Putin names his presidential campaign chief

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has picked filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin to run his campaign in next year’s presidential elections.

Speaking to supporters on Thursday, Putin said he wants to use an amorphous group he launched in May, the All-Russia People’s Front, as the basis of his campaign.

“I would like to create my [presidential campaign headquarters] at the offices of the All-Russia People’s Front, an organization that is above parties, that unites all the people of the Russian Federation,” the prime minister said.

Govorukin, a veteran director and a one-time dissident, delivered a passionate eulogy to “Vladimir Vladimirovich” at a glitzy United Russia congress last month.

The former KGB agent appears to be trying to distance himself from his United Russia party, which won Sunday’s parliamentary election but with a much reduced majority.

Putin said he had “warm feelings” for the party which he set up in the early 2000s but added that he wanted a quarter of its fraction in the lower house to be represented by “non-party members of the All-Russia People’s Front.”

Earlier this week, the prime minister’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told BBC Russia that Putin “had never been directly linked to the party.”

There have been rallies in Moscow and other cities against alleged fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, most of it in favor of United Russia.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had earlier said the election was “slanted in favor of United Russia.”

Nearly one thousand people have been arrested in three days of protests and the biggest rally yet is scheduled for Saturday, with tens of thousands of people signing up to it on social networks such as Facebook and Vkontakte.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Wednesday called for a re-run of the election.

“The country’s leaders must admit there were numerous falsifications and rigging, the results do not reflect the people’s will,” he told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Suspected Russian spies arrested in Germany

A married couple have been arrested in Germany on suspicion of spying for Russia. It is believed to be the first such case on German soil since the cold war.

The alleged spies are suspected to have worked undercover for the Russian secret service for more than 20 years. A commando unit from the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) raided their home in Marburg last week.

Germany’s public prosecutor confirmed the arrests, saying the couple were suspected of “secret service agent activity” and of using false documentation.

“The accused are strongly suspected to have been actively working for a foreign intelligence service for a long time in the Federal Republic of Germany,” said the prosecutor in a statement. A spokesman refused to answer any questions but confirmed that the couple had not yet been indicted on any charges.

The alleged spies appeared before a judge in Karlsruhe last week and were remanded in custody.

Analysts said the new spy scandal would put pressure on already strained German-Russian relations. Last month the announcement by Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent, that he was to run again for the Russian presidency drew criticism in Germany and beyond.

The prosecutor’s office would not reveal the nationalities of the couple, nor the countries for which they were suspected of working. Der Spiegel identified the pair as 51-year-old Heidrun A and her husband, Andreas, 45, both of whom were suspected to have begun spying for the KGB in 1988, before the Berlin Wall fell. Since reunification they are alleged to have answered to the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, a successor organisation to the KGB.

Their identity papers – suspected to be fakes – claimed Andreas was born in Argentina and Heidrun in Peru, but both had Austrian passports, Der Spiegel reported.

The magazine said inquiries with the Peruvian and Argentinian authorities suggested the couple had lied about their birthplaces and that although Andreas claimed to speak only English, Spanish and German, he spoke with a Russian accent.

It reported that the woman was listening to coded messages on a shortwave radio linked up to a computer when the commandos stormed in. Her husband was arrested in Balingen, in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, where he worked.

Focus magazine said the pair may have had ties to an exposed Russian sleeper cell network in the US that included Anna Chapman, the spy turned celebrity.

The Russian embassy in Berlin said it had not been contacted by the BKA to inform them of the arrest of any Russian citizens accused of espionage. The Austrian embassy in Berlin said it had also not yet been contacted by the German authorities in connection with the case.

In Russia, officials refused to comment on the case. The Kommersant newspaper reported that the alleged spies lived in a private home in a “quiet and respectable” area of the Michelbach quarter of Marburg. A neighbour told the paper that the couple “practically never spoke to anyone and lived a very secluded life”.

The neighbour added: “They weren’t members of any local organisations or clubs and they didn’t attend any local festivities. After their arrest we realised that none of us neighbours had pictures together with them.” Heidrun was often seen leaving the house in the morning with a large sports bag although she didn’t frequent the local sports club, the neighbour said. Der Spiegel claimed investigators sawed open a tennis racket found in the house while looking for evidence.

Kommersant reported that the couple had a daughter who was studying at a local university.

In another recent spy case, a court in Munich jailed Harald S, 54, an Austrian citizen, in March for passing information about a helicopter manufacturing firm to the SVR in exchange for at least £6,500.

Last summer, Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s then interior minister, presented an intelligence report which concluded that “states like Russia and China are actively operating espionage in the areas of the economy, science and research”.

Jana Kobzova, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “This is not a particularly rosy time in the German-Russian relationship, and this will definitely spoil things a little bit more. Germany maintains a policy of engagement, rather than isolation, with Russia and this won’t change that.

