Putin clears first stage in 2018 presidential race

By ethan / December 26, 2017

A broad group of Russian politicians, activists and celebrities held their first convention as backers of incumbent president Vladimir Putin’s candidacy in the 2018 presidential race.

The initiative group that backs Putin’s candidacy was formed earlier this month by the parliamentary majority party United Russia, the centrist public movement All-Russian Popular Front and the Russian Public Chamber. The overall strength of the group is over 600 people and it includes many well-known personalities, such as Olympic champion fencer Sofia Velikaya, head of the Russian Ballet Academy Nikolai Tsiskaridze, director of the State Hermitage museum Mikhail Piotrovsky, chairman of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Aleksandr Shokhin, word-famous pianist Denis Matsuyev, MMA star Fedor Emelianenko and others.

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Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during an interview with five Russian TV channels on the round-up of the government's work over the year, November 30, 2017 © Alexander Astafyev

The RBC news site has quoted an unnamed source “close to the Kremlin” as saying that the main condition for inviting people to the initiative group was their personal acquaintance with Putin.

The group will include the head of the parliamentary party Fair Russia, Sergey Mironov, and about 15 top party officials. Fair Russia describes itself as an opposition to United Russia, but its elections convention earlier this week voted not to propose any own candidates and back Putin, whom Mironov described as “the only Russian socialist.”

Russia’s Green Party also pledged this week to support Putin’s candidacy, and praised the incumbent’s input in solving environmental issues. 

Putin himself did not attend the convention on Tuesday. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters that this was due to the president’s busy schedule, and added that the law did not require the future candidate’s attendance at the first meeting of supporters.  As journalists attempted to clarify on what day Putin plans to submit his papers to the Central Elections Commission, which must be done in person, Peskov refused to answer the question.

Putin announced his intention to seek another presidential term in 2018 on December 6 this year, and on December 14 he said that he would run as an independent with the support of various political parties and ordinary citizens. This means that the incumbent will have to collect and present to the Central Elections Commission signatures of 300,000 of his supporters, collected all over Russia.

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Amazon, Microsoft staff busted buying sex workers trapped in trafficking industry

By ethan / December 26, 2017

Scooped-up electronic communications between pimps and tech-sector employees at reputable Seattle-based companies such as Microsoft and Amazon is another hit for the tech industry, already reeling from sexism charges.

A cache of tech-sector emails sent to brothels and pimps, obtained by Newsweek via a public records request to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, reveal that “67 emails were sent from Microsoft employee email accounts, 63 from Amazon accounts and dozens more from companies like Boeing, T-Mobile, Oracle and local Seattle tech firms.”

Authorities have been collecting email messages from sex-traffickers’ computers over the last few years. In 2015, a sting operation against prostitution rings ensnared high-level Amazon and Microsoft directors.

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© Frank May / Global Look Press

Those caught up in the sting operation to buy trafficked Asian women were discovered because pimps frequently request that clients prove they are not police by forwarding employee identification.

Seattle’s booming tech industry is seen as a natural setting for a symbiotic relationship with prostitution. Tech employees regularly toil long hours, and may be enticed by the ads for sex services that are widely displayed in this city of over 700,000 in the state of Washington.

Newsweek reported these dens of prostitution advertise their proximity to Microsoft headquarters on the backpage.com site: “New Open Mind Asian Hot Sweet Pretty Face Nice Body Top Service (Bellevue-Redmond near Microsoft).” Or, “Certifiably Sexy Student Nuru Massage 69 Tongue Bath (Bellevue-Redmond Microsoft Access).”

And the services do not come cheap – some of the men spent $ 30,000 to $ 50,000 a year, according to authorities. 

The tech sector is a “culture that has readily embraced trafficking,” Alex Trouteaud, director of Policy and Research at Demand Abolition, an anti-trafficking watchdog, told the magazine.

