TIME russia

Putin Shows Stick to West, Carrot to Oligarchs, and Heart to ‘Someone’

Kremlin leader deflects criticism for crisis away from government, central bank and, most of all, himself–and on to his favorite enemy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his officials, appeased local oligarchs and, of course, railed at the West Thursday as he faced journalists for the first time since the ruble went into free-fall last week.

Russia’s most eligible divorcee also managed to break hearts from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad by saying he’s in love again, although he was coy about the identity of the lucky lady.

In a statement that sent sighs of relief around the corridors of power in Moscow, Putin shielded his government and central bank from criticism, saying that the crisis “has of course been caused by external factors first and foremost.”

“The central bank and government are acting adequately and correctly,” Putin said, although he added that “some decisions could have been taken more quickly.”

He acknowledged that it could take “up to two years” for the Russian economy to return to growth as a result of the crisis.

After doing a passable imitation of a deer stuck in the headlights for most of the last week, the Russian central bank yesterday announced a suite of measures to prop up the banking sector and allow its large stash of foreign reserves to be used, indirectly, to help companies repay their foreign debts. At the same time, local reports suggest the government pressured biggest businesses into bringing more of their export earnings back to Russia.

As a result, the ruble is now up nearly 25% from its low on “Black Tuesday” when the dollar briefly bought 80 rubles for the first time ever. But it’s still down 50% this year, and it weakened again after Putin spurned a number of opportunities to sound a conciliatory note on Ukraine, the issue that caused the U.S. and E.U. to impose sanctions on Russia’s largest banks and oil companies.

Putin said that “25%-30%” of the problems currently facing Russia were due to the sanctions, which he again attacked in a characteristically defiant and bitter tone. In one vivid extended metaphor, he said the West wanted “to chain the Bear,” de-claw it and saw off its teeth, unless it sat quietly eating berries in the forest.

But beyond the usual rhetoric, there was little hard news in a three-hour press conference that was, as usual, more a series of well-rehearsed lectures than a genuine question-and-answer session.

The most dramatic development was Putin’s announcement that the tycoon Vladimir Evtushenkov, head of the conglomerate AFK Sistema, would be invited along with other businessmen to a meeting to discuss further measures on overcoming the crisis.

Evtushenkov has been under house arrest for over a month since a court seized Sistema’s oil company, OAO Bashneft, on allegations that it had been privatized corruptly. The incident had sent shock waves through Russian business circles, and Putin stressed Thursday that there were no plans to take back any other businesses.

Sistema’s depositary receipts shares doubled by lunchtime in London to $4.61–but they’re still down 80% since last August.

This post originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Education

J.K. Rowling Calls for an End to Orphanages

JK Rowling Hosts Fundraising Event For Charity 'Lumos'
Joanne "JK" Rowling attends a charity evening hosted by JK Rowling to raise funds for 'Lumos' a charity helping to reunite children in care with their families in Eastern Europe at Warner Bros Studios on November 9, 2013 in London, England. Danny E. Martindale—Getty Images

“The solution is not pretty murals, or comfier beds, or teddy bears. The solution is no institutions.”

Author and activist J.K. Rowling has called for the closure of the world’s orphanages.

In an op-ed in The Guardian on Thursday, the Harry Potter author called for closing the institutions that hold some 8 million children worldwide and sending the children to their parents or to other families.

According to Rowling, most children held in orphanages are not in fact orphans but have been removed from their parents, sometimes because of poverty.

“The idea of any child being taken from their family and locked away, all too often in atrocious conditions, is particularly poignant at this time of year,” wrote Rowling. “For children in institutions, life too often resembles the darkest of Grimms’ fairytales.”

The author founded the NGO Lumos in 2005 to raise awareness about orphanages, borrowing the name from a spell in her Harry Potter series that creates light. To date, she says, the organization has helped reduce the number of children in institutions in Bulgaria, for example, by 54% while increasing the number of foster care parents several times over. A global reduction of orphanages to zero is possible, she says, by 2050.

