EU to cancel visas for Ukrainians next month – Commissioner Hahn

Visa regime for Ukrainians could be lifted by the end of October, EU Commissioner for Enlargement says

The European Union will lift the visa regime for the Ukrainian citizens as early as next month, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn has told in an exclusive comment to Deutsche Welle.

“I hope and I am convinced that it will happen in October. There are very positive signals from both EU member states and from the European Parliament. That is why it should happen,” he said, commenting on the prospects of a visa-free travel for Ukraine, DW reported.

As UNIAN adds, the issue of granting Ukraine visa-free regime should be considered at the meeting of Justice and Home Affairs Council of the European Union, according to Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Olena Zerkal. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin earlier said he expected to see a positive decision of the European Parliament on a visa-free regime for Ukraine until November.

Numbers Don’t Lie: Statistics Point To Massive Fraud In Russia’s Duma Vote

When liberal rights activist Ella Pamfilova was named to head Russia’s election commission in March, she promised to clean house and oversee transparent, democratic elections.

“We will change a lot, and radically, in the way the Central Election Commission operates. A lot and radically — this is something I can promise you,” she said at the time.

However, a statistical analysis of the official preliminary results of the country’s September 18 State Duma elections points to a familiar story: massive fraud in favor of the ruling United Russia party comparable to what independent analysts found in 2007 and 2011.

“The results of the current Duma elections were falsified on the same level as the Duma and presidential elections of 2011, 2008, and 2007, the most falsified elections in post-Soviet history, as far as we can tell,” physicist and data analyst Sergei Shpilkin told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “By my estimate, the scope of the falsification in favor of United Russia in these elections amounted to approximately 12 million votes.”

According to the CEC’s preliminary results, official turnout for the election was 48 percent, and United Russia polled 54.2 percent of the party-list vote — about 28,272,000 votes. That total gave United Russia 140 of the 225 party-list seats available in the Duma. In addition, United Russia candidates won 203 of the 225 contests in single-mandate districts, giving the party an expected total of 343 deputies in the 450-seat house.

Shpilkin, who in 2012 won the independent PolitProsvet award for political analysis for his statistical work on the 2011 vote, posted his examination of the latest election on his blog on September 19.

Using data from the Central Election Commission’s website, Shpilkin organized all 95,800 polling stations on a graph according to the turnout that they reported.

In fair elections, the graph would form a bell curve, with its peak indicating the average turnout for the entire election. Reading from left to right, Shpilkin’s graph shows a relatively normal bell curve that peaks at about 36 percent turnout and then, as it moves right, shows a jagged curve that dips unevenly and then begins rising again, as vast numbers of polling stations begin reporting turnouts of 70 percent or more.

Moreover, Shpilkin shows that almost all “extra” votes from polling stations reporting higher-than-average turnout went to United Russia. That is, a party such as ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR received virtually the same number of votes from polling stations reporting a turnout of 95 percent as it did from stations reporting turnouts of 65 percent. United Russia, by contrast, received about four times as many at the 95 percent stations.

“The easiest form of falsification in terms of cost and intellectual effort on the part of the falsifiers is simply to add votes in favor of the desired party or candidate,” Shpilkin explained. “But adding votes means that the turnout changes in an upward direction from the typical distribution. … A peculiar characteristic of these elections is that we don’t see the transfer of votes from one party to another. Perhaps this is a sign of the good influence of Ella Pamfilova.”

In addition, Shpilkin’s graph is spiked because there were an improbable number of polling stations at the high end of the turnout scale reporting round-number turnouts ending in 5 or 0, such as 75, 80, or 85 percent. This is a phenomenon Shpilkin and other analysts noted in previous elections and dubbed “Churov’s saw,” after former CEC head Vladimir Churov.

In 2008, Shpilkin estimated that United Russia actually won 277 seats in the Duma instead of the constitutional majority of 315 that it was awarded.

This time around, it is somewhat more difficult to tell how the alleged falsification might have influenced the results because half of the Duma was elected from single-mandate districts, from which United Russia got a majority of its deputies. Shpilkin estimates United Russia actually got about 40 percent of the party-list vote, which would have reduced its party-list seats from 140 to around 110.

But, with a projected 343 deputies in the new parliament, United Russia once again has enough votes to unilaterally alter the constitution.

Although Pamfilova has promised to investigate reports of fraud and election officials have already annulled results in at least three polling stations, she maintains that there was no systematic falsification and that the vote was legitimate. On September 20, Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office denied there were any significant violations during the voting and said the number of complaints was “significantly lower” than for previous elections.

