Thursday, May 05, 2016


Video Russian, Latvian Hockey Players Love Sharapova Drug, Maker Once Touted

Sharapova Says She Failed Drug Test At Australian Openi
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March 08, 2016
Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova failed a drug test at January's Australian Open. The highest-paid woman in sports told a news conference that she had been taking a substance called meldonium for 10 years, due to health issues. Some researchers have linked the drug to increased athletic performance and endurance. (Reuters)
WATCH: Maria Sharapova Says She Failed A Drug Test At Australian Open
RFE/RL

The obscure drug revealed in Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova's failed doping test at the Australian Open was once touted by its Latvian maker as a pharmaceutical staple of top Russian and Latvian ice hockey players.
 
Kirovs Lipmans, owner and chairman of the Latvian drug manufacturer Grindeks, told the Latvian portal Delfi.lv in a 2011 interview that meldonium, a recently banned performance-enhancing substance also known as mildronate that Sharapova this week admitted to taking, was "very popular among athletes."
 
"I know that the Russian national ice hockey team don't even come to training camps without mildronate, to say nothing of Latvian national team players," Lipmans, who has served as president of the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation since 1998, said in the interview
 
Lipmans added in the April 2011 interview that "athletes are talking about the possibility of using mildronate in all types of sports" and that testing conducted in Germany determined that "without a doubt" it is not a performance-enhancing drug.
 
"I presume that in the coming years it will become a very popular drug among athletes," he said. "Ice hockey players have long taken mildronate, and now Russians are actively breaking into this."
 
Those remarks appear prophetic amid a spate of cases in which world-class athletes -- including at least four from Russia and two from Ukraine -- tested positive for meldonium, which was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as of January 1.
 
None drew more attention than Sharapova's following her March 7 announcement of her failed drug test, which prompted three of her major sponsors -- sportswear giant Nike, Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer, and German car company Porsche -- to cut ties with the world No. 7 tennis player.
 
Sharapova, who could be hit with a four-year ban, said her doctor had prescribed the medication to her for more than ten years because she was "getting sick very often" and had "a magnesium deficiency," as well as a family history of diabetes.
 
Made In The U.S.S.R.
 
Grindeks says meldonium was designed to treat people with chronic heart and circulation conditions, those recovering from illness or injury, and people suffering from "reduced working capacity, physical and psycho-emotional overload."
 
The drug, which has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was originally developed in the U.S.S.R. to help soldiers cope during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Latvian newspaper reported in 2009.

The Baltic nation's Diena newspaper said in the article that it "was invented in the Soviet era, when Ivars Kalvins was studying mechanisms of stress on the body." 
 
"His research results coincided with the authorities' demand to create a medicine that enhances endurance and performance. So the medicine, first produced in small quantities in laboratories, became a part of a nearly everyday diet for [Soviet] soldiers -- it was used by pilots and those who served on submarines, as well by those who took part in the [Soviet] war in Afghanistan," Diena wrote, The Washington Post reported
 
Kalvins told the newspaper: "High altitude. Oxygen deprivation. If you have to run 20 kilometers with your full kit, you wind up with [deficient oxygen levels in the heart muscles.] All of them were given mildronate. They themselves didn't know what they were using. There no one asked any questions."
 
Grindeks told the Associated Press this week that meldonium can provide an "improvement of work capacity of healthy people at physical and mental overloads and during rehabilitation period" but that the company believes the substance would not enhance -- and may actually impede -- athletic performance.
 
"It would be reasonable to recommend them to use meldonium as a cell protector to avoid heart failure or muscle damage in case of unwanted overload," the AP quoted the company as saying.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and The Washington Post
 

Don’t Cry For Me, Chechnya: Colorful Campaign Begs Kadyrov To Stay

Chechen woman holds a picture of Ramzan Kadyrov during a rally in central Grozny earlier this year.

