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Abramovich is latest Russian oligarch to move to Israel

May 29, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — The sudden immigration to Israel of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich makes him the latest in a string of Jewish Russian oligarchs who have made a home in the country in recent years.

Abramovich received his Israeli citizenship Monday upon arriving in Israel on his private jet, immediately becoming the country’s richest person, with an estimated net worth of more than $11 billion. Israel grants automatic citizenship to anyone of Jewish descent.

The Chelsea football club owner made the move after his British visa was not renewed, apparently as part of British authorities’ efforts to crack down on associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Britain has pledged to review the long-term visas of rich Russians in the aftermath of the March poisonings of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. Britain blames Russia for the pair’s exposure to a nerve agent, an allegation Moscow denies.

The poisonings sparked a Cold War-style diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West, including the expulsion of hundreds of diplomats from both sides. Britain’s then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd said in March that the British government was reviewing Tier 1 investor visas granted to about 700 wealthy Russians.

The British government said it would not comment on individual cases, including Abramovich’s. Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said visa applications from Russia are dealt with “rigorously and properly.”

It’s not clear yet how much time Abramovich will spend in Israel. He owns an upscale home in the trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv that he bought several years ago from Yaron Versano, the husband of Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot. His representative would not respond to questions about his plans, calling it “a private matter.”

Abramovich is perhaps the most high-profile Russian oligarch to relocate to Israel, but hardly the first. Alex Kogan, a journalist who has covered the Russian oligarch phenomenon in Israel for the local Russian-language press, said that some 30 to 40 tycoons have taken Israeli citizenship or residency, with most staying only part-time or temporarily because of scrutiny over their affairs.

He said the oligarchs — businessmen who accumulated massive wealth in the privatization process that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union — were motivated by various interests. Some fled Russia because of financial irregularities or dramatic fallouts with Putin that could put them at risk of incarceration.

Others were closer to the government and sought the advantages of an Israeli passport, such as visa-free entry to the European Union. Some were drawn by tax breaks for new immigrants to Israel. They are also more protected in Israel against the threat of extradition, for real or trumped-up charges. Israel was created in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust as a haven for Jews escaping persecution.

“Everyone has different reasons,” said Kogan. “There are plenty more out there that could come in a short time.” Some billionaires, like Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, have taken up Israeli citizenship while still maintaining their primary residences in London and Moscow. They maintain a strong presence in Israel owing to their charitable work, such as setting up the private foundation that funds the annual Genesis Prize, known as “the Jewish Nobel Prize.”

Here’s a look at some of the others who have made the move and immigrated to Israel, at least temporarily:

LEONID NEVZLIN:

Nevzlin is the most high-profile of the oil executive associates of Mikhail Khodorkovsky who fled Russian arrest warrants in 2003. Khodorkovsky, the onetime head of the Yukos oil giant, was jailed for several years after clashing with Putin. Nevzlin and his associates, Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov, lobbied for Khodorkovsky’s release from Israel.

In the years since, Nevzlin has established himself as an influential businessman and philanthropist. He was president of the Russian Jewish Congress, became chairman of the board of trustees at Beit Hatfutsot — the Museum of the Jewish People — and is a member of several bodies of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.

He has also invested in local real estate.

His daughter Irina is married to Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Israeli parliament and himself a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union.

ARKADY GAYDAMAK:

For a while, Gaydamak was one of Israel’s most beloved local celebrities. He owned the popular Beitar Jerusalem football club, bought a hospital and a radio station, and gave millions to local charities. During the 2006 Lebanon war with Hezbollah, he erected a beach compound for those fleeing rockets in northern Israel, shelling out some $200,000 for tents, food and entertainment for 5,000 people. Politicians lined up for the lavish parties he threw and he was a fixture in the local tabloids.

However, his stay was clouded by controversy over an international arrest warrant involving the alleged smuggling of weapons to Angola.

After a failed attempt to run for Jerusalem mayor, Gaydamak left the country in 2008 amid financial scandals in Israel and Europe.

SHALVA CHIGRINSKY:

A former business partner of Abramovich, Chigrinsky initially headed to Israel to hide from Russian prosecutors investigating his business interests, including the construction of huge Moscow malls and plans to erect the largest building in Europe. He fled Russia in 2009 after a power struggle with rival businessmen and the mayor of Moscow.

