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Former tycoon gets more jail time. Russian planes grounded after yet another deadly accident. Belarus briefly explodes in post-election violence. Russian oil goes to China. Facebook looks to Russia. Anna Chapman continues to conquer the world.
Top News: Jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky saw his sentence extended by six years, after he was found guilty of a second set of charges in a trial widely decried as politicized. The new sentence ensures that Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, and Platon Lebedev, his business partner, will remain in prison through 2017. The trial highlighted the non-transparent and politicized nature of Russian justice. It drew harsh condemnations from international observers, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs saying it appeared to be a case of selective justice and impeded the much-touted “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations. Another administration official said it could complicate Russia’s bid to finalize its agreement to join the World Trade Organization. Russia responded by telling the West to mind its own business. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers have lodged an appeal but don’t hold your breath.
Russia’s creaky aviation industry took another hit, after a Tupolev jet operated by a small domestic airline exploded before take-off, killing three people and injuring 43. Members of Russia’s first popular boy band were on the flight, and described horrific scenes of people stepping on passengers’ heads in a bid to get out of the smoke-filled aircraft. Russia has grounded all Tu-154B aircraft in the wake of the accident.
The liberal opposition held its monthly rally on Dec. 31, calling for Vladimir Putin’s resignation and for the respect of their constitutional rights. Dozens were detained. Boris Nemtsov, who quit the government in the late 1990s to join the opposition, was subsequently sentenced to 15 days in jail. Happy New Year!
As 2010 came to a close, most regional attention was focused on Russia’s western neighbor, Belarus. Violent protests followed long-time President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election in a vote that the opposition and Western observers decried as rigged. (Observers from a regional Russia-led grouping said the vote went off fine and President Dmitry Medvedev swiftly congratulated the man widely scorned as “Europe’s last dictator.”) The U.S. and EU said they planned to review ties with Belarus following the vote. The West had hoped to tempt the country with a much-needed aid package, but a last-minute deal with Russia appeared to convince Lukashenko he could continue to hold the reins.
Money: Khodorkovsky’s verdict drew investor ire, with VTB Capital, the investment arm of a Russian bank, saying it could have “unintended repercussions” on business. The case continues to cast a shadow on Russia’s investment climate. Yet, as history has shown, that shadow tends to retreat once oil prices rise and investors are more willing to accept Russia’s well-known risks once the returns are worth it.
Russia launched the new year with a milestone oil shipment to China, opening the countries’ first pipeline link. Russia’s state-run pipeline monopoly, Transneft, said the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline would pump 1.3 million tons of oil to China in January and 15 million tons for the year, doubling Russian oil sales to China, which so far have entered the country by rail.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch owner of the New Jersey Nets, has continued to diversify his many holdings, launching Russia’s first hybrid car, the “Yo.” Fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich had a less exciting new year, celebrating with a bunch of Hollywood friends on St Barths, but not looking too happy about it. Maybe the delivery of his long-awaited yacht – the Eclipse, the world’s largest privately owned yacht – will lift his mood.
Digital Sky Technologies, a Russian investment fund, reportedly expanded its investment in Facebook, according to sources cited in the New York Times. The fund, known as DST, was the first outside investor in the world’s leading networking site. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he hopes to focus on boosting the site’s presence in Russia. Facebook got off to a slow start in the country, but is quickly catching up to local favorites Odnoklassniki and VKontakte.
Elsewhere: Anna Chapman, deported spy turned international sex symbol, continues her rule over the Russian tabloid scene. She made an appearance on one of the country’s most popular comedy shows on New Year’s Eve and said she’d have her own show out soon. She also managed to join the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia party. So for those of us who hoped that 2010 would spell the end of Chapman Watch (“Was she really at that restaurant? Who was she with?!”), it seems we were very, very wrong.
Dmitry Medvedev is an avid Twitterer. Yet his popularity has begun to pale in comparison to that of a parody Twitter account that twists and turns the words of the Russian president into satirical hilarity. That account, sadly, is in Russian only, but you can read a lengthy profile of the duo behind the humor here.