Mike Eckel

There are the videos of crying and singing children, the photographs of public employees holding placards, and a human rights ombudsman’s argument that allowing him to resign as Chechnya’s leader would violate the rights of the long-troubled Caucasus region's residents.

Such is the strange state of politics in Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov’s oversized presence as the Caucasus republic's leader may or may not be coming to an end, amid cascading concerns about whether the Kremlin has given him too much free rein to rebuild the war-ravaged Russian region and quash the long-running insurgency that has plagued Moscow since the Soviet collapse.

The bearded, gruff-talking former rebel's term as leader formally ends next month. Given his singular dominance of the region's politics for the past nine years -- and the relative calm that has taken hold there -- most observers of the region expected him to be a shoo-in to stay on.

Last month, however, Kadyrov said in a radio interview that he had no desire to continue as leader. On February 27, he explained his reasoning further, saying “my time has passed.”

“For Kadyrov, this is the peak,” he told the Russian channel NTV.

In the days since, however, a public campaign calling on him to stay in power has taken off, with hints of endorsement or even involvement by government officials. That, in turn, has stoked speculation that Kadyrov’s resignation may be anything but.

The day after Kadyrov’s announcement, a group calling itself the Civic Forum of the Chechen Republic released a statement saying "society sees no alternative to [Kadyrov] and there can be no talk of successors." The statement was published on the official website of the Chechen administration.

A day later, the region’s top human rights official, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, posted a similar announcement. The dark irony wasn't lost on human rights activists who have documented rampant rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, political assassinations, and collective punishment for relatives of insurgents, during Kadyrov’s tenure.

"The refusal of Kadyrov [to stay on as leader] would be a massive violation of the rights of [Chechen] citizens," Nukhazhiyev wrote

And then there were the videos and photographs circulating on social networking and chat sites like Whatsapp and Instagram, featuring children singing Kadyrov's praises and, in one case, begging him to stay.

On Instagram -- which Kadyrov has used liberally both to promote himself and issue various edicts and announcements -- a Russian-language hashtag that translates as "Ramzan Don’t Go" had received more than 6,600 different posts as of March 1.

"The strength of Ramzan Kadyrov, Ramzan Kadyrov is cool. We in Chechnya are all patriots. Cheer for us," sang a boy in one Instagram video.​

TRANSLATION: A woman is heard asking "What don't you want?" The crying boy answers "I don't want him to go." The woman asks "Who is going?" The boy answers sobbing "Ramzan Akhmadovich." The woman replies "Well, tell him."

 

TRANSLATION: The children are chanting "Ramzan Don't Go!

 

TRANSLATION: The women are holding up a sign saying, "Ramzan Don't Go!

 

Kadyrov, 39, all but inherited the post following the assassination of his father, Akhmad, in 2004. He also inherited a Kremlin strategy that came to be known Chechenization, which turned Chechen paramilitaries into Moscow’s proxy fighters, taking the lead in battling the separatist rebels and Islamic radicals in the second Chechen war that began in 2000.

​Kadyrov's forces gained a reputation for brutality and have been accused of torturing people and abducting relatives of suspected insurgents, or even burning down houses.

But the Kremlin strategy also included showering Chechnya with money, to help rebuild the capital Grozny and the countryside, which in places resembled devastated battlefield and war zones.

Now the Grozny cityscape is adorned with glass-and-steel skyscrapers, street lamps, and manicured pedestrian walkways, and is home to the largest mosque in Europe -- a reconstruction that Kadyrov has largely claimed credit for. 

But Kadyrov has also become a lightning rod in recent months. He has taunted Russia's beleaguered opposition activists, called some traitors, and issued thinly veiled threats against them.

Kadyrov has also called for defying, or even shooting, federal law enforcement forces should any of them enter Chechen territory without his knowledge. 

The resignation interview came on the same day that tens of thousands of people marched through Moscow's streets to mark the anniversary of the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. He was gunned down on a bridge just meters from the Kremlin walls, and one of those now under arrest is a top commander in a paramilitary unit close to Kadyrov.

