Russia spends almost $700 mln to boost Gazprombank capital

Dec 31 (Reuters) – The Russian government has bought almost $700 million worth of state bank Gazprombank’s shares, the bank said on Wednesday, in the latest support for a banking sector suffering from Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and a sharp economic slowdown.

Gazprombank said the government had bought 39.95 billion roubles ($685.5 million) of the bank’s preference shares on Tuesday, using money the bank had returned to the country’s National Wealth Fund (NWF) by repaying subordinated deposits it received earlier.

“The conversion allows the bank to strengthen its capital structure and provides for sufficient scope to expand its operations,” the bank said, adding that preference shares are non-voting and therefore the share purchase would not affect the voting rights of current shareholders.

Russia’s government is stepping up efforts to support large banks and state companies as the economy slides towards recession and a currency crisis gathers momentum, threatening to shatter the economic stability on which President Vladimir Putin’s popularity partly rests.

Putin said early this month that domestic banks should be supported to boost lending to important projects in the real sector of the economy.

“We have a large amount of internal savings, they should become effective investments,” Putin said in his annual state of the union speech.

CAPITAL BOOST

Russian banks are reeling from the plunge in the rouble, which prompted a spike in deposit withdrawals as Russians rushed to convert their savings into hard currencies, and sanctions over Ukraine that sharply raised their funding costs.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said last week that Gazprombank was seeking 70 billion roubles from the NWF, one of two rainy-day funds that count as part of Russia’s international reserves.

Another state lender, VTB Bank received 100 billion roubles from the NWF earlier this week, and VTB expects to receive a further 150 billion roubles by the end of the first quarter of 2015 to increase its capital and fund investment projects approved by the government.

Last week Russian authorities also significantly scaled up rescue funds for mid-sized lender Trust Bank, saying they would provide up to $2.4 billion in loans to bail it out.

Both Gazprombank and VTB received separate state support earlier in the year.

The banking sector is set to receive an additional capital boost of up to 1 trillion roubles from early next year after Putin signed into law legislation allowing the government to give banks OFZ treasury bonds via a state corporation.

It is not clear which banks could benefit from that law, but VTB and Gazprombank are seen as contenders as they are considered “systemically important.”

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Ukraine’s top intelligence agency deeply infiltrated by Russian spies

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KIEV, Ukraine – On a morning earlier this year, Ukraine’s top intelligence officials woke up to discover that the country’s spy agency had been ransacked and torched by intruders who seemed to know what they were looking for.

The previous night, it turned out, the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had ordered his operatives to steal a trove of state secrets from Ukraine’s Security Service, known as the SBU, before fleeing to Moscow on Feb. 22.

During their raid on the spy agency, the thieves also stole data on more than 22,000 officers and informants as well as anything documenting decades of cooperation between the SBU and its Russian counterpart, the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

What the burglars weren’t able to carry, they burned or destroyed.

What the burglars weren’t able to carry, they burned or destroyed. In the ruins of the offices, scorched files and empty folders lay strewn on the floors.

“Every hard drive and flash drive was destroyed — smashed with hammers,” said one current Ukrainian intelligence official recently. By the time he and his colleagues got there, “it was all ash and dust.”

For a country in the shadow of Russia and embarking on an uncertain path toward democracy, the break-in was devastating.

As the current SBU director Valentyn Nalyvaichenko put it, the thieves took “everything that forms a basis for a professional intelligence service.”

Valentyn-Nalyvaichenko

Just days after the break-in, the director of the intelligence service, Oleksandr Yakymenko, surfaced in Russia, having defected with four other top spies and a dozen or so subordinates loyal to Moscow.

In the following weeks and months, the security service was thrown into turmoil as the agents’ new allegiances played out. After the Russian invasion of Crimea, thousands of Ukrainian spies switched sides and began reporting to Moscow.

Similarly, as the Kremlin-backed insurgency took off in eastern Ukraine, dozens of Ukrainian agents in there became agents of the Kremlin.

“We have no idea who we can trust right now,” said a top SBU spy, still loyal to the government in Kiev.

“Everybody is suspicious of everybody.”

When Nalyvaichenko became the SBU’s new chief on Feb. 24, he inherited a spy agency already riddled with spies. According to him, as many as one in five SBU agents had either worked for the Soviet KGB or studied at its training academy.