VALERY KOGAN:

Kogan, who is believed to be a Putin ally, owns Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport — the largest in Eastern Europe. Israeli media reported that he invested at least $100 million to build the most luxurious mansion in Israel in 2013, designed in a style resembling the White House, before selling the plot. He then reportedly set an Israeli real estate record when he bought a 1,000-square-meter (nearly 11,000 square foot) apartment in Tel Aviv for a reported $31 million. Just last year, he was reported to have paid millions for Mariah Carey and Elton John to sing at his granddaughter’s wedding.

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Russian opposition leader Navalny gets 30-day jail sentence

May 15, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was ordered Tuesday to spend 30 days in jail for staging an unsanctioned protest in Moscow and resisting police, charges he dismissed as unlawful.

Navalny organized a series of protests on May 5 in the Russian capital and other cities before President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a new term. Demonstrations under the slogan “He is not our czar” took place throughout the country.

Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court convicted Navalny on charges of organizing an unauthorized rally and ordered him jailed for 30 days. Separately, he was also convicted of disobeying police during the rally and sentenced to 15 days, but that sentence would be counted as part of the 30 days under Russian law.

Navalny argued that the authorities’ refusal to allow the protest was illegal and called the accusations against him “ridiculous and unlawful.” The anti-corruption campaigner, who has become Putin’s most visible political foe, already has served several weeks-long jail terms for organizing other protests.

The jail sentence could reflect the authorities’ desire to keep Navalny behind bars to prevent him from staging more protests in the run-up to the World Cup hosted by Russia that could tarnish its opening on June 14.

Navalny tweeted from the courtroom that he was sentenced simply for “getting out on the street of my city and saying: ‘I’m not your slave, and I will never be. I don’t need a new Czar.'” “There is nothing pleasant about the arrest, but I’m ready to come out and repeat it as many times as needed until we get what we want,” he said. “And I know I’m not alone.”

Medvedev approved for new term as Russia’s prime minister

May 08, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s house of parliament has overwhelmingly approved Dmitry Medvedev for a new term as prime minister. Medvedev was nominated a day earlier by President Vladimir Putin, who was inaugurated for a fourth term as Russia’s president. Putin signed a decree formalizing Medvedev’s appointment soon after the parliamentary vote.

Medvedev has been prime minister since 2012, after four years serving as Russia’s president while Putin switched to the premiership because of term limits. He is expected to make changes in the current lineup of deputy prime ministers and department ministers, but it wasn’t clear Tuesday when those changes would be announced.

As prime minister, Medvedev will be responsible for implementing the ambitious plan for Russia’s development that Putin issued after his inauguration. The plan calls for heightened efforts to diversify Russia’s economy, which is now heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, by strengthening the technology sector and boosting agricultural exports.

Putin wants Russia to become one of the world’s top five economies by the time his new term ends in 2024.

Putin vows to boost Russian economy as he begins 4th term

May 07, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin on Monday launched his fourth term as president with an ambitious call to vault Russia into the top five global economies by developing its technological products and agricultural exports.

Putin, who has sought to restore Russia’s military and diplomatic prominence on the world stage, focused almost entirely on domestic issues in his speech after taking the oath of office in a vast, vaulted Kremlin hall glittering with gold leaf.

Improving the economy following a recession partly linked to international sanctions will be a primary goal of his next six-year term, Putin said. “Russia should be modern and dynamic, it should be ready to accept the call of the times,” he said in his inauguration speech to thousands of guests standing in three halls of the Grand Kremlin Palace.

Putin later issued an extensive decree calling for “acceleration of the technological development of the Russian Federation” and “creation of a high-performance export-oriented sector in the basic sectors of the economy, primarily in manufacturing and the agro-industrial sector.”

The 65-year-old former KGB agent, who has led Russia for all of the 21st century either as president or prime minister, has been criticized for inadequate efforts to diversify the economy from its dependence on oil and gas exports or develop the manufacturing sector.

Russia’s economy was hit hard by low world oil prices and sanctions connected to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and military involvement in the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, with the ruble losing half its value between 2014 and 2016.