“But coming as it does after Putin’s announcement – given how much effort Angela Merkel put into meeting and working with Dmitry Medvedev – and German energy companies talking about arbitration with Gazprom over energy prices, it is certainly not helpful.”

Medvedev pledges shakeup after polls

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised major changes to the country’s government after upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

“There should be continuity, we should understand who’s at the helm but there should also be change,” Medvedev said in an interview with state TV channels due to be broadcast on Friday.

Medvedev has said he is ready to take over the government if Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister, triumphs in next March’s presidential polls.

The president has also agreed to lead the ruling United Russia party into the parliamentary vote in December.

“The government should be modernized. So if it so happens that the Russian people entrust United Russia with forming the government and if our people vote for our presidential candidate, and this government is formed by me, then it will be an absolutely new government consisting of new people,” Medvedev said.

The president said he was making way for Putin because the ex-KGB agent had “greater authority” and “higher approval ratings.”

Medvedev also said he believed that the authorities should listen to opinions voiced by the country’s bloggers and web users.

“I believe that the government altogether should respond to what is happening in this sphere [Internet], but should not come under pressure from it,” Medvedev said. 

Runet – the Internet’s Russian sector – has been free of the kind of government controls that dominate television and much of the press.

“If I felt the [Internet] pressure in the literal sense of the word, it’d make my job as president a lot harder,” Medvedev said.

Commenting on the dismissal earlier this week of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, Medvedev said the issue was a “matter of government discipline.”

“If we are talking about differences of opinion…about spending, including spending on the military, funding for military wages, support for defense capabilities, these decisions were agreed naturally by the government and were overseen by all of the responsible individuals. The former finance minister’s signature is under all these decisions,” Medvedev said.

Kudrin, credited with helping Russia weather the global financial crisis, left the cabinet after exchanging sharp words with Medvedev on Monday.

“I think that a situation needs to be approached honestly – if you don’t allow such expenditure, considering that it’s harmful for some reason, then it’s clear what you have to do, because if you’ve approved this spending, then there’s nothing left to say. So, in this case with Alexei Leonidovich, it’s a case of government discipline, nothing more,” he said.

He reiterated that Russia was a presidential republic and not a parliamentary one, which meant following the president’s line.

“Whoever doesn’t agree with it, is on the sidelines,” Medvedev said.

Kudrin had long known that he would not be part of the future government, Medvedev said.

“I have the impression that for a while he just sat there in this post and became bored,” he said.

“He came to me in February or March and said that he understood that there’d be no point in him working in a new government, as he’d been finance minister for a long time. So, he’d had no illusions about this for a long time. So these statements were surprising to me. But a decision was taken. Regarding the man himself, Alexei Kudrin, he is an experienced person, a good specialist, and he will find useful work in the government,” Medvedev added.

Lebedev Lands In Russian TV Tycoon Brawl

Russian media magnate Aleksandr Lebedev ended a talk show on national television by punching a fellow guest and property tycoon in the face, knocking him off the stage.

Lebedev, a trendy 51-year old billionaire who sported square-rimmed spectacles and sneakers, said he delivered the two rights hooks against Sergei Polonsky out of self-defense because Polonsky had behaved like a “hooligan” throughout the talk show.
“I neutralized him,” Lebedev said in comments that may owe something to his past as a KGB agent in London before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lebedev wrote on his blog: “Unfortunately, NTV watchers will not be able to see how Polonsky behaved throughout the whole hour and a half recording [of the talk show]. Everything suggested that he was completely out of his mind.”

Prior to the fisticuffs, Polonsky had said comments from fellow guests made him feel like “punching someone in the face.”
Lebedev asked Polonsky if he was referring to him and stood in front of Polonsky, until the host intervened and managed to persuade Lebedev to sit down.
When Polonsky again began to speak, Lebedev — who co-owns the “Novaya Gazeta” opposition newspaper with Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as the British newspapers “The Independent” and “The Evening Standard” — delivered a series of quick blows, sending Polonsky sprawling from his seat. 
Polonsky, 38, said he sustained bruises and torn trousers. He is contemplating legal action but said he wants to consult his friends and a priest first.
The televised discussion was aired uncut on Russian television on Sunday evening. The incident occurred on Friday during the filming of the talk show, which focused on the effects of the global recession.
Polonsky is the former owner of Mirax Group, a property development company that went bankrupt. He is known for having said that anyone who hadn’t made a billion dollars “can go to hell.”
Commenting on the dust-up, Dmitry Rogozon, the bombastic Russian envoy to NATO, tweeted: “Well done Lebedev, although fighting isn’t good. He had it coming to him. You’re a real man.”
Other heated political discussions that have boiled over spectacularly on Russian television include a 1995 argument between ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, which saw the two hurl their drinks at each other, followed by a glass:

In televised political debates prior to the presidential election in 2008, Zhirinovsky stood up, shouted at his interlocutor, and physically forced him out of the studio, as seen in the last 30 seconds of this clip on YouTube:

— Tom Balmforth

Alexander Lebedev in Russian TV punch-up

The Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev may pride himself on not interfering with the editorial policy of his UK newspapers, the Independent and Evening Standard, but there was no sign of such restraint when he took exception to the words of a fellow guest on Russian television.

