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Russia shrugs off WikiLeaks, celebrates World Cup

WikiLeaks targets Russia. US diplomats talk Batman and Robin. Russia shrugs off cables. Russia wins World Cup bid. Pepsi takes over Russian drinks market. Russian officials show off English accents.

Top News: Russia was targeted by several dozen of the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks this month. The first batch of Russia-related cables, released on day four of “Cablegate,” were heavy on atmosphere and light on facts. Exposing conversations between US diplomats and a host of sources, the cables showed a dim — but unsurprising — view of Russia.

Russia is a “virtual mafia state,” according to conversations with a Spanish prosecutor who focuses on money laundering. U.S. diplomats believe President Dmitry Medvedev is Robin to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Batman. Several cables make reference to the wealth Putin has “reportedly” and “allegedly” amassed while in office. A particularly colorful cable details the absurdity of a high-powered Dagestani’s wedding, attended by none other than Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

Faced with little in the way of concrete evidence or accusations, Russian officials initially sought to play down the leak. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the cables “entertaining trash.” Medvedev’s spokeswoman said “we found nothing interesting or deserving of comment.” Putin, in a rare fit of international publicity, went on CNN’s Larry King, and literally laughed off questions about WikiLeaks. Russian press coverage focused on Putin’s interview, with the three state-run TV channels devoting over 10 minutes each to it in their nightly news broadcasts, while glossing over the content of the WikiLeaks cables.

The WikiLeaks revelations of the past few days have been more substantive, but, overshadowed by the news of Julian Assange’s arrest, have received far less coverage. Two weeks after NATO and Russia hailed a new era of relations at the alliance’s Lisbon summit, a cable released on Tuesday showed that NATO had agreed a military defense plan for Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the event of a Russian attack. Russia has said it will demand NATO withdraw the plans. Other leaked cables showed how U.S. diplomats were involved in lobbying for Visa and Mastercard and the difficulties companies like Intel faced in the country.

The NATO plan has particularly irked Russia, but elsewhere its response has been to suggest Assange be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Odd. Russia is one of 19 countries boycotting this year’s ceremony, because of objections from China.

All this is very interesting, but if you want to know the one subject of conversation in Russia, it is the World Cup. Last week, Russia won the right to host the 2018 championship, launching a tide of nationalist fervor alongside intense worries of its ability to host such a massive event.

Money: Pepsi announced this week it would acquire a controlling stake in Wimm-Bill-Dann, a major Russian dairy and drinks firm. Pepsi will pay $3.8 billion for a 66 percent stake under the deal, which must still receive government clearance. A Pepsi Europe CEO said the deal will make Russia “the crown jewel of PepsiCo Europe,” adding 49 factories and 31,000 employees.

Clearing a major hurdle to its long awaited entry into the World Trade Organization, Russia got formal backing from the European Union for its bid. Officials now say they might join by July 2011.

Russia continues to lag behind other BRICs in its economic recovery. Capital outflows have topped $29 billion this year so far. Some analysts put that down to perceived political risk, as Russia moves into election season, when populist spending is expected to be high.

Russian investment fund DST has gotten a lot of attention recently. Once Silicon Valley’s darling (with a small stake in Facebook), the firm has come under more scrutiny recently, as it hinted at a bid for Twitter (which has since been dropped). Its links with a murky oligarch and the Kremlin are well explained in a story from The Financial Times.

Billionaire New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is looking to expand his gold holdings, saying his Polyus Gold firm (Russia’s largest gold miner) will look to merge with a global champion next year. He declined to give names.

Elsewhere: A very cool festival has opened in St Petersburg, featuring audiovisual and digital art, housed in a grand Stalin-era building in the center of town. The Yota Space festival, which runs for two weeks, brings together some of the most interesting and interactive art around today and is well worth checking out.

Putin and Medvedev never seem to tire of staged photo ops. This week featured a particularly good one, with the two men hanging out in matching sweaters and watching movies. Exciting stuff.

Russia’s World Cup bid may be steeped in nationalism, but more than anything it gave access to the um, amazing level of English showcased by some of its supporters. Check out Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko — bloggers are convinced he read a Cyrillic transliteration of English words. Putin did better, listen here.