Amazon provided Newsweek a statement by email, which read in part: “Amazon’s Owner’s Manual clearly states that, ‘It is against Amazon’s policy for any employee or Contingent Worker to engage in any sex buying activities of any kind in Amazon’s workplace or in any work-related setting outside of the workplace, such as during business trips, business meetings or business-related social events…’”

Microsoft officials responded by saying: “Microsoft has a long history of cooperating with law enforcement and other agencies on combating sex trafficking and related topics, and we have employees who volunteer their time and money specifically to combat this issue as well. The personal conduct of a tiny fraction of our 125,000 employees does not in any way represent our culture. No organization is immune to the unfortunate situation when employees act unethically or illegally…”

This is not the first time Seattle has witnessed efforts to crackdown on the trafficking of young women, many of whom are coerced to work the sex trade under threat to themselves and loved ones. In May, six people in Seattle were placed under arrest and search warrants were delivered at more than 30 locations as part of another investigation into an organized crime ring involved with prostitution.

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FIFA thanks Mutko for stepping down as head of Russian Football Union

By ethan / December 26, 2017

World football’s governing body FIFA has endorsed Vitaly Mutko’s decision to temporarily step down as head of the Russian Football Union (RFU), adding that the decision was made “in the interests of the 2018 World Cup.”

FIFA understands Mr. Mutko’s decision, which was also made in the interests of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. FIFA thanks Mr. Mutko for taking such a responsible step and the work he has done so far to prepare for the World Cup,” TASS reported the statement as saying.

Mutko’s decision will not have any impact on the football World Cup organization, as FIFA along with the Russian government and the Organizing Committee continue their productive cooperation to make all necessary preparations [to stage the World Cup] according to the plan. In the coming days, FIFA will discuss the next steps regarding the Organizing Committee’s work with all the sides involved,” the statement read.

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Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko reacts during a news conference after the Russian Football Union's executive committee meeting in Moscow, Russia December 25, 2017.© Sergei Karpukhin

On Monday Mutko, who is also Russian Deputy Prime Minister, announced his decision to temporarily leave his post as RFU chief for six months to concentrate on legal proceedings regarding his Olympic lifetime ban.

I have made a decision and informed the RFU Executive Board about it,” Mutko said at the RFU meeting.

One of the union’s regulations implies that if a president is unable to carry out his duties, he should step down. In order for the RFU to proceed I have requested to suspend my duties for a period of up to six months. I am not resigning and my mandate will be still valid.”

I will definitely return after the six months, perhaps earlier,” he added.

On December 5 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) handed a lifetime ban to former Russian Sports Minister Mutko, as part of the ongoing investigation into an alleged state-sponsored doping system in Russia, prohibiting him from attending any Olympic Games in any capacity. Mutko’s name was indicated in the McLaren report, based on the testimony of the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov, who fled Russia at the end of 2015 and is currently facing charges of trafficking highly potent illicit drugs in his home country.

The McLaren report was used as the basis for two IOC-sanctioned Commissions whose findings and conclusions have led to the disqualification of more than 40 Russian team members as well as to a controversial Olympic ban of the entire Russian squad.

READ MORE:‘I’m ready to go at any moment’: Vitaly Mutko mulls ‘resignation’ amid doping allegation row

Russian athletes who have never been convicted of doping are to be allowed to take part in the 2018 PyeongChang Games under a neutral flag, on condition their participation is approved by a specially appointed IOC doping review panel.

Mutko, who denies the existence of any state-backed doping system, said he will file an appeal with the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) Tuesday to overturn the IOC verdict which denies him access to the Olympic Games.

Nobody accused me in those reports. It just so happened to be that all the responsibility has been on me since the 2010 Vancouver Games. And I, as the minister of sports at that time, was banned from attending the Olympics,” Mutko said at a meeting of the Russian Football Union (RFU).

RFU Director General Alexander Alayev has been made acting president of the body during Mutko’s temporary layoff.

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Visa & Mastercard barred access to Russian financial technology

By ethan / December 26, 2017

The world’s two most used payment systems – Visa and MasterCard – have been prohibited from Fintech, the Russian center for new financial technology, Vedomosti daily reports.

According to the daily, Russian authorities do not want to give foreign companies like Visa and MasterCard access to the latest financial technology in Russia.

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© Thomas Whit

A spokesman from Fintech told Vedomosti the move is linked to security issues.

Fintech was established in December 2016 by the Russian Central Bank, Sberbank, VTB, Gazprombank, Alfa Bank, and other major banks and financial institutions. The purpose of the center is the development and implementation of new technological solutions and the digitalization of the Russian economy.

It is also working on developing methods of remote identification, including biometric identification technology, implementing pilot blockchain projects and creating a single space for retail payments in Russia.

