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By John Helmer, Moscow

Sovcomflot, the wholly state owned shipping company, is to be privatized by the sale of 25% less one share on the Moscow stock exchange, the Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin said at the Sochi investment forum this week. The announcement, decided last month in the government’s privatization plan for 2017,  was made in an aside to reporters,  and Oreshkin allowed no questions.

After fifteen years of attempts to sell and list Sovcomflot shares on international stock exchanges, the reversion to Moscow is an immediate blow to the government’s plans, and to the management role of Sovcomflot’s chief executive, Sergei Frank (lead image, lower left). In the longer term, Russian shipping insiders believe, it is a potential opportunity for a personal takeover by Kremlin favourite and the dominant oil transportation oligarch, Gennady Timchenko (lower right). According to Moscow newspaper reports,  Oreshkin’s ministry has decided to sell another 50% stake in Sovcomflot by the year 2019, retaining for the state just 25% plus one share. Frank himself has been attempting a state-financed management buyout, and the state controlled oil company Surgutneftegas is also a contender. Read more

The company, whose Soviet-era name means “Modern Commercial Fleet”, has failed to secure western underwriters and approval from stock market regulators in London, New York, and elsewhere, for an open-market listing. Instead, the Russian state treasury is to collect the privatization cash target of Rb24 billion (currently $414 million) from a scheme financed by the Central Bank and state banks, Sberbank and VTB. “This is fake news,” commented a Moscow shipping insider.” Just like last year’s Rosneft share sale.”  (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

On March 1, the Brussels art dealer Bru Sale has announced it will auction  184 lots in a collection the dealer in charge,  Didier Sacareau,  is calling Russian art paintings and drawings. Works by some of the best-known artists among the Russian avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century are on sale, and the prices are a steal. The reason for that, according to art authentication experts in London, Moscow and Kiev, is because they are.  (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

For the first time Canadian mine stock investors say that Russian mining and metals oligarch Alexei Mordashov has run into resistance to his takeover schemes by a combination of share dilution, insider rewards,  and share price manipulation —  tactics which  have succeeded for Mordashov when he acquired the last three Canadian goldminers he took aim at.  

Speaking of the takeover now under way by Mordashov’s London-listed Nordgold for Toronto-listed Columbus Gold, shareholders, analysts, insiders and stock promoters have been discussing on the Canadian Stockhouse bulletin board  what they expect to happen next. A small stakeholder told others on the bullboard in December: “Can’t see any reason Nord does not move quickly on [Columbus Gold]  as it will only get more expensive.”  A few days later, Brien Lundin, a gold stockpicker in the US,  advised his clients to take advantage of the Russian interest:  “I urge you to take advantage of any market-induced weakness to buy the company in advance of the feasibility study.”  Another bullboard entry warned on February 9: “Pretty obvious they’re going to take us out, put those 5 million Z’s [gold reserves] in their portfolio, and continue on with their growth plan. We’re the proverbial low hanging fruit, it’s now just a matter of price.”

The next day another commentator warned: “As for [Columbus Gold].. NORD has never failed to follow through on eventually taking over a company in which they have picked up a notable minority stake.” He drew the response:  “NORD would definitely like to steal it but they won’t be able to because too many other buyers want it also. So NORD may decide to sell instead at a premium and take their marbles somewhere else where they can get a better deal.” 

The Canadian consensus is that Mordashov is making a raid on Columbus Gold. “What I think we have to watch for is if they low ball us like they don’t want any partners, putz around for a year or so, then sell the whole shooting match to one of the above for a $ billion or better, screwing us out of our fair share. Got to keep a close eye on those Russians…” (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Gold reserves are handy in wartime, especially when your enemies are the United States Government and the US dollar banking system operating worldwide.  

So, since the war to overthrow President Vladimir Putin began in 2014, the Central Bank of Russia has accelerated its purchases of gold bullion by more than double, becoming the largest gold buyer among the world’s central banks, and the holder of the sixth largest gold reserve.  Roughly half the volume of this gold has been bought by the Central Bank from Russian goldmines.

Putin has also decided to start digging out Sukhoi Log, in Irkutsk region. That’s the largest unmined gold deposit in Russia, and one of the biggest proven reserves of mineable gold in the world.

