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Russia: Reports of Putin Fathering Twins Test Free Speech

The private life of Russia’s leader is apparently off-limits

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Russia, Reports, Putin, Twins
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen getting out of his limousine in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 23, 2014. VOA

Normally the delivery of twins is a cause for celebration — and when the head of government is one of the parents and the other is an aspiring politician it opens up the possibility for cute photo-opportunities. Not so in Russia under the command of Vladimir Putin, it would seem, where the private life of Russia’s leader is apparently off-limits, say analysts.

Rumors have been swirling for days in Moscow that the Russian leader’s reputed 36-year-old girlfriend, former Olympic gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva and now a media executive, gave birth to twin boys earlier this month in the Russian capital.

Nicknamed “the secret first lady,” Kabaeva, three decades younger than Putin, was rumored in 2008 to have given birth to a daughter at a private Swiss clinic recommended by Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi.

Then, as now, the Kremlin has moved to scotch reports of the births. Putin, who guards his private life fiercely — possibly a habit from his days as a KGB agent — has long denied he is in a relationship with Kabaeva.

Russia, Reports, Putin, Twins
FILE – President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with gymnast Alina Kabaeva at a Kremlin banquet in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 4, 2004. VOA

Asked once daringly about a possible romance, Putin responded: “I’ve always had a negative feeling about people poking their snotty noses and erotic fantasies into other people’s lives.”

In 2013, Putin announced the end of his 30-year marriage to wife Lyudmila Shkrebneva, with whom he has two grown-up daughters. He appeared in public for the announcement with his estranged wife, a former Aeroflot flight attendant and languages teacher, during the interval of a performance by the Kremlin Ballet. During their marriage, Shkrebneva, who since her divorce with Putin has remarried, kept a low public profile and her appearances were kept to a minimum.

The Kremlin moved swiftly last week to stop news stories of the delivery of twins, say media insiders — a further example of their strict management of top newspapers and news-sites, especially when it comes to coverage of Putin. In 2016, three editors at Russia’s RBC media group, were fired over an article on the sources of Putin’s wealth in what media watchdogs feared would mark the demise of investigative reporting in Russia.

The website of newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which is owned by one of the Russian leader’s oligarch friends, Arkady Rotenberg, reported the alleged Kabaeva births. But the report was quickly removed. Russian officials decline to comment.

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But reports here and there on Kabaeva, an Uzbek by birth, have continued amid accusations by Putin loyalists that they are being encouraged by Ukrainian enemies of the Russian leader. One site, dni.ru, announced in a headline: “Alina Kabaeva gave birth to twins and disappeared.” A showbiz website, Dom2Life, which is owned by another oligarch close to Putin, Alexander Karmanov, first reported the births on May 12, Kabaeva’s 36th birthday.

And according to Russian investigative journalist, Sergei Kanev, Kabaeva gave birth to twin boys by Caesarean at the Kulakov maternity clinic, where the VIP floor had been cleared in advance. He told Britain’s Daily Mail a doctor from Italy helped with the C-section delivery.

Kabaeva became a model on leaving competitive sport and was a Russian lawmaker until 2014. She now heads the National Media Group.

The mystery surrounding Kabaeva coincides with a further crackdown on the media in Russia amid rising complaints about shrinking press freedom and the Kremlin’s increasing determination to manage coverage.

Russia, Reports, Putin, Twins
FILE – Former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, at the time deputy chair of the State Duma Committee for Youth Affairs is seen during a session of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in Moscow, April 20, 2011. VOA

Earlier this month, nearly a dozen journalists quit their posts at Kommersant, a liberal business-focused newspaper, and at one time a trailblazer for press freedom, in protest at the firing of two star reporters, Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov. They co-wrote an article that ran afoul of the Kremlin, they say.

The newspaper is owned by billionaire Alisher Usmanov, another oligarch with close ties to Putin. One of the sacked reporters, Maxim Ivanov said on his Facebook page: “I’m no longer employed at the Kommersant publishing house. To avoid waxing lyrical: formally, my resignation from Kommersant is a mutual agreement between parties, but the decision to terminate my employment was made by the publishing house’s stakeholder.”

In March, another Kommersant journalist, Maria Karpenko, was fired over her reports on political developments in St. Petersburg.

The unfolding events at Kommersant have prompted the condemnation of the media watchdog and NGO Reporters Without Borders, which said in a statement May 20 that it is “dismayed” but the firings, dubbing them a “terrible blow to what is left of journalistic independence” in Russia.

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According to The Bell, an independent news outlet, Kommersant had been accorded by the Kremlin some independence, unlike many rival outlets, “but is subject to censorship on political topics. The mass resignation of journalists will now call this arrangement into question.”