“The solution is not pretty murals, or comfier beds, or teddy bears. The solution is no institutions.”

[The Guardian]

TIME movies

Texas Theater to Show Team America After Sony Pulls The Interview

Team America: World Police
Team America: World Police Paramount

Movie makes light of previous North Korean leader

If you can’t make fun of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, might as well have some fun at the expense of his late father Kim Jong Il. That’s the approach being taken by a Texas movie theater, which will screen Team America: World Police after Sony cancelled the Christmas Day release of The Interview amid threats of attacks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

A representative of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s Dallas/Fort Worth location said the theater is “trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation.” Sony cancelled the release of The Interview after hackers, potentially linked to North Korea, threatened 9/11-style attacks on theaters that showed the movie, which depicts a fictional assassination plot against Kim Jong Un. North Korea has denied being behind the hack against Sony.

The 2004 movie Team America, in which all the characters are marionette puppets, depicts Kim Jong Il as a terrorist mastermind taken down by American counterterrorism fighters.

[THR]

TIME disability

Watch This Woman Take Her First Steps in Ten Years

With the help of a motorized exoskeleton, journalist Nikki Fox was able to stand and walk on her own

Journalist Nikki Fox, who serves as a disability correspondent for BBC News, was born with muscular dystrophy and hadn’t taken a step on her own in ten years. But in the video above, Fox was able to briefly walk again with the help of a device known as an exoskeleton, which was strapped to her body. The motorised robotic equipment, which she was able to control herself, allowed her to stand and take slow steps, without the aid of another person.

“My legs hadn’t been that straight since 1995,” Fox told the BBC. “What was quite unbelievable was how I felt afterwards. Standing for half an hour would usually be quite tough but it wasn’t.”

[BBC]

TIME russia

Google Is Now Worth More Than the Entire Russian Stock Market

Google joins an elite list of companies, including Exxon Mobile, Microsoft and Apple

Google is now more valuable than the entire Russian stock market. Russia’s stock market is now worth $325 billion while Google is valued at more than $340 billion, according to Bloomberg.

The news comes as Russia’s currency, the ruble, continues to stumble under pressure from declining oil prices and western sanctions. Russia’s gold reserves have also declined to their lowest point since 2009.

Google joins an elite list of companies, including Exxon Mobile, Microsoft and Apple, worth more than the entire Russian market.

Read next: Leaked Sony Emails Reveal How Much Movie Studios Hate Google

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Court Grants Bail To Mumbai Terror Attack Suspect

Zaki-ur-Rehman, Syed Salahuddin
An alleged plotter of Mumbai attacks Pakistani Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, center, prays with Syed Salahuddin, right, chief of Hezbul Mujahideen or United Jehad Council, at a rally on June 28, 2008 in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir. Roshan Mughal—AP

The move was likely to infuriate India, days after a brief show of solidarity in the wake of the deadly school attack in Peshawar.

Ties between India and Pakistan were set to further sour after a Pakistani court granted bail on Thursday to man allegedly behind the 2008 attack on Mumbai.

The suspect, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, was arrested in 2009 in Pakistan after the sole surviving gunman in the rampage that left 166 people dead identified him as the mastermind. On Thursday, his defense lawyer confirmed to Reuters that he was issued bail and would be out of prison by early next week.

The Mumbai attack, during which ten militants linked to the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorized the city for three days, damaged relations between the two countries.

The move to grant bail comes days after a terror attack at a school in Peshawar prompted a brief reprieve in the country’s long-standing rivalry and united Pakistan against militants within its borders.

[Reuters]

TIME Cuba

Cubans Hope For a Better Future with U.S.–Havana Deal

CUBA-US-RELEASE-REACTIONS
Cuban students march in a street of Havana, on Dec. 17, 2014, after Washington released three Cuban spies -- heroes in Cuba-- who had been in a US prison since 2001. Roberto Morejon—AFP/Getty Images

Bells tolled in celebration and teachers halted lessons midday

HAVANA — Cubans cheered the surprise announcement that their country will restore relations with the United States, hopeful they’ll soon see expanded trade and new economic vibrancy even though the 53-year-old economic embargo remains in place for the time being.