Even as Ukraine was in the midst of pro-democracy protests, a team of 30 Russian agents from the FSB came to Ukraine to meet with Yakymenko, allegedly to discuss assisting his officers in quashing the civil uprising.

Since then, the SBU has sought to root out pro-Russian spooks among its ranks.

Gun smugglers

So far, 235 agents, including the former counterintelligence chief and his cousin, and hundreds of other operatives believed to be working for Moscow, have been arrested and 25 high treason probes against Yanukovych-era SBU officials have been launched. All regional directors for the agency have changed, as well as half of their deputies.

After the arrests, Nalyvaichenko boldly stated that “all traitors” have been purgedfrom the SBU — a declaration that even the agency’s own officials say they find hard to believe.

Indeed, three senior sources from within Ukraine’s security services, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, said the thefts and mass defections had compromised SBU more severely than previously acknowledged.

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Ukrainian soldiers get new tanks and other military vehicles on Dec. 6, 2014.

Many agents with ties to the Russians are “still in the business,” as one of the SBU officials said. He added, however, that these mostly dormant agents are “closely watched” by Ukraine’s own security services.

Olexiy Melnyk, co-director for Foreign Relations and International Security Programs at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center, said that Nalyvaichenko’s assessment is “too optimistic.”

“It’s very unlikely that they got rid of all collaborators and spies,”

In April, as fighting raged between government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the SBU started planning a secret operation for its elite tactical unit, called Alpha. An enigmatic Russian known as Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, himself a confessed former FSB agent, was commanding rebel fighters on the front lines and the Ukrainians were keen to get him.

Strelkov

Igor Strelkov, the top military commander of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, delivers a press conference on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine

According to two senior Ukrainian security officials, agents had figured out that Girkin was spending time at a checkpoint on the edge of Sloviansk with several of his fighters. But no sooner had the operation gotten underway before Girkin was tipped off by a mole inside the Ukrainian security service and he slipped away.

He has since surfaced in Russia, where he has become quite the star after boasting that he “was the one who pulled the trigger of war” in Ukraine.

But sabotage and defectors are not the only challenges — the country’s security service is also hobbled by inexperience and a lack of funds, officials said.

Sergei Shoigu

In this photo provided by the Russian Defense Ministry, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, awards a former Ukrainian special forces “Berkut” officer, back to camera, at a military base in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, March 24, 2014.

To overhaul the agency, the SBU has brought in scores of fresh recruits. But while the young agents come from more Kiev-friendly western regions of Ukraine, many of the recruits — who are mostly in their early twenties — have little experience. Still, the intelligence service has little choice.

“What is better, to have professional former KGB guys who probably still have more friends in [Russia] or have loyal young guys who can learn and who we can be confident he will not leak secrets to Russia?” said Melnyk.

And it may not be very hard to turn the new recruits as pay is meager — about $200 per month — and moonlighting as a Russian informant may pay “three, maybe four times more,” according to one SBU officer.

To test their loyalty, new and old agents are subjected to recurrent interrogations and lie detector tests. But, as one security officer put it: “the rifle is the best lie detector.”

Putin critic gets suspended sentence

Russian opposition activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, 38, left, and his brother Oleg Navalny stand at a court in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been been found guilty in a high-profile fraud case.

Navalny has been given a suspended prison sentence of three-and-a-half years for defrauding two firms.

His brother Oleg has been given a three-and-a-half custodial sentence in the same trial.

Oleg és Alekszej Navalnij (AFP PHOTO / DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV)

Navalny, who accuses the government of President Vladimir Putin of widespread corruption, has said the charges are politically motivated.

The brothers have been convicted of stealing 30m roubles (£334,600; $518,100) from the firms, one of which is an affiliate of French cosmetics giant Yves Rocher.

The verdict was to have been announced next month, but the court session was abruptly moved forward to Tuesday after his supporters announced plans for a big protest rally on 15 January.

Alexei Navalny has been one of Mr Putin’s fiercest critics for several years. He led mass protests against the president in 2011.

A supporter of opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny stands next to policemen blocking a street near a court building during his hearing in Moscow December 30, 2014Mr Navalny led huge anti-corruption protests in 2011

Tuesday’s verdict is the latest in a series of criminal cases against Navalny, which he says are fabricated to neutralise his political influence.

He is already under house arrest, serving a five-year suspended sentence for the alleged theft of 16m roubles (£175,400; $276,300) from a timber firm in 2009.