In another Instagram post on February 28, Kadyrov appeared to leave the door open for staying on, noting that, under Russian election law, President Vladimir Putin must first select a slate of candidates from which voters can choose a local leader.

"With full responsibility, I must emphasize that I will fulfill any decision of the President of the Russian Federation, any order," he wrote.

"There isn’t a clear replacement for him. There is international pressure that points to him as an obvious bad guy, the links to the Nemtsov murders, that gets picked up, so maybe there’s an effort to distance the Putin regime from all that, and have him step down," said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

"On the other hand, Kadyrov has been Putin’s guy in Chechnya," added Oliker, author of Russia's Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons From Urban Combat.
 
"Who replaces him? What credibility he has, comes from his dad. So who comes next? Does it fall apart?" Oliker asked. "Does anyone in Moscow really know what’s going on in Chechnya?"
 


Little Green Babies: Crimean Newborns Handed Military Draft Notices

Steve Gutterman

Welcome to the world, kid -- and don't forget to report for duty in 16 years. 

Three newborn babies were presented with military draft notices along with their birth certificates last week by the Russian authorities who control the Crimean Peninsula.

The boys were given the notices by the chief Russian military recruiting officer in the Simferopol district of Crimea, the Moscow-installed Justice Ministry for the region said on its website.

The documents were presented as part of a celebration of "the glorious sons of Russia" marking Defenders of the Fatherland Day, the February 23 holiday honoring the Russian military -- and, unofficially, all Russian men.

The ministry said the notices indicated the boys should report for military service on January 24, 2032.

That date was a mistake, according to the website meduza.io, which pointed out that Russian males are obliged to register for military service when they turn 17 -- an age the three boys will not reach until 2033.

Russia seized control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after supporting a takeover of the regional legislature, sending in troops widely known as "little green men" for their unmarked uniforms, and staging a referendum dismissed around the world as illegitimate.

With reporting by meduza.io and tvrain.ru

'Five Kings': Putin Insiders Reign In Government Contract Ranking

Gennady Timchenko (left) and Arkady Rotenberg are described by the U.S. Treasury Department as part of Vladimir Putin's "inner circle."

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 29.02.2016 13:16

Carl Schreck

Russian President Vladimir Putin's opponents have long accused him of helping a coterie of insiders amass enormous fortunes by giving them VIP feeding access at the government-tender trough. 

While the Kremlin has repeatedly rejected these allegations, a new report by the Russian version of Forbes magazine shows that Putin's associates -- and the man alleged to be his son-in-law -- are indeed cashing in on state contracts.

Four of the top five private beneficiaries of Russian government contracts in 2015 are individuals widely seen as member of Putin's inner circle, a Forbes analysis published this week shows. According to the current exchange rate, they netted a total of $12.8 billion in state orders.

Atop the list was Putin's former judo sparring partner, billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, who benefited from $7.8 billion in government contracts in 2015. 

Coming in at No. 3 was Gennady Timchenko ($2.1 billion), a wealthy longtime associate of Putin, followed in fourth place by Kirill Shamalov ($1.9 billion), who has been identified in both Russian and Western media outlets as married to the Russian president’s younger daughter.

Rounding out the top five is Rotenberg's son, Igor, with $1.4 billion in state contracts. The No. 2 slot was occupied by Timchenko's business partner, Leonid Mikhelson, who is the billionaire owner of major Russian gas producer Novatek but is not seen as close to Putin. 

Forbes compiled its ranking, titled The Kings Of State Contracts, by analyzing official government data on the winners of state tenders and corporate ownership records. It calculated the monetary figure for each individual according to their respective stakes in companies that won these tenders. 

'Standing At The Feeding Trough'

The names Rotenberg, Timchenko, and Shamalov are lightning rods for Kremlin adversaries who accuse Putin of establishing a system of rampant cronyism during his 16 years in power.