“This opens a better future for us,” said Milagros Diaz, 34. “We have really needed something like this because the situation has been bad and the people very discouraged.”

Bells tolled in celebration and teachers halted lessons midday as President Raul Castro told his country Wednesday that Cuba would renew relations with Washington after more than a half-century of hostility.

Wearing his military uniform with its five-star insignia, the 83-year-old leader said the two countries would work to resolve their differences “without renouncing a single one of our principles.”

Havana residents gathered around television sets in homes, schools and businesses to hear the historic national broadcast, which coincided with a statement by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. Uniformed schoolchildren burst into applause at the news.

At the University of San Geronimo in the capital’s historic center, the announcement drew ringing from the bell tower. Throughout the capital, there was a sense of euphoria as word spread.

“For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish-come-true, because with this, we have overcome our differences,” said Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old IT specialist. “It is an advance that will open the road to a better future for the two countries.”

Fidel and Raul Castro led the 1959 rebellion that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The U.S. initially recognized the new government but broke relations in 1961 after Cuba veered sharply to the left and nationalized U.S.-owned businesses.

As Cuba turned toward the Soviet Union, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo in 1962. Particularly since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cubans have confronted severe shortages of oil, food and consumer goods, forcing them to ration everything from beans to powdered milk.

The Cuban government blames most of its economic travails on the embargo, while Washington has traditionally blamed Cuba’s Communist economic policies.

In his address, Castro called on Washington to end its trade embargo which, he said, “has caused enormous human and economic damage.”

Ramon Roman, 62, said he hoped to see Cuba welcome more tourists. “It would be a tremendous economic injection, both in terms of money and in new energy and would be a boost for average people who need it,” he said.

Victoria Serrano, a lab worker, said she hoped to see an influx of new goods because life in Cuba has been “really very difficult.”

“In particular,” she said, “I hope we’ll see an improvement in food — that there is trade in this with the United States, which is so close. Right now, even an onion has become a luxury.”

Around the cathedral in Old Havana, people gathered in doorways and on sidewalks, gesturing excitedly as they discussed the news.

Guillermo Delgado, a 72-year-old retiree, welcomed the announcement as “a victory for Cuba because it was achieved without conceding basic principles.”

Yoani Sanchez, a renowned Cuban blogger critical of the government, noted the development came with a price. Castro, she said, could now claim a triumph and that he had made a “bargaining chip” of Alan Gross, the U.S. aid worker who was released from prison Wednesday while the U.S. freed three Cubans held as spies.

“In this way, the Castro regime has managed to get its way,” she wrote in a blog post. “It has managed to exchange a peaceful man, embarked on the humanitarian adventure of providing Internet connectivity to a group of Cubans, for intelligence agents that caused significant damage and sorrow with their actions.”

Some dissidents expressed their displeasure at not being consulted by the U.S. government about the historic move.

Dissident Guillermo Farinas considered the move a “betrayal” by Obama who, he said, had promised that they would be consulted. Another activist, Antonio Rodiles, said the measure “sends a bad message.”

Others, meanwhile, were cautious, saying they’ll wait and see what it all means.

“It’s not enough since it doesn’t lift the blockade,” said Pedro Duran, 28. “We’ll see if it’s true, if it’s not like everything here: one step forward and three steps back. For now, I don’t think there will be any immediate improvement after we’ve been living like this for 50 years.”

TIME russia

Putin Accuses the West of Trying to Sideline Russia

Russian President Putin gestures during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Dec. 18, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

He says Western sanctions are a factor in Russian economic crisis

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed Thursday to fix Russia’s economic woes within two years, pledging to diversify the gas-dependent economy and persuade businesses to help prop up the collapsing ruble.