For the past quarter of a century, the Kremlin has been unwilling to decide who, if anybody, will be permitted to mine Sukhoi Log.  That decision was finally made last week, when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev confirmed the award of the licence to mine Sukhoi Log to a special purpose company formed by Russian Technologies (Rostec, Ростех,  RT) and Polyus Gold. Together, they are paying Rb9.406 billion (about $162 million) for the licence.  “According to the Governmental order affirming the results of the auction, SL Gold Limited Liability Company…, a company established by JSC Polyus and LLC RT Business Development [Rostec], will be granted the right to develop Sukhoi Log for the exploration works and extraction of gold and silver…Subject to obtaining the license, the Company intends to conduct additional exploration works and a feasibility study, which is expected to last for approximately three to four years, supported by international mining and engineering consultants. Based on the results of that study, the Company will evaluate options to initiate construction activities at the Sukhoi Log.”

What this means is that Rostec and Polyus Gold are promising to take up to four years to re-read the mountain of geological, metallurgical and engineering studies, reports and plans compiled on Sukhoi Log for 25 years  by every major Russian and international mine consultancy, including the leading goldminers of Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the UK. Then, when the re-reading is done, Rostec and Polyus Gold aren’t promising to produce any gold at all. On this undertaking, they have borrowed state bank cash in order to pay the state budget a licence fee. This looks like a privatization, but it is a phantom. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

As intelligence agencies must, after a mole, security breach, hacking, or leak has exposed state secrets, they re-read and re-interpret their archives to determine when the penetration started and the extent of the damage.  US intelligence reassessments today of the extent of Russian penetration in the recent past aren’t the only ones. French and German counter-intelligence agents are also hard at work reviewing their official and political records, the public ones and also the secret ones.  

The Polish intelligence services — the ABW (internal), the AW (external), and the SKW (counter-intelligence) — have been hard at work, too.  According to sources in Warsaw, a review is under way of the case of Radoslaw Sikorski (lead image, right).  He served as Poland’s Defence Minister between 2005 and 2007; Foreign Minister from 2005 to September 22, 2014; and Marshal of the Sejm (Parliament Speaker) between September 24, 2014, and June 23, 2015. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

The US nuclear-armed missile destroyer, USS Porter, was steaming full-speed across the Black Sea in the direction of the Russian coastline, its Tomahawk firing radars activated, when a Russian airborne signals reconnaissance aircraft and three SU-24 fighter-bombers arrived in three waves. The US European Command headquarters in Stuttgart announced that the incidents had occurred on Tuesday, February 14, calling the Russian flights “unsafe and unprofessional”, putting the vessel and the militaries of the US and Russia at risk of “accident or miscalculation.”  The Pentagon repeated the exact words after daylight broke on the same day in Washington. But that was four days after the incidents had  actually taken place on Friday, February 10. The Russian Defense Ministry replied in the Moscow evening of February 14 that there “were no incidents”.

The release this week of news, or no news, or fake news has occurred on the eve of Thursday’s  meeting between the US and Russian chiefs of the General Staffs, General Joseph Dunford and General Valery Gerasimov.  Dunford, a Marine Corps officer, was appointed to the Pentagon post, the most senior ranking uniform officer under  Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump, by former President Barack Obama on October 1, 2015. Dunford’s 2-year term runs out in eight months’ time.  A statement from Dunford’s office, issued yesterday,  claims the meeting, to be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, “will discuss a variety of issues, including the current state of U.S.-Russian military relations and the importance of consistent and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises.”

Moscow sources in a position to know believe the US military was either exaggerating, or faking, last week’s incidents around the USS Porter – Destroyer Designated Guided, DDG-78 is its fleet number — in order to put pressure on President Trump’s readiness to relax the US policy of all-fronts confrontation with the Kremlin. (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

Sergei Ivanov had been in charge of protecting Russia’s environment for just ten weeks when he arrived in Chelyabinsk city last November 1. The former Kremlin chief of staff and principal advisor to President Vladimir Putin took with him a large delegation of federal officials, including a deputy prime minister, the minister of natural resources and environment, and the chief of the environmental control agency, Rosprirodnadzor,  to meet Boris Dubrovsky, the Chelyabinsk governor (lead image, right).  