But videos recorded by official cameras from several polling stations seem to tell a different story. In almost all of them, local election officials can be seen working as teams to apparently stuff ballot boxes and prevent outsiders from observing their actions.

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Exiled Oligarch Khodorkovsky Starts Search for Putin Replacement

Exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has announced his search to find Russia’s next president.

The former Yukos chief is asking Russians to nominate potential Russian leaders via his project “Vmesto Putina” or “Instead of Putin.”

Khodorkovsky confirmed that he would financially support a candidate chosen through the project to rival Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, in the country’s 2018 presidential elections.

He also confirmed that he would not run for president himself.

“For many years, Kremlin spin doctors have told the people of Russia that there is no alternative to Putin,” the project states on its website. “We want to show that among 145 million Russians, we have people who are able to take up the post.”

A panel of political experts have already put forward 13 notable figures who they would like to see receive Khodorkovsky’s support. Russians will be able to back their favorite nominee via the project’s website.

Candidates include former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, leader of Parnas opposition party Mikhail Kasyanov, and former judge Tatyana Morschakova.

The nominations were made without prior consultation, and those put forward to take part in the project only heard of their own involvement on Monday morning.

One candidate, the deputy head of Transparency International Russia, Yelena Panfilova, “fell off her chair” when she heard the news, Russia’s RBC newspaper reported.

Others were less enthusiastic about their surprise nominations.

“I am asking the creators of this little game to remove my name and photo from their site,” journalist Elena Rykovtseva wrote on her Facebook page. “I’m ready to follow this project from the sidelines, but no more!”

Other candidates, such as activist Alexei Navalny, are legally unable to hold office within Russia due to past criminal convictions.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin had “no interest in the project.”

“We have already read about this project in the media,” said Peskov. “It is a project which is being developed by people who are already irrevocably cut off from Russia, what’s going on here, and from the Russian agenda. We do not see anything of interest in this project at all.”

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Rahim Rahemtulla: With Putin in office until 2024, will the West’s nerve hold out?

Decisions by both the U.S. and the European Union this week to, respectively, expand and prolong sanctions on Russia for its aggression toward Ukraine come as welcome developments.

They suggest there will be no normalization of ties with the Kremlin even after a summer which, owing to Brexit and the migrant crisis, saw the Ukrainian conflict slide firmly down the list of world leaders’ priorities. But with the recent behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin suggesting ever more strongly that he is likely to stay in office until 2024, it would seem a pertinent moment to examine the durability of the West’s approach over the long-term. Putin has made clear the lengths he is willing to go to keep Ukraine within the Kremlin’s orbit. For him, it would seem there are no compromises to be made even as the bedrock of his domestic popularity—a strong economy—is being gradually worn away. The challenge for the West, then, is to stay the course, even as Ukraine fails to exhibit the kind of progress on reforms and European integration promised by the Maidan uprising of 2013-2014.

Above all, the continuing sanctions mean that hopes long-harbored in Moscow that the West would have by now moved on from Ukraine have once again proven to be unfounded. This, against the backdrop of an economic situation in Russia which is showing little sign of improving, is piling more pressure on Putin to enact deep structural reforms; something to which he has publicly committed but in practice shown little desire to do. This inactivity risks condemning Russia to economic growth in coming years barely above stagnation levels. That, in turn, could reverse the gains in incomes and living standards—already under threat—which have ensured Putin’s popularity since he came to power in 2012 and which have helped maintain Russia’s place at the top table of world states.

The question of the day, then, presents itself thus: if the conflict in Ukraine is well and truly “frozen” and the West can be relied on to maintain the current sanctions regime, what course can Putin pursue which will maintain his power and popularity in Russia? It is widely accepted in the Moscow establishment that the former KGB agent will run for another six-year term when his current one comes to an end in 2018. His recent dismissal of 63-year-old presidential administration head and longtime ally Sergei Ivanov is being seen as a precursor to such a move, ushering in as it does a new generation of loyal Kremlin courtiers who owe their careers to Putin and who have only ever served under his leadership.

But Ivanov’s demotion and others which have come before it in the recent past (Vladimir Yakunin, the 68-year-old former national railways head, was dropped last year), tell us more than that Putin is gearing up for the long-haul. It also suggests he is a shrewder tactician than he is often given credit for and provides further evidence, should any be needed, that he is not one to shy away from tough decisions. As his seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and more recent forays into Syria have shown, the West should by now have learnt not to underestimate his resolve.

Going forward then, when it comes to Ukraine, Putin may not do much of anything. Judging by what we have seen to date, the Russian leader is least inclined to seek compromises, and more likely to lash out, when threats appear either to his personal position or to Russia’s status as one of the world’s “great powers”. Events in Ukraine over the past two years tick both of those boxes.

