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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the time of President Boris Yeltsin, there was no difference between loose lips and moose lips.

According to newly released records of President Bill Clinton’s secret conversations with Prime Minister Tony Blair, at a luncheon on January 13, 1994, Yeltsin served Clinton “roast pig and told me real men hack off the ears and eat them. And once he served 24 courses, including moose lips.” But Clinton and Blair didn’t think Yeltsin was a real man. They thought he was an ingratiating stooge, whom they could rely on to agree with them so long as his health held. When it didn’t, they were happy to see him out of the way by staging, as they discussed in the planning, his succession by Victor Chernomyrdin.

There’s many a slip between the cup of national interest and the lip of its betrayal. According to the Clinton records, Yeltsin tried them all. In secret he agreed to the US expanding NATO to include former East European and Balkan allies of Moscow. He dismissed the Russian opposition to that move as “a lot of old ladies out in the country”. He went along with the US war on Serbia and on Iraq, so long as Clinton fabricated a self-defence justification to keep it from a United Nations Security Council vote. He begged Clinton for money. Immediately after the financial crash and government default of August 1998 he asked Clinton to come to Moscow to reassure the world Yeltsin wasn’t culpable, and was still in charge. Clinton told Blair: “My relationship [with Yeltsin]… is such that all [Kremlin] hardliners believe I could talk to [him] and get him to sell the oil wells for three dollars and a half, but that’s not true. He’s just more far-sighted and progressive than they are.”
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By John Helmer, Moscow

Every autumn, as regularly as trees change their colour, Alexei Kudrin (lead image), the one-time finance minister of Russia, attempts a putsch. And as regularly as leaves fall to the ground, he fails to seize the high office he thinks he deserves.

Counting the number of self-advertisements he has issued, Kudrin is the longest loser in Russian politics. Compared to other proteges of Anatoly Chubais – men like Mikhail Abyzov, Leonid Melamed, Valentin Zavadnikov, Alfred Kokh, Vladimir Kogan — Kudrin has managed to accumulate a relatively small fortune. He is also the only minister of state whom President Vladimir Putin has publicly diagnosed as having had an “emotional breakdown”. What Putin meant is that a Russian apparatchik who keeps failing to grab power and wealth, both, when opportunity knocks, must be psycho.
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By John Helmer, Moscow

Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash defeated a US government attempt last year to extradite him to the US for trial on corruption allegations. But now, encouraged by the US Government and by Ukrainian government officials in Kiev, a new group of US investors, led by Stephen Lynch (lead image) and the law firm Firestone Duncan, are targeting Firtash for a takeover of Misen Energy, an eastern Ukrainian gas producer which Firtash is believed to control. “We are slowly consolidating our position at Misen,” Lynch says, “and may move forward.”
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By John Helmer, Moscow

Entitled “The Yellow Airplane”, this is a Russian painting of the late Socialist Realist epoch. The artist signs himself Kazak, and dates the work 1960.

I found it in Moscow in 1998. Later it disappeared for more than a decade. But several months ago it was found, and I’ve had it stretched again and mounted on my wall. In trying to trace the painter, I have found two Kazak names who qualify, more or less – Oleg Iosifovich Kazak, born in Minsk in 1935; and Vasily Ivanovich Kazak, born in Moldavia in 1938. Vasily Ivanovich is the most likely painter, as he lived and worked for most of his career in Belgorod region, and because “Belgorod” is written on the back of the canvas. He died in 1996.