Much was promised for cleaning up the air of the city and region. A month later, on December 5, President Vladimir Putin visited Chelyabinsk region, and flew by helicopter with Dubrovsky over several of the worst air pollution areas.  Dubrovsky announced  that he favoured a new set of air control standards for enforcement by federal and regional governments. Putin replied with the acknowledgement that air pollution was especially serious in Chelyabinsk.  He claimed: “we need to encourage entrepreneurs, and industry to apply the latest technology, the best technology available. This program starts to work, and I very much hope that it will have the desired effect in 2017.”

Then in mid-January the smog struck Chelyabinsk city. Ivanov, Dubrovsky and Putin had all failed to prevent the longest air pollution crisis in the city for years.  Mechel’s owner, Igor Zyuzin (lead image, left), had succeeded in keeping his plants operating with minimal interruption, a promise to do better, and no criminal charges.  A local environmental activist says:  “People in the west think Putin is so powerful he can change the outcome of elections in the US, UK, France and Germany. So how come he can’t put a stop to the говно in the Chelyabinsk air coming from one oligarch who owns the plants?” (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

As if it weren’t already certain, President Vladimir Putin intends to run again for president in 2018. He has made this visibly obvious (lead image), though it’s not yet officially so. The  signal  Putin has chosen – a unique one in the history of European and American leaders of state —  is one which kings display on their chests. That’s peaked lapels instead of notched lapels on their suit jackets. Until Putin,  the last president in Moscow to wear peaked lapels was Mikhail Gorbachev. By the time he did that in August 1991, he had just five months left in power.  

(more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the US, UK, and Germany –  leaders of the worldwide campaign to attack Russia  and overthrow President Vladimir Putin – the taste for Russian vodka jumped in 2016 after falling sharply during 2014 and 2015. Russian vodka drinkers, too, started to recover their taste in September, October and November of last year. According to a report from one of the leading Russian vodka brand-name producers, the September-November time period was also when the volume of vodka sold domestically showed the first signs of growth since 2014. Overall, the volume of vodka sold in Russia grew by 6% in that interval; by 8%,  if the cheapest vodka brands are excluded.

The Russian vodka taste test doesn’t mean, however, that those who have been losing their war against Russia are drowning their sorrows, as Hillary Clinton (lead image) did on election night in November, when Donald Trump defeated her for the US presidency, and Clinton became paralytically drunk.   For one thing, according to reporting from the Moscow Centre for Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets (TsIFRRA), the greater volume of vodka consumed abroad reflects a recovery from the fall in vodka exports which started in 2014, particularly in Ukraine. It is also a sign of demand from the larger numbers of affluent Russians who have fled the homeland, along with their cash, in the past two years.  

The reason for the increase in domestic shipments of vodka and consumer sales, according to TsIFFRA, is the shift in consumption from illegal vodka to legal vodka, as government control of vodka sales gets tighter. Russians aren’t drinking more vodka these days, TsIFFRA says — they are drinking better quality vodka, paying more, but are no happier, nor drunker,  than they were in 2013, before the war against life in Russia began in earnest.   (more…)

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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Russian government this week fired a new shot across the bows of New Zealand, one of the Obama Administration’s staunchest allies in the Pacific and on the Ukraine and Syrian warfronts.

Starting on Monday next, February 6, imports of New Zealand beef will be banned by the Russian Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (Rosselkhoznadzor, RSN). The results of testing by RSN confirmed   “numerous identifications of bacteria of the Listeria monocytogenes type.” In addition, traces of the prohibited hormone growth additive ractopamine had been detected in NZ beef offal.  Accordingly, RSN said, it was commencing “temporary restrictions on deliveries to Russia of beef and beef offal from New Zealand”; the offal is a common  ingredient in Russian sausage manufacture.  The announcement from RSN added: “Rosselkhoznadzor also considers the possibility of entering of temporary restrictions on import from New Zealand to Russia of fish products, in connection with numerous identifications in consignments of New Zealand fish of bacteria of  Listeria monocytogenes type,  and higher than admissible levels of mercury.”

NZ lamb and mutton exports to Russia have not been mentioned by RSN, and are not affected for the time being.

The threatened ban on NZ fish is not new. The threat was first announced last  October 5, days after the NZ prime minister at the time, John Key, issued a public insult to President Vladimir Putin, and attacked Russian policy in the Ukraine and Syria. Read the full story here

Weeks later, on December 4 Key announced his surprise retirement. NZ press reports claimed that Key’s wife had forced the move, not Putin. (more…)