"None of these people are brilliant businessmen. They have control over money not because the invented or achieved something, or because they are good people or smart. They are simply standing at the feeding trough because the president of our country put them there," opposition leader Aleksei Navalny said in a February 26 video he posted on his website to discuss the Forbes report.

Both Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg, whom the U.S. government calls part of Putin's inner circle, have been sanctioned by Washington in response to the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

In a statement announcing the sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department alleged that Putin "has investments" with Gunvor, the oil-trading firm that Timchenko founded but exited a day before he was hit with U.S. sanctions, and "may have access to Gunvor funds."

Washington has not released any evidence to substantiate these claims, which the Kremlin and Gunvor deny. (The firm also says CEO Torbjorn Tornqvist was in charge of daily operations.)*

Meanwhile, Navalny filed a lawsuit earlier this month accusing Putin of a conflict of interest in awarding $1.75 billion in state financing to a company part-owned by Shamalov, his alleged son-in-law. A Moscow court rejected the lawsuit, saying it did not qualify for consideration under "administrative proceedings."

For his part, Igor Rotenberg is at the center of a standoff in recent months between protesting long-haul truckers and the government over a road-use fee that the truckers say will put them out of business. He controls a company that operates the levy's computerized enforcement system, called Platon. During their protests, truckers have flashed placards denouncing what they call the "Rotenberg Levy."

Arkady Rotenberg and his brother, Boris, received billions of dollars in contracts for building facilities and infrastructure for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, according to the Treasury Department. Boris Rotenberg has also been sanctioned by the United States.

'Typical Patriot'

The Forbes ranking of the beneficiaries of state contracts comes as the Russian economy flounders due to depressed oil prices and Western sanctions. According to a recent poll by the respected Levada Center, 82 percent of Russians believe the country is currently in an economic crisis, half of whom believe the crisis will last at least another year

Navalny and other leading opposition activists have tried to build political capital by contrasting the good financial fortunes of those close to Putin with the economic pinch that much of the Russian population is feeling.

“Rotenberg, Rotenberg, Timchenko, Shamalov, and Mikhelson thrown in there with them. The five kings of government contracts. Basically, that’s all you need to know about the Russian economy,” Dmitry Gudkov, one of a handful of opposition lawmakers left in the State Duma, wrote on his Facebook page.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, dismissed suggestions that the Forbes ranking was indicative of corrupt practices.

"You know that government contracts are distributed on the basis of clearly defined rules and in strict accordance with the law," Peskov was quoted by Kommersant as saying.

He added that Kremlin officials had read the Forbes report and that the system of government procurement is "not arbitrary."

Navalny, meanwhile, referenced with impish irony Putin's comments earlier in the day on February 26 that "enemies abroad" are preparing to interfere with planned parliamentary elections in September.

Before selling his stake in Gunvor, Timchenko ran the company out of Switzerland and he is now a citizen of Finland, Navalny noted.

"This is a typical patriot," he said.

* This article has been updated to clarify Gunvor's position on the U.S. Treasury allegations and the company's day-to-day operations.


Opposition Leader Navalny Targeted In Cake Attack

Aleksei Navalny described the attack as puerile retribution for his corruption-fighting work.

Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- In the latest in a string of incidents targeting opposition politicians in Russia this month, two men hit Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny in the face with cakes on February 25 as he entered the Moscow offices of his anticorruption foundation.

Navalny posted a photograph of himself standing with office workers, his face and shoulders smeared with cake following the attack, video of which was published by the pro-Kremlin TV station LifeNews. 

Describing the incident as puerile retribution for his corruption-fighting work, he accused the Russian authorities of being behind the attack and mocked them for stooping so low.

"Of course, the authorities have such high ratings and such powerful support that the only retort that Putin and Medvedev see to the opposition's claims is the throwing of cakes," he wrote on Instagram. 

Navalny angrily summed up the level of public discourse in the country, imagining dialogue between anticorruption activists and the Russian authorities:

"Why did you steal a billion?" he describes activists as asking.

"Here, have a