I’ve found only one other picture by the same Kazak, and nothing to compare to the beauty of the first. The painting comes from a time when it was possible to believe in building a civilized future in Russia, in Europe. Those whose wickedness you have been following here this year have taken us into a war from which there may not be enough time for us, you dear reader and I, to recover. For us, the yellow airplane isn’t a figment of the imagination, though if it were, it could not be shot down.
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By John Helmer, Moscow

At the very beginning of his presidency, in March 2000, Vladimir Putin said the state – he meant himself – should be “equidistant” from the oligarchs. He also promised “compliance with [market] rules, without offering any advantages or privileges or preferences to anyone”. The president, Putin added, “should stand above this influence and not pile up all the interests only in favor of the big companies and monopolies. We should not allow this.”
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By John Helmer, Moscow

Leonid Lebedev (lead image), the former Russian senator and energy trader, has lost fraud and deceit claims against Len Blavatnik and Victor Vekselberg in a New York Supreme Court ruling. After considering the case for eight months, state judge Salliann Scarpulla has also rejected Blavatnik’s and Vekselberg’s application to dismiss Lebedev’s entire lawsuit. This leaves one question to be decided next year — Lebedev’s claim of breach of a contract from 2001, which remained unsigned at the time; and which depends, according to Lebedev, on a conversation during a walk in New York’s Central Park.

The US judge has also ruled to allow Blavatnik and Vekselberg to continue their litigation in a London arbitration court, and the opportunity to file elsewhere. In London Blavatnik and Vekselberg say they paid Lebedev the $600 million he asked for and received through Irish and Cypriot front companies he is claiming didn’t pass on the money to him for more than a decade.
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By John Helmer, Moscow

Eponymously, much of The Netherlands is close to or below sea level. So it’s susceptible to inundation by sea storms and heavy rains. So long as the man-made dykes hold the water back, the country can be saved.

According to a well-known Dutch history lesson from the 19th century, it took a little boy’s alertness to the dyke leak he spotted on his way to school, to sound the alarm; prevent the dyke from being breached; and save fortunes and lives. Russians, whose familiarity with Dutch dykes and little boys began with Tsar Peter the Great in 1697, regard this story as a harmless national fantasy. Actually, the story of the Little Dutch Boy, his finger and the dyke was invented by an American novelist in 1865. But the Dutch are so fond of the fiction, they have erected statues of the Boy and his Finger around their country. These provide opportunities for American tourists to leave coins beside them.
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By John Helmer, Moscow

On November 13, Gennady Timchenko (lead image), once the oligarch controlling the greater part of Russian oil movement from well-head to market, established a new line of business. He called it Carignan, after the Mediterranean grape variety, and he put his public relations agent in charge of the company as chief executive. The company is so new the President of the Russian Union of Winegrowers and Winemakers, Leonid Popovich, hadn’t heard of it.

Rival Russian winegrowers, who have heard of Timchenko, say he’s making his move to qualify for the large cash payouts from the Ministry of Agriculture to encourage new vine plantings, boost domestic wine production, replace imports, and revive Crimean winegrowing after a very bad year in 2014. This state cash represents 80% of outlays on new vineyards. Anton Kurevin, Timchenko’s spokesman, and chief executive of Carignan, responds: “an application for participation in this programme has not been lodged.”
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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Victorian state coroner Iain West (lead image) has concluded a 60-minute inquest into the deaths of Australians on board Malaysian Airlines MH17 by issuing a statement of findings contradicting the coroner’s own statements, as well as the evidence of reports from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and courtroom testimony from the senior Australian police officer investigating the MH17 crash.
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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Australian Federal Police and Dutch police and prosecutors investigating the cause of the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH17 believe the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) has failed to provide “conclusive evidence” of what type of munition destroyed the aircraft, causing the deaths of 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.

After testifying for the first time in an international court, Detective Superintendent Andrew Donoghoe, the senior Australian policeman in the international MH17 investigation, said a “tougher standard than the DSB report” is required before the criminal investigation can identify the weapon which brought the aircraft down, or pinpoint the perpetrators. Their criminal investigation will continue into 2016, Donoghoe told the Victorian Coroners Court (lead image) on Tuesday morning. He and other international investigators are unconvinced by reports from the US and Ukrainian governments, and by the DSB, of a Buk missile firing. “Dutch prosecutors require conclusive evidence on other types of missile,” Donoghoe said, intimating that “initial information that the aircraft was shot down by a [Buk] surface to air missile” did not meet the Australian or international standard of evidence.
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