Clad in very tight grey jeans, Lebedev showed a glimpse of his past as a KGB agent as he launched two blows at the former property developer Sergei Polonsky during a television debate on the financial crisis. Polonsky, once ranked Russia‘s 40th richest man, had said he wanted to “stick one in the mouth” of Lebedev. In the clip posted on the NTV channel’s website, Polonsky was sent tumbling to the floor and Lebedev then stood over him in a crouched fighting stance.

The newspaper baron said later that he had been reacting to Polonsky’s threatening manner. The colourful proprietor was quoted as saying: “In a critical situation, there is no choice. I see no reason to be hit with the first shot. I neutralised him.”

Polonsky later posted photographs online showing a cut on his arm and a tear in his trousers.

David Cameron says Russia and UK must ‘rebuild’ relationship

After meeting Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, David Cameron strikes a conciliatory tone Link to this video

David Cameron has called for Russia to redouble its efforts to stamp out corruption and said there would be no let-up in UK demands for the extradition of the man suspected of killing a Russian spy in the UK.

In a speech to Moscow State University, Cameron broadly broached some uncomfortable issues for the two countries but his tone was conciliatory. He said he wanted to “rebuild” the relationship and put an end to the “tit-for-tat” behaviour of the two countries.

He said: “I accept that Britain and Russia have had a difficult relationship for some time. And we should be candid about the areas where we still disagree. But I want to make the case for a new approach based on co-operation.”

There were “sceptics” in both countries, he said, “who will doubt whether we can ever get beyond the competitive ideological instincts of our past”, but he said he would take on those groups.

The prime minister has arrived in Moscow for a one-day bout of intense diplomacy, and will be afforded the first face-to-face contact for a British prime minister with the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, since 2007. His speech is intended to begin a modest rapprochement between the two countries, with officials acknowledging there remains an “impasse” on many major issues.

Relations have been strained since the murder in London in 2006 of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and the Russian government’s refusal to extradite the man Britain suspects of the murder, Andrei Lugovoi, now state deputy in the Russian parliament.

In his speech on Monday morning, Cameron tackled this head on for the first time on Russian soil. He said: “Our approach is simple and principled. When a crime is committed, that is a matter for the courts. It is their job to examine the evidence impartially and to determine innocence or guilt. The accused has a right to a fair trial. The victim and their family have a right to justice.

“It is the job of governments to help courts to do their work and that will continue to be our approach.”

Cameron had also been under pressure to mention human rights infringements, including the fate of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and the prosecution of the former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but made no reference to them in his speech.

The government insists relations between the two countries could be more cordial than they currently are and the emphasis is on improving conditions for business.

On Sunday four former British foreign secretaries wrote to the Sunday Times to urge Cameron to caution in this area, saying corruption was still rife in Russia.

Travelling with the prime minister is Bob Dudley, CEO of BP, and an exemplar of the constraints on British and Russian businesses attempting to operate in the country.

On 31 August court officials raided BP’s Moscow office in connection with a lawsuit, one day after BP’s rival – the US oil firm Exxon Mobil – struck a deal with the Russian state-owned company Rosneft for an Arctic exploration.

Cameron tackled this in his speech: “I’ve talked to many British businesses. I have no doubt about their ambition to work in Russia … but it’s also clear that the concerns that continue to make them hold back are real.

“They need to know that they can go to a court confident that a contract will be enforced objectively … and that their assets and premises won’t be unlawfully taken away from them. In the long run the rule of law is what delivers stability and security.”

UK goods exports to Russia are already worth £3.5bn, up 50% in the last year and, according to officials, growing by almost another two-thirds in the first half of this year.

By the end of the trip, Downing Street hopes £215m worth of trade deals will have been struck – part of its attempt to galvanise inward investment in the UK and boost an export-led recovery. The prime minister said Britain would support Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.

He also acknowledged the different perspectives between the two countries over UN action in Libya. Russia feels the UK and France went beyond the remit of UN resolution 1973.

In his speech, Cameron said: “Let me put my cards on the table. The view I have come to is that the stability of corrupt and violently repressive dictatorships in Middle Eastern states like Gaddafi’s in Libya is false stability.

“The transition to democracy may well have its difficulties and dangers … but it is the best long-term path to peaceful progress … and is a powerful alternative to the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism.