The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg in Moscow said that Navalny was clearly shocked by the outcome of the trial for his brother.

“Why are you putting him in prison?” he asked the judge. “To punish me even harder?”

Mr Navalny has mobilised thousands of supporters on social media. His supporters plan a rally at 19:00 (16:00 GMT) on Tuesday. They plan to hold it in Moscow’s Manezh Square, near the Kremlin, an announcement on Facebook said.

What makes the Sony hack any different from the ‘Fappening’?

When hackers unknown published the stolen nude photographs of female celebrities in September, the backlash was both fierce and nearly instantaneous:

“Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense,” the actress Jennifer Lawrence told Vanity Fair. “You should cower with shame.”

Continue reading What makes the Sony hack any different from the ‘Fappening’?

Jennifer Lawrence’s Fappening Bodyguard Gets His 15 Minutes of Fame

Jennifer Lawrence’s sexy bodyguard has been causing a stir among fans and is now getting a lot of attention on social media.

First spotted with the “Hunger Games” star at the Los Angeles International Airport on December 15, Justin Riblet is now inspiring tributes from adoring fans, US Weekly reported. Riblet turned heads at LAX in his gray sports coat, white collared shirt and jeans while he accompanied Lawrence who went incognito in a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

“He’s very popular amongst the ladies in Jen’s team,” a source close to Lawrence tells Us Weekly.

Riblet has trended on social media with fans — mostly female — fawning over his chiselled good looks and buff body. Twitter users said that Lawrence’s new bodyguard “looks like a freaking model,” is “the hottest” and is “such a babe.”

Some admirers even suggested that Riblet should have chosen a more glamorous career path, writes International Business Times. “He looks like a freaking model,” one person wrote. “If I were Jennifer, that would be my next boyfriend,” another said. “I want to be Jennifer for one day with JR by my side.”

Lawrence, 24, is now back on the market following her split with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and who knows if she does a Whitney Houston and falls for the bodyguard.

Facts about Riblet have surfaced following all the attention he is getting. His LinkedIn profile reveals that he is a graduate of Rutgers University – Camden with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice. After his graduation in 2007, he served as a Special Forces weapons sergeant in the US army for five years.

Fappening Star Kate Upton Named “Sexiest Woman Alive”

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People Magazine has naed Kate Upton their sexiest woman alive on Thursday night during the magazine’s inaugural awards show at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in California.

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“There are a lot of reasons why Kate is sexy. Style, career, achievements, sense of humor, personality – oh and did

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I mention her … looks?” actor Eric Dane stated as he presented the award to the 22-year-old Sports Illustrated model.

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During her acceptance speech, Upton defined the term sexy in her own words. She stated:

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“This is such an honor to me because sexy to me means somebody who’s confident and happy and that’s the person

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I always strive to be. Thanks to my fans.”

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She added, humorously, “I’m so, so sorry to my 18-year-old brother. Poor David.”

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Upton is most widely known for gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated two years in a row.

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She was the first model to ever appear solo in the magazine’s Swimsuit Edition. She has also acted alongside Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann in “The Other Woman.”

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Upton is the first woman to receive this award. “Thor” actor, Chris Hemsworth was named People Magazine’s sexiest man alive roughly one month ago.

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Other winners included: Karlie Kloss for Model of the Year, Kate Hudson for Celebrity Role Model of the Year,

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Jimmy Fallon for Talk Show Host of the Year, Gwen Stefani for Style Icon of the Year and Kevin Hart for Comedy Star of the Year. For the full list, click here.

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The winners of the People Magazine Awards were chosen by editors from Peopleas well as editors from their sister publication, Entertainment Weekly.

1.4 Billion Reasons Why Jennifer Lawrence Won 2014

It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s world, and we’re just living in it.

At just 24, the starlet has accomplished more than most have in our lifetime. She’s an Oscar winner. She’s charted on the Billboard Hot 100 list. And, according to Forbes, she’s the highest-grossing actor in all of Hollywood, raking in a whopping $1.4 billion at the box office this year thanks in part to blockbusters like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

But for all of her success on the screen, she’s had her share of troubles. And her responses to those issues remind us that Jennifer Lawrence is more than just a brilliant entertainer.

Continue reading 1.4 Billion Reasons Why Jennifer Lawrence Won 2014

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