Perhaps, the center has projects that are not publicly mentioned; they may be about cryptographic protection and other security issues, Alma Obayeva, the head of the National Payment Council told Vedomosti.

Russia has been promoting its own payment system Mir. All Russians employed by the state and pensioners have been obliged to exchange their Visa and MasterCard salary debit cards for Mir cards.

In May, only three percent of Russians had Mir debit cards, and 70 percent of people polled said they saw no need for an alternative payment system.

For more stories on economy & finance visit RT’s business section

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China wants Afghanistan's ancient trade routes to be part of new 'Silk Road'

By ethan / December 26, 2017

China and Pakistan are looking to include Afghanistan in their $ 57 billion economic corridor, as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as quoted by Reuters.

The economic corridor is expected to benefit the whole region and act as an impulse for further development, according to the minister. Under the broader Belt and Road project Beijing is planning to build a new “Silk Road” connecting China to Southeast and Central Asia by land and the Middle East and Europe by sea.

“So China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan,” the agency quotes Wang as saying.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been strained since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 with China trying to promote talks between the parties. In recent years, the task has been even more complicated as Afghanistan accused its neighbor of supporting Taliban insurgents fighting the US-backed government in Kabul to restrict India’s influence in the country. Pakistan has denied the allegations.

It is important for Afghanistan to join the inter-connectivity initiatives as it is a vital necessity to improve its people’s lives, according to Wang Yi, who said Pakistan and Afghanistan have agreed to mend their uneasy relations.

“The successful implementation of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects will serve as a model for enhancing connectivity and cooperation through similar projects with neighboring countries, including Afghanistan, Iran and with Central and West Asia,” said Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif.

The Indian authorities are reportedly wary of the project due to its long-time row with Pakistan over Kashmir. New Delhi sees Pakistan-administered Kashmir as its own territory. However, the plan has nothing to do with territorial disputes, according to Wang.

Beijing has been looking to bring Kabul and Islamabad together, partly because of rising concerns over the potential expansion of Islamist militancy from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Chinese far-western region of Xinjiang, which is engulfed in a separatist conflict.

For more stories on economy & finance visit RT’s business section

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Number of Russians who regret collapse of USSR hits 10-year high

By ethan / December 26, 2017

The number of Russians who regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has reached its highest level since 2009, with almost an equal share saying the event could have been avoided.

A public opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in late November this year found that 58 percent of Russians now regret the collapse of the USSR. Twenty-five percent said they felt no regret about this, while 16 percent could not describe their feelings in one word.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin © Michael Klimentyev

When researchers asked those who regret the end of the USSR what the primary reasons were behind their sentiments, 54 percent said that they missed a single economic system, 36 percent said they had lost the feeling of belonging to a real superpower, 34 percent complained about the decrease of mutual trust among ordinary people, and 26 percent said that the collapse had destroyed the ties between friends and relatives.

The same research showed that 52 percent of Russians think that the collapse of the USSR could have been avoided, 29 percent said that the event was absolutely inevitable, and 19 percent did not have a fixed opinion on the matter.

The share of those who regret the demise of the Soviet Union has risen continuously over the past decade, but in 2009 it was even higher than today – at 60 percent. The all-time high – 75 percent – was recorded in 2000.

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly addressed the issue of the collapse of the USSR in his speeches. In an address to the Russian parliament in 2005 he called the event the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century and a cause of major disruption for the Russian people. In September 2016, Putin said that the Communist Party should have transformed the Soviet Union into a democratic state rather than see it break into separate nations.

At the same time, Putin has always emphasized that he and other Russian officials have no plans to revive the USSR, and has expressed anger that people cannot accept this. He has also accused Western governments of deliberately confusing modern Russia with the USSR and harming the interests of ordinary people on the pretense of preventing an imaginary threat.

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Royal Navy shadows newest Russian missile frigate in North Sea (PHOTO)

By ethan / December 26, 2017

The Royal Navy’s HMS ‘St Albans’ shadowed the cutting-edge Russian missile frigate ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ as she passed near British waters in the North Sea on Christmas Day.