The country recorded an anemic improvement in 2017, with gross domestic product rising 1.5 percent and the ruble recovering some of its value. But the currency dropped about 8 percent again last month after new U.S. sanctions.

In the decree, he foresaw Russia becoming one of the world’s top five economies by the end of his term in 2024. That would require boosting GDP by some 50 percent; Russia currently places about 12th in rankings of world economies.

Putin made only a brief reference to global affairs in his speech, saying “Russia is a strong, active, influential participant in international life. The security and defense capability of the country is reliably ensured. We will give these matters the necessary constant attention.”

He acknowledged that the challenges facing Russia were formidable “but we all remember well that, for more than 1,000 years of history, Russia has often faced epochs of turmoil and trials, and has always revived as a Phoenix, reached heights that others could not.”

Putin was re-elected in March with 77 percent of the vote. He became acting president on New Year’s Eve 1999 following the surprise resignation of Boris Yeltsin and won election to his first four-year term in 2000. Re-elected in 2004, he left office in 2008 because of term limits, but was named prime minister and continued to steer the country from that office. He returned as president in 2012 when the post was extended to six years.

Monday’s pomp-filled inauguration was covered in assiduous detail on state television. It showed Putin working at his desk in his shirt sleeves, then donning a suit coat to begin a long, solitary walk through the corridors of the Kremlin’s Senate building before boarding a limousine for a short drive to the Grand Kremlin Palace.

Thousands of guests stood in the three halls for the inauguration. One of the most prominent was former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who is now chairman of Russia’s state oil company Rosneft and one of the most prominent Western voices arguing for an end to sanctions against Russia.

Schroeder stood with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Putin prominently shook hands with him after the speech. After the ceremony, Putin issued an order formally dissolving the Cabinet but nominated Medvedev to serve again as prime minister. The pro-Putin United Russia party that dominates the parliament said it would back Medvedev in a vote Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported.

Medvedev in turn made nominations for several deputy prime ministers, notably including Finance Minister Anton Siluanov as first deputy premier.

Nearly 1600 reported arrested in Russian anti-Putin protests

May 05, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russians angered by the impending inauguration of Vladimir Putin to a new term as president protested Saturday in scores of cities across the country — and police responded by reportedly arresting nearly 1,600 of them.

Among those arrested was protest organizer Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who is Putin’s most prominent foe. Police seized Navalny by the arms and legs and carried the thrashing activist from Moscow’s Pushkin Square, where thousands were gathered for an unauthorized protest.

Police also used batons against protesters who chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia will be free!” Demonstrations under the slogan “He is not our czar” took place throughout the country, from Yakutsk in the far northeast to St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad on the fringes of Europe.

The protests demonstrated that Navalny’s opposition, although considered beleaguered by Russian officials and largely ignored by state-controlled television, has sizable support in much of the country.

“I think that Putin isn’t worthy of leading this country. He has been doing it for 18 years and has done nothing good for it,” said Moscow demonstrator Dmitry Nikitenko. “He should leave for good.” OVD-Info, an organization that monitors political repression, said late Saturday that 1,599 people had been detained at demonstrations in 26 Russian cities. It said 702 were arrested in Moscow alone, and another 232 in St. Petersburg.

Moscow police said about 300 people were detained in the capital, state news agencies said, and there was no official countrywide tally. “Let my son go!” Iraida Nikolaeva screamed, running after police in Moscow when they detained her son. “He did not do anything! Are you a human or not? Do you live in Russia or not?”

Navalny was to be charged with disobeying police, an offense that carries a sentence of up to 15 days, news reports said, though when he would face a judge was not immediately clear. Navalny has served several multi-week stretches in jail on similar charges.

In St. Petersburg, police blocked off a stretch of Nevsky Prospekt as a crowd of about 1,000 marched along the renowned avenue. Video showed some demonstrators being detained. Putin is to be inaugurated for a new six-year term on Monday after winning re-election in March with 77 percent of the vote. Navalny had hoped to challenge him on the ballot but was blocked because of a felony conviction in a case that supporters regard as falsified in order to marginalize him.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticized the actions of the Russian police. “The United States condemns #Russia’s detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters and calls for their immediate release. Leaders who are secure in their own legitimacy don’t arrest their peaceful opponents for protesting,” she tweeted.

