They said that more than 500 civilians fled the city that day.

The leader of the pro-Russian separatists in the city, Valery Bolotov, resigned unexpectedly on Thursday. He told reporters in Luhansk that he would temporarily step down until he fully recovers from an injury.

Bolotov survived an assassination attempt in April.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, promised that Moscow will do everything to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine.

“The country has sunk into bloody chaos, in a fratricidal conflict,” Putin told Russian lawmakers in Crimea, according to Russian news agencies.

“We will do our best to end this conflict as soon as possible so that the bloodletting in Ukraine ends,” he said.

At the same time, Putin also threatened to terminate international agreements and withdraw Moscow’s participation in international organizations such as the European Court of Human Rights, should they threaten Russia’s national interest.

AFP Photo/Vladimir Baryshev

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Death Toll In Moscow Subway Accident Rises To 20

By Nikolaus von Twickel, dpa

MOSCOW — At least 20 people were killed and more than 100 injured Tuesday in Moscow when a packed underground train derailed at high speed during the morning rush hour.

The Russian Investigative Committee said that 20 people were killed, Interfax reported, citing the agency’s spokesman Vladimir Markin.

Official said earlier that 12 bodies had not been recovered from the train’s wagons.

The number of injured rose to 160, officials said. A senior city health official, Alexei Khripun, said on state television that 118 people were hospitalized, a third of whom were in critical condition.

Photos from the scene showed several wagons piled up under the tunnel’s ceiling.

The exact cause was not immediately clear. Markin said investigators were looking at a number of causes, including a defect of one of the wagons. He ruled out a terrorist attack.

Markin had said earlier that the derailing happened when the train suddenly braked in a tunnel. He blamed a wrong signal.

“The signal was shown erroneously because of a voltage drop,” he said.

It was believed to be the worst accident in the Moscow metro’s 79-year history.

The metro ranks among the world’s busiest commuter systems. It carries about 9 million passengers per day through the Russian capital, which with more than 12 million inhabitants ranks as Europe’s largest city.

Photo via WikiCommons

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