‘Admiral Gorshkov’, Russia’s newest guided-missile frigate, has been traversing the North Sea off the UK coast, prompting the Royal Navy to dispatch HMS ‘St Albans’ to “keep watch on the new Russian warship ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ as it passed close to UK territorial waters.”

According to the Royal Navy’s photos, apparently shot from the air, the vessels were sailing fairly close to each other. HMS ‘St Albans’, a Type 23 destroyer, scrambled a helicopter to monitor the Russian frigate.

“I will not hesitate in defending our waters or tolerate any form of aggression. Britain will never be intimidated when it comes to protecting our country, our people, and our national interests,” Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said, according to a Royal Navy statement.

Not to be confused with the similarly-named, Soviet-era aircraft carrier, ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ is the latest blue-water ship designed for the Russian Navy. She was launched in 2010 in St. Petersburg and is expected to enter service by the end of the year. The frigate is armed with a 130mm main gun and carries multiple cells fitted with P-800 Oniks and/or Kalibr cruise missiles.

The Royal Navy has on several occasions boasted of successful intercepts of Russian surface ships and submarines transitioning through international waters on an announced route and without any attempt to hide.

READ MORE: Royal Navy ‘detects’ & ‘marks’ Russian warships in English Channel (VIDEO)

In April this year, Type 23 frigate HMS ‘Sutherland’ escorted two Russian corvettes, ‘Soobrazitelny’ and ‘Boiky’, while the vessels were passing through English Channel during a naval exercise. Russia’s embassy in the UK said at the time that “Russian warships on the high seas in the English Channel don’t need senseless escorts.”

The biggest stir so far was caused by the 2016 mission of the ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ aircraft carrier, which drew a nervous reaction among European states and fueled a media frenzy.

Several NATO ships shadowed the Russian carrier strike group on its route. While some media outlets labeled the cruise the biggest demonstration of Russian military power in recent years, others mocked the black smoke produced by the ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’. Moscow said that the fleet’s route was never meant to be a secret or a surprise.

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‘US doesn’t acknowledge environmental issues’: Veterans slam US polluting Okinawa

By ethan / December 26, 2017

The Japanese island of Okinawa has been dubbed the Pacific junk heap thanks to the Pentagon’s troops. A former US marine once stationed in the area told RT he was shocked by all the trash he saw near American training centers.

Michael Hanes, a former US marine, saw for himself the effects of decades of pollution caused by the American military on the island, which is home to nearly 1.1 million residents. Now he is a member of Veterans for Peace, a global group of military veterans which promotes alternatives to war. In an interview to RT Hanes recalled his visit to Okinawa, within the group’s delegation supporting local people opposed to the construction of military bases in Henoko district. US bases take up nearly 19 percent of Okinawa. 

“I heard reports that there was trash all over the place, but I had to see with my own eyes,” Hanes said, “So I went up there and it just blew my mind, I couldn’t believe what I saw. All that trash in such a pristine area.”

Having seen all the trash left by US marines, Hanes says that he is sure the US is the biggest polluter in the world. “The US doesn’t look to the environmental issues or acknowledge them,” he said.

Hanes recalled that when he served in Okinawa he never littered. “Marines [with whom I served] would never do that. We were trained if you would pack it in, you take it out,” he said.

Earlier in December Hanes, together with the Veterans of Peace, was featured is the video showing the Yanbaru rainforest in the north of the island. The US Jungle Warfare Training Center occupies some 7,500 ha of Yanbaru’s land.

The activists found dozens of empty packs for Meal Ready-to-Eat – commonly known as the MRE – a field ration for the US military which doesn’t seem to be clearing up after itself.

“Do US marines behave like this even in their own country? Or they just do it here because it’s Okinawa?” Akino Miyagi, a local biologist who joined the group, asks rhetorically. She says she comes to the forest every weekend to clean up the trash.

Former US soldier William Griffin believes that Washington doesn’t want to cooperate in any investigation on the environmental issue in Okinawa “because it’s a direct threat to their national security goals.”“The problem is that environmental issues [are] a direct threat to our lives. The US gets away with a lot of environmental issues,” Griffin, who also joined Veterans for Peace, told RT.

Having a training center in the middle of a rainforest should ultimately come down to the people who live in and near that rainforest, Griffin said, referring to the Yanbaru area. “People who live there have to suffer from the consequences of that training. They don’t want it there,” he added.