While using a litany of accusations against the West, Putin acknowledged that Western economic sanctions over Russia’s course on Ukraine was just one factor behind the Russian economic crisis, saying a key reason was the nation’s failure to ease its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports. He estimated that sanctions accounted roughly for 25 to 30 percent of the ruble’s troubles.

As Putin spoke, the Russian currency was trading around 62 rubles a dollar, slightly lower than last night but up 12 percent after plummeting to historic low of 80 earlier in the week. Russia’s benchmark MICEX index rallied by 5.5 percent by midday Thursday.

Speaking with strong emotion, Putin sought to soothe market fears that the government could use administrative controls, such as obliging exporters to sell their currency earnings, to help stabilize the ruble.

He accused the West of trying to infringe on Russia’s sovereignty, adding that the Ukrainian crisis was just a pretext for Western action.

Putin struck a defiant note against America and the European Union, saying that sanctions slapped against Russia after it seized the Black Sea region of Crimea in March were part of a historical campaign to weaken Russia.

“Sometimes I think, maybe they’ll let the bear eat berries and honey in the forest, maybe they will leave it in peace,” said Putin, referring to Russia’s famed symbol. “They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws.”

He spelled out his metaphor, saying that by fangs and claws he means Russia’s nuclear weapons.

“Once they’ve taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal,” he said. “The issue is not Crimea, the issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist”

Despite his tough anti-Western rhetoric, Putin spoke in support for political solution of the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling Ukrainian government troops since April, leaving 4,700 people dead.

Putin said Ukraine must remain one political entity, meaning that the rebellious eastern regions should remain its integral part. He also suggested that the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine should conduct a quick “all for all” prisoners swap before Christmas.

Putin added that he feels sure that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sincerely wants a peaceful solution to the crisis but other forces in Ukraine don’t.

Putin urged the Ukrainian government to fulfill its end of a peace deal reached in September and grant amnesty to the rebels and offer broad rights to residents of the country’s east.

Putin also held out hope for normalizing ties with the West, saying that Russia still hopes to expand its gas supplies to southern Europe using a prospective gas hub on Turkey’s border with Greece.

TIME European Union

European Court Rules That Obesity Could Be a Disability

The case was brought by a Danish man who weighs more than 350 pounds (160kg)

In a ruling delivered Thursday morning, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said “obesity can constitute a disability” for the purposes of equality at work legislation, the BBC reports.

The ECJ, Europe’s highest court, was asked earlier this year to consider the case of Karsten Kaltoft, a Danish childminder, who claimed he was fired by his local authority for being too overweight.

Judges said that if obesity could hinder “full and effective participation” at work then it could count as a disability. This means that if a person has a long-term impairment because of their obesity then they would be protected by disability legislation.

The ruling is binding across the E.U. but it is left up to the national courts to decide if someone’s obesity is severe enough to be classed as a disability. This is something the Danish court will now have to assess in Kaltoft’s case.

Important to the ruling is the European Court’s judgement that the origin of the disability did not matter, meaning that it is irrelevant if the person is obese because of overeating.

The judgement may mean that employers will have to start providing larger seats, special parking spaces and other facilities for obese workers.

[BBC]

TIME India

India Successfully Launches Its Heaviest Ever Rocket

The GSLV MK III also had an unmanned capsule capable of carrying two or three astronauts

India added another feather to its space-exploration cap on Thursday, successfully launching the country’s heaviest ever rocket from its Sriharikota base in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

The 630-ton Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) MK III carried a capsule capable of launching two or three astronauts into space, the BBC reported. The rocket is also capable of carrying satellites weighing up to 4,000 kg, potentially allowing India to avoid reliance on foreign launchers for its spacecraft.

According to the Indian Space and Research Organization, the capsule “safely splashed down into the Bay of Bengal.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulations, calling the launch “yet another triumph of brilliance & hard work of our scientists.”

Thursday’s achievement comes about three months after India successfully placed a satellite into Mars’ orbit, becoming only the fourth global power to do so.

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