To understand why this is so we should cast our minds back to the winter of 2013-2014 and the Maidan uprising which toppled Ukraine’s then-president and Kremlin-ally Viktor Yanukovych. Such an outpouring of public anger, which proved too much even for Moscow to stage-manage from afar, came as a double blow to Putin. Not only did it threaten his own rule by offering the Russian people an example to follow, it also diminished Russia’s position as a global power by bringing European and American geopolitics closer to its borders.

Thus the stakes, as far as the Russian president is concerned, could not be higher. That is why there is no reason to believe he will change course. His approval rating at home, which continues to hover around 80% in spite of a stuttering economy, also offers nothing to suggest he will stop using up human and financial resources to derail Ukraine.

Ultimately, it would appear Putin is relying on the U.S. and the E.U. deciding simply that they would like to return to “business as usual.” But the steps taken this week in Washington and Brussels show that is not yet possible. It is unclear how long such a situation can continue however, given widespread disappointment with Kyiv’s inability to overcome vested interests and push through the reforms which were demanded during Maidan. For now, at least, it would seem the West’s desire to punish Russia for its violations of international law is stronger than its desire to punish Ukraine for its lack of progress.

No Target Too Big as Law Enforcement Moves on Renova

Vekselberg’s Renova group latest to fall under investigation.

Mikhail Slobodin was the progressive face of Russian business. As CEO of Vimpelcom, he controlled Beeline, one of the country’s top-two mobile providers. He was young, smart, energetic and he turned management into social action. The most media-savvy of all top-managers, Slobodin used his highly popular blog to engage with all matters of business, corporate culture, economy, cuisine and even Tesla cars.

He seemed to be having fun, and he made Russian business look easy and carefree.

On Sept. 5, however, Slobodin resigned, having dramatically found himself subject to a criminal investigation, and included on Russian law enforcement wanted lists.

His name appeared in connection to KES holding, now called T-Plus, energy provider in Russia’s northern republic of Komi, where he was previously an executive. Together with other T-Plus managers, he was linked to bribes paid to regional authorities. According to law enforcement, these bribes were paid to set more profitable rates for energy consumers.

T-Plus, the country’s largest private energy producer, is part of Renova Group, controlled by Russian’s seventh richest tycoon Viktor Vekselberg. In Komi, T-Plus owns Vorkuta thermal power plants, energy supplier to the entire region. But the plants are losing money, and owed 5 billion rubles ($77.6 million) by consumers. There is a danger they will fail to provide enough heat in the upcoming winter.

Renova had already initiated the sale of the plants, but this provoked the anger of President Vladimir Putin. “We need to put an end to such irresponsibility,” he said.

“The president might have been presented with a picture of a self-indulgent oligarch, abandoning a region to its fate, and all this on the eve of election,” suggested Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst, writing on

Within a few days, former T-Plus managers Yevgeny Olkhovik and Boris Vainzikher were arrested. The former Komi governor Vyacheslav Gaizer — presumed recipient of the bribe — was arrested a year ago, charged with forming a criminal gang. Slobodin, company CEO from 2002 to 2010, is currently in France. If he returns, he will likely be arrested.

A source close to government suggests Putin was “put into a position” of approving the arrest orders. “The rules of the game have changed imperceptibly,” he says: “What was allowed a few years ago is now punished — and retrospectively.”

A source within one of Russia’s largest corporations said he believed Putin was not warned about the arrests.

Vekselberg is the fourth Russian billionaire to face a run-in with law enforcement in the last two years. In September 2014, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, owner of Sistema conglomerate and oil producing company Bashneft, was put under house arrest. Bashneft was later nationalized and the case was dropped.

This February, Dmitry Kamenshik, owner of Domodedovo Airport, was sent to jail. Just before his release in July, he announced he would set up a foundation to help victims of the terror attack in the airport in 2011.

In April, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s companies and offices were raided by FSB squads. Onlookers connected the raid with his RBC media holding and its sharp political coverage. It was later reported Prokhorov was planning to sell his assets in Russia.

Slobodin has said he would return to Russia to face questioning from investigators, but this seems doubtful. More likely, he will join the wide and growing ranks of his fellow Russian managers and businessmen facing criminal charges, and remain outside of Russia.

“It’s hard to comment now because there are no real facts or proper accusations,” Slobodin wrote in a farewell open letter to Vimplecom staff. “You will lack my energy and humor from now on; but you will have to find it in yourselves.”

By Sept. 6, Slobodin’s blog had been wiped clean.