It added that “it is not entirely clear why the article [by Ivanov and Safronov] upset the authorities so much.” The story reported that Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, would resign soon and be replaced by Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Russian journalists fear the curtailing of editorial independence will only get stricter. In March, Putin signed new laws against the spreading “fake news” and showing “blatant disrespect” to the state with fines or jail sentences for offenders. Observers warned that the laws’ vague language could be abused to stifle free speech. (VOA)

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Russia’s Alternative to Western Credit Card Debuts in London

Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings in its National Wealth Fund

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Employees demonstrating a payment card
Employees speak while demonstrating a payment card during a tour at a branch of VTB bank in Moscow, Russia. VOA

A Russian backed bank payment card, introduced after Western sanctions upended Russia’s financial system five years ago and prompted Visa and Master card to deny electronic services to some of the country’s leading banks, is set for its European debut on London Wednesday, when a pilot project will be launched in collaboration with the Dutch global payment company PayXpert.

Moscow authorities hoped to get the MIR card accepted eventually in foreign markets, but progress has been slow outside Russia for the MIR payment system,  which operates outside of Western-controlled international financial systems such as Swift, which banks use to transfer money.

The pilot project with PayXpert “will lay the foundation for new promising trends in the foreign expansion of Russian payment cards,”  according to Vladimir Komlev, the head of Russia’s National Card Payment System, which operates the MIR system.

De-dollarization efforts

The effort is seen by analysts as part of the  Kremlin bid to de-dollarize the Russian economy to lessen the sting of Western sanctions. A Russian Finance Ministry official this month told Reuters that Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings  in its National Wealth Fund, which supports Russia’s public pension system, aiming to lower the share of dollars in the fund’s reserves.

Dmitry Dolgin of the Dutch banking group ING said in  a report this month that de-dollarization efforts are now obvious across most sectors, including local business loans and bank-held international assets, although he said the dollar’s role  has actually increased in company and household savings and cash assets, partly because dollar interest rates have been higher than those offered for euros.

Credit Cards offers unique features
American Express, Visa and Master Card is displayed in this image. Each Credit Card offers unique features and benefits, along with unmatched privileges. Pixabay

U.S. authorities have been able advance sanctions by targeting companies that use dollars, and the establishment of electronic payment systems not tied to the dollar or largely controlled by U.S. businesses is one way for the Kremlin to reduce the impact of the West’s serial punishment of Moscow. Washington and the European Union have imposed a wave of sanctions since 2014 to punish Russia for the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and the poisoning of a defected Russian spy in England.

Komlev told Reuters this year that “In the next three years we want MIR cards to be operational in countries where Russians are used to traveling.” He projected MIR cards would be operational at some banks in at least a dozen countries by the end of this year. Turkish banks started to conduct transactions this year with MIR, which means both “peace” and “world” in Russian.

MIR was launched initially as a national payment system, with the first cards issued in December 2015. Russia’s leading bank, state-owned Sberbank, started issuing them in October 2016, and by the end of last year more than 70 million MIR-based cards had been issued by 64 Russian banks. The Kremlin has mandated that state welfare and pension payments must be processed through the system by next year, along with salaries paid to civil servants.

The card has a long way to go before it rivals VISA our Mastercard internationally. It is not accepted by international shopping platforms or major online booking services for airlines and hotels, although APEXX Fintech, a British start-up global payment company, said Thursday it would now start working with the MIR system. Among smartphone applications only Samsung has concluded an agreement with the MIR system.

Meanwhile, de-dollarization has been moving quickly. Russia’s Central Bank has currency swap deals in place with Iran, China and Turkey, allowing direct trade to be conducted in local currencies instead of U.S. dollars. Russia reportedly lost $7.7 billion in its bid to reduce dollars held in its reserves. Some of the dollars were turned into gold, and since January the bank has purchased 96.4 metric tons of gold.

People stand in line as they wait to enter the bank with their card
People stand in line as they wait to enter a branch of Sberbank of Russia bank. VOA

Alexei Zabotkin, head of the Russian Central Bank’s monetary policy department, has conceded that it would be impossible to completely empty the country’s foreign exchange reserves of dollars, as this would be  “fraught with excessive risks.” According to central bank data the  National Wealth Fund has $45.5 billion, 39.17 billion euros and 7.67 billion British pounds.

In August, the state-controlled Rosneft oil giant announced it would stop using the U.S. dollar for its export contracts.

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Nonetheless, analysts say there are limits on how far Russia can de-dollarize – the ruble is highly volatile and remains unattractive for investors and de-dollarization brings additional and sometimes prohibitive trading costs.

European regulators will be watching the London project closely. EU officials have been sympathetic about Russia’s de-dollarization bid, suspecting that as a spin-off the euro will be boosted as an international currency. In June the European Commission concluded that “the euro clearly stands out as the only candidate that has all the necessary attributes of a global currency that market participants could use as an alternative to the U.S. dollar.” (VOA)