Navalny has called nationwide demonstrations several times in the past year, and their turnout has rattled the Kremlin. Saturday’s protests attracted crowds of hundreds in cities that are far remote from Moscow, challenging authorities’ contention that Navalny and other opposition figures appeal only to a small, largely urban elite.

As he begins a new term, Putin pushes lofty goals for Russia

May 04, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — If Vladimir Putin fulfills the goals he’s set for his new six-year term as president, Russia in 2024 will be far advanced in new technologies and artificial intelligence, many of its notoriously poor roads will be improved, and its people will be living significantly longer.

There’s wide doubt about how much of that he’ll achieve, if any of it. Analysts assessing the prospects of his term that begins with Monday’s inauguration often use the expression “neo-stagnation.” And less than half of the population really trusts him, according to a state polling agency.

Putin won the new term, which will extend his rule in Russia to a quarter-century if he completes it, with an official tally of 77 percent of the vote in March. Although there were complaints of ballot-stuffing and other violations, his support was clearly high. Yet, when state pollster VTsIOM asked Russians a month later which politician they trusted to solve the country’s problems, only 47 percent chose Putin.

The apparent discrepancy between the vote total and his trust rating suggests that Putin is important to Russians not so much for what he accomplishes but for what he is — the embodiment of their national identity.

“In this dichotomous world, the symbolic Putin is omnipotent, like St. George slaying the Western dragon, but the flesh-and-bones Putin is barely capable of solving Russians’ everyday problems or preventing tragedies,” Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote last month.

Putin’s strong suit is in projecting Russian power. The technology and lifespan improvements that he foresaw in his state-of-the-nation address shortly before the election didn’t attract as much attention as his claim that Russia had developed an array of new and allegedly invincible nuclear weapons.

He is sure to continue to assert Russia’s role on the world stage, apparently committed to military involvement in Syria until the bitter end and showing no signs of backing down from Moscow’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Although painful sanctions have been imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, its involvement in eastern Ukraine and its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, Putin appears to be willing to pay the price, especially because rising world oil prices have restored some revenue. The economy has partially recovered from the depths of 2015-16 when the ruble lost half its value, but concerns persist about long-term prospects, especially if Russia is unable to boost its manufacturing sector and wean the economy off its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.

The government reportedly is raising the age for state pensions as a way to cut expenditures. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich is floating the prospect of raising income taxes by a couple of percentage points.

Dvorkovich, in fact, recently acknowledged that much of Russia’s economic improvement is connected to a one-off: this summer’s football World Cup. “I can say that without the World Cup, there would be no economic growth at the moment,” he said.

If the money for domestic improvements is in doubt, so is the political will to implement them in Putin’s new term. In the view of Andrew Wood, a Russia analyst at Britain’s Chatham House, “the main objective of the incumbent regime is to protect its hold on power.”

Thus, he wrote, “it will therefore continue between now and 2024 to follow the three main policy guidelines set by Putin in 2012: to do without significant structural economic reforms because of the political risks attached to them; to control the population; and to pursue ‘great power’ ambitions.”

Putin’s most prominent foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, is calling for nationwide protests on Saturday, two days ahead of the inauguration. But Russia’s opposition forces are likely to remain marginalized — routinely banned from holding demonstrations and all but ignored by the dominant state news media.

Since Putin’s re-election, some notable protests have arisen: One was held over the fire at a Siberian shopping mall that killed 60 people, and a number of communities in the Moscow region also demonstrated over hazardous landfills.

Those actions, however, were focused on local and regional officials’ ineptness or corruption, while Putin rises above it all. The main drama in Putin’s new term may come not from what he does, but from what comes after him.

The constitution bars him from seeking a third consecutive term in 2024, and it’s not clear if he’d want another one badly enough — he will be 72 — to risk trying to change the constitution to stay in office.

In a system where genuine political competition is truncated, overt jockeying to replace Putin is unlikely. Instead, he could bestow favor on a malleable successor and continue to run things from behind the scenes.