In the meantime, empty packs from chicken and brownies are not the only litter found on the island. According to a Japan Times report from 2013, workers unearthed some 20 rusty barrels from beneath a soccer pitch in Okinawa which was once a part of Kadena Air Base. The barrels contained ingredients of highly toxic military defoliants used in the Vietnam War.

READ MORE: Banned chemicals contaminate groundwater near US bases on Okinawa

The Pentagon repeatedly left pollutants containing arsenic, depleted uranium, nerve gas and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium on Okinawan soil, the report said.

In May 2017, the Eco Watch environmental news site ranked the US military the world’s biggest polluter. “While the US military’s past environmental record suggests that its current policies are not sustainable, this has by no means dissuaded the US military from openly planning future contamination of the environment through misguided waste disposal efforts,” Eco Watch said. 

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Bitcoin implosion could ‘spill over’ into stock market – Wells Fargo

By ethan / December 26, 2017

Stocks could easily get dragged into chaos if the cryptocurrency boom goes bust, according to Wells Fargo Securities, which warns the unusual activity in the crypto market could lead to one of the most epic bubbles of all time.

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© Aly Song

“There is a significant amount of froth in the crypto markets. We do think that if that froth comes out, it will start to spillover,” Christopher Harvey, the firm’s head of equity strategy told CNBC.

The recent wild rally of bitcoin and its peers has sparked warnings that investors need to beware that they are not risking a repeat of the 17th-century tulip mania bubble.

Bitcoin has fallen more than 25 percent from its all-time highs of $ 20,000 spurred by futures listings on major derivatives exchanges. The virtual currency’s slump last week has made some of its supporters revise their projections. Even billionaire Michael Novogratz who had predicted bitcoin would rise to $ 40,000 by 2019 and was very bullish on cryptocurrencies, updated his forecast, saying bitcoin could drop to $ 8,000 by year-end.

The Wells Fargo chief said he was worried a cryptomarket crash would start affecting equities. “You’re seeing it a little bit, but just not to a large degree. And, it’s something to watch out for in 2018.”

Talking about the stock market, which is poised to have its best year since 2013, he said: “You have to lower your expectations for next year.”

“A lot of good news is already priced in, and we just don’t see that much going forward. It’ll be a decent market, it just won’t be a banner year,” he explained.

According to Harvey, the first half of the year will be stronger than the second.

He has predicted that by that time stocks will come up against new challenges, whether the crypto market implodes or not.

“What the market will have to contend with is EPS [earnings per share] peaking, ISM [International Securities Market] potentially peaking, you’re going to have the yield-curve in all likelihood flattening — and in addition to that, you’ll likely have multiples start to compress,” Harvey said.

“You’re going to have to scratch and claw to stay afloat for it to break even,” he added.

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Bitcoin recovers from brutal sell-off that wiped out nearly half its value

By ethan / December 26, 2017

The leading cryptocurrency bitcoin has passed the $ 15,000 mark on Tuesday. It has been recovering from last week’s sell-off, which sent prices below $ 11,000 after the $ 20,000 record.

Bitcoin was trading at $ 15,400 on Tuesday, up almost nine percent. Its market cap reached $ 257 billion with its share of the cryptocurrency market sliding to 44 percent, according to Coinmarketcap.

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© Aly Song

“There is no right current price which would reflect the right current valuation,” cryptocurrency expert Andrei Popescu told Reuters.

“Taking profit is right while buying into a long-term projection is also right. You don’t have to be right in this market, just less wrong than the rest,” Popescu said.

Cryptocurrency entrepreneur Julian Hosp has predicted bitcoin will reach a new record high, but not before another price crash.

“I think we’re going to see bitcoin hitting the $ 60,000 mark, but I also think we’re going to see bitcoin hitting the $ 5,000 mark,” Hosp told CNBC.

“The question is though, ‘Which one is it going to hit first?” he said.

Hosp said the market anticipated the recent drop in prices, and it gave an opportunity to buy bitcoin at a discount.

“This dip for us was very, very healthy, and some of us have used it to buy a little bit more because suddenly we had 40-45 percent discount to all-time highs,” he said.

“I don’t think crypto winter is going to come in the next couple of months, but I think if we look down one to two years, there is definitely going to be a big compression in the market,” Hosp added.

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