Big 20 to Big Game: Power Politics Are Returning, Which Suits Russia

The G20 meeting in China was a milestone in international relations. Until only recently, world leaders were certain that the global economy and increased connectivity had helped stabilize and define the new world order. Now, however, the pendulum has turned back towards a classic game between the great powers, and Russia is again feeling right in its element.

Two years ago, when arriving at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, President Vladimir Putin was met at the airport by a low-level clerk from the local Foreign Affairs Ministry. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot publicly promised to grab the Russian president by his lapels and throw him to the floor. While shaking Putin’s hand during a formal greeting, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told him to “Get out of Ukraine.” Commentators gloated over a photo of Putin sitting at an empty lunch table. In the end, the Putin cited urgent business back in Moscow and left the meeting before the official closing.

This year’s meeting in China’s Hangzhou has demonstrated that the key players have not forgotten about the Ukrainian crisis, but are concerned about other things. This time, the controversy concerned not Putin, but U.S. President Barack Obama, who was forced to disembark from the rear exit of Air Force One after the Chinese failed to provide a rolling staircase to the main door.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called Obama a “son of a wh*re,” and then, after learning that the U.S. president had cancelled their scheduled meeting, became frightened and began apologizing.

Putin was very much in demand. This was primarily due to the Middle East, where another turning point is approaching. But that is not the only reason. The global focus is shifting — not only geographically, but also in terms of content.

The Group of 20 was originally created as an economic forum, first at the ministerial level, as a response to the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, and later at the level of heads of state, in the middle of the global economic panic of 2008. The role of global “Politburo” went to the G8 — a venue that also began with an economic focus before switching to politics once Russia joined.

With the world changing so rapidly, it made little sense to discuss anything within the framework of a club in which Russia was the only non-Western power. At the very least, such discussions should include China, and preferably, a range of countries prepared to play a role in world affairs.

As a result, every year the agenda of the G20 becomes more politicized and economic issues take on an increasingly formal importance. Although China announced that the official theme of this year’s summit would be innovations and their role in economic growth, speakers addressed almost every subject but innovation — halts in oil production, the consequences of Brexit, the crisis in Aleppo and territorial conflicts connected with China.

This is perfectly natural. Since the start of the financial crisis in the late 2000s, the division between politics and the economy has vanished, with politics gaining the upper hand. That process began when governments started “nationalizing losses” by using taxpayer money to bail out private banking institutions. That changed the balance of power between corporations and governments in favor of the latter. The growing chaos in the Middle East and the related terrorist threat in Europe made security a priority, and the Ukrainian and Syrian crises have spawned a new rivalry between the major powers. What is most surprising is that China has become involved, despite previous careful avoidance.

The actual results of this G20 summit will become apparent later. Did Putin and Obama “reach an understanding of each other and the problem we face” in Syria, as the Russian president said? Are Moscow, Washington, Ankara and Riyadh making progress toward engineering a new Syria based on the de facto division of the spheres of influence there? Will Moscow and Tokyo compromise on territorial issues? Is China ready to switch from interdependence with the United States to political competition? How can all sides extricate themselves the Minsk process with minimal loss of face?

Now, 25 years after the curtain had seemingly fallen for the last time on the struggle between the world’s major powers, that drama has returned to center stage.

Russia is going to run out of emergency cash by 2018

Russia is going to run out the emergency cash it uses to buoy up its national budget by 2018, if oil prices do not rise soon, says the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

According to analysts cited by The Times, Russia is burning through its FX reserves at an alarming rate because one of the sectors that largely contribute to its economy — oil — is being hammered by the global crash in prices.

This week, Russia’s finance ministry revealed that the fund that is designed to cover shortfalls in the country’s national budget has shrunk to £23 billion ($30.6 billion), from £67 billion in 2014.

Oil prices have dropped from over $100 per barrel highs in June 2014, to around $46 per barrel. At one point this year, the oil price was flirting with the $20 per barrel mark. While it looks like oil is now recovering continually — it is not. Oil prices are struggling to get above and maintain a rise above $50 per barrel:

Oil prices have fallen dramatically due to over-supply in the market.

Russia and Saudi Arabia are two of the most important oil producers on the planet, with Saudi Arabia the de facto leader of the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations. Russia, alongside the USA, is one of the two biggest non-OPEC producers. The two nations’ oil policy has a profound effect on the markets.

At April’s OPEC meeting about a freeze in production, Saudi Arabia refused to cooperate unless Iran joined in any production freeze, and, as a result the meeting ended up as a damp squib.

However, the two nations are starting to work together, with the hope for a solution to the massive glut in the oil industry are rising.