Significant moments in Putin’s 18 years of power

May 04, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A look at some of the significant dates in Vladimir Putin’s 18 years in power as Russia’s president and prime minister: Dec. 31, 1999 — In a surprise address to the nation, President Boris Yeltsin announces his resignation and makes Putin, the prime minister he appointed four months earlier, the acting president.

May 7, 2000 — After winning election with about 53 percent of the vote, Putin is inaugurated for his first four-year term. May 11, 2000 — Tax police raid the offices of NTV, a popular independent channel noted for critical coverage of the Kremlin. It is the first salvo in moves against prominent independent media that have characterized the Putin era.

Aug. 12, 2000 — The Kursk submarine sinks with 118 people aboard, setting off the first widespread and sustained criticism of Putin. News media take him to task for remaining on vacation during the early period of the crisis and waiting five days before accepting Western offers of help.

Oct. 23, 2002 — Chechen terrorists take some 850 people hostage at a Moscow theater. Three days later, Russian special forces pump an unidentified gas into the theater to end the crisis, killing at least 130 hostages along with the terrorists. Putin defends the operation as having saved hundreds of lives.

Oct. 25, 2003 — Russia’s richest man, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is arrested. Khodorkovsky was seen as a potential challenger to Putin. Khodorkovsky is later sentenced to 10 years in prison for tax evasion and fraud and his Yukos oil company dismantled, most of it acquired by state oil company Rosneft.

March 14, 2004 — Putin is elected to a second presidential term.

Sept. 1, 2004 — Islamic militants seize a school in Beslan. More than 300 people die in the chaotic explosions and shootout that end the siege two days later. Putin blames regional leaders’ incompetence and announces that governors will be appointed rather than elected.

April 25, 2005 — Putin alarms international observers by describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Although Putin referred to the economic chaos and ethnic conflicts that followed the collapse, the statement is seen by many as revealing a neo-Soviet mindset.

Feb. 10, 2007 — In a speech at a conference in Munich, Putin turns away radically from earlier attempts to develop closer ties with the United States.

June 5, 2007 — Russia is chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a pet project of Putin. His personal presentation to the International Olympic Committee is seen as key to winning the prestigious event.

May 8, 2008 — Barred by the constitution from running for a third consecutive term, Putin is appointed prime minister by new President Dmitry Medvedev. He effectively remains the country’s political leader.

Aug. 8-12, 2008 — Russia fights a short war with Georgia, gaining full control of the separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.

Sept. 24, 2011 — Medvedev calls for Putin to be nominated for a third term as president.

March 4, 2012 — Putin elected to a new presidential term, which is now six years long. Protests by tens of thousands before the election and on the eve of his inauguration lead to legislation harshening penalties for unauthorized political protests.

June 6, 2013 — Putin announces on Russian state television that he and his wife, Lyudmila, are divorcing.

March 18, 2014 — Russia annexes Crimea from Ukraine, after the Kremlin sends in troops without insignia following the ouster of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president, and stages a quick referendum on splitting from Ukraine. Although Russia denied involvement at the time, Putin admits a year later that he planned the annexation weeks previously, taking advantage of Ukraine’s political chaos.

April 2014 — Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels begins in eastern Ukraine, starting a war that has killed more than 10,000 people to date. Russia denies its troops are involved.

July 17, 2014 — A Malaysian airliner is shot down over Ukraine, killing all 283 aboard. Russia promotes several theories, but other investigators point to a Russian mobile missile-launcher.

Feb. 27, 2015 — Boris Nemtsov, a top figure of Russia’s beleaguered political opposition, is gunned down on a bridge a few hundred meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov was working on a report about Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Sept. 30, 2015 — Russia begins airstrikes in Syria. Putin says the action is necessary to destroy terrorist groups, but critics note it also helps Syria’s President Bashar Assad hold on to power.

July 7, 2017 — Putin and President Donald Trump meet for the first time. Putin says he believes Trump accepted his denial of allegations that Russians meddled in the election that brought Trump to power.

March 1, 2018 — Putin says Russia has tested an array of new nuclear weapons invulnerable to enemy intercept.

March 18, 2018 — Putin wins a new, six-year term in office with a reported 77 percent of the vote.

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