“And I believe that Britain and Russia – and the whole international community – have a role to play in helping to support peace, stability and security across the Arab world.”

Despite Cameron’s words, a Russian newspaper on Sunday reported a top Kremlin aide as saying no “reset” loomed, a reference to the word used by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to describe recent US attempts to restart their relations with Russia.

The aide, Sergei Prikhodko, a top foreign policy adviser to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, said: “I think that the visit will be pragmatic and calm. No one is expecting any breakthroughs, and in fact they are not needed. Why fight? It is not necessary for us to have a reset with Britain. We will continue to work the way that we have been working in the past.”

Describing his first visit to the country, Cameron said: “I first came to Russia as a student on my gap year between school and university in 1985. I took the Trans-Siberian railway from Nakhodka to Moscow and went on to the Black Sea coast. There two Russians – speaking perfect English – turned up on a beach mostly used by foreigners.

“They took me out to lunch and dinner and asked me about life in England and what I thought about politics. When I got back I told my tutor at university and he asked me whether it was an interview. If it was, it seems I didn’t get the job! My fortunes have improved a bit since then. So have those of Russia.”

He finished his speech by appearing to make a link between the two periods. “In the last 20 years Russia and Britain have both come a long way but each largely on their own. In the next 20 years I believe we can go very much further as we prove that ‘Вместе мы сильнее’ [we are stronger together].”

How I too failed the KGB spy test a year after David Cameron

There is the odd advantage to being (roughly) the same age as the prime minister to compensate for yet another unmistakeable sign of ageing.

This is that occasionally the prime minister mentions something from the past that has a familiar ring. So when David Cameron said in Russia on Monday that the Soviet authorities had sized him up during a visit to the USSR in 1985 I had a flashback to my own experience in Moscow the following year.

It is worth noting exactly what the prime minister said in his opening remarks at Moscow State University because he was careful not to mention the words spy or KGB. Some No 10 aides thought his message was missed by many in the audience. Showing his knowledge of Beatles songs, the prime minister said:

It’s great to be back in Moscow. I first came to Russia as a student in the year between school and university and I took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Nakhodka to Moscow. I went on to the Black Sea coast and when I was there two Russians, who spoke perfect English, turned up on a beach that was reserved for foreigners. They took me out to lunch; they took me out to dinner. They asked me intriguing questions about life in England, about what I thought about politics.

And when I got to university I told my tutor about this and he asked me whether I thought it was an interview. Well, if it was, it seems I didn’t get the job. My fortunes have improved a bit since then and so have those of Russia.

This was not lost on Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, who said:

I’m pretty sure that David would have been a very good KGB agent. But in this case he would never had become prime minister of the UK.

I had a similar experience when I visited Moscow in August 1986. I too had an encounter with the Soviet authorities, though this was not by chance.

As a rather geeky teenager I wrote to Mikhail Gorbachev, who had taken over as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, to ask whether I could meet him. My generation grew up thinking that we might be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust, so the arrival of the reforming Gorbachev was a source of great excitement. Gorbachev’s two signature words, perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), peppered conversations.

Not surprisingly I heard nothing by the time I set off for the Soviet Union, via China, a few months after posting my letter. It appeared that the leader of one of the world’s two superpowers was otherwise engaged.

But 30 minutes after checking into my hotel in Moscow in early August I was summoned down to the reception. A stern woman from Intourist, the USSR’s official travel agency, said that my letter had been received but that unfortunately the general secretary was on holiday in the Crimea. She then explained that the general secretary – she did not call him Mikhail Gorbachev – had asked for a series of meetings to be arranged for me. I doubted that Gorbachev had done this but it was a nice touch.

I was told to report to reception after breakfast the next day. My guide led me to a shiny black car, though not sadly one of the large ZiLs that whisked party officials around the streets of Moscow. I visited a youth leader at Moscow State University and met the head of the youth committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

It was a pretty extraordinary set of encounters for a nineteen year old a few months before heading off to university. When I returned home an old family friend said I should not be surprised if the Soviet embassy invited me in for a chat.

Thankfully the invitations never came. I think the authorities struck me off the future spy list after most of the meetings in Moscow descended into slanging matches. Gorbachev may have been embarking on perestroika and glasnost but the officials I met appeared to be more attached to the hidebound ways of his predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko.

A low point came when one of the officials said the Soviet Union was immeasurably fairer than Britain because every child received a free education. In Britain, the official said, children could only go to school if their parents were rich. Perhaps the official had been reviewing Cameron’s file because she specifically cited Eton. The official was not amused when I pointed out that the vast majority of British children were educated in free, state-funded, schools.

Like Cameron, I was monitored. A car with two men followed me everywhere I went after my official black car had dropped me off at my hotel. They didn’t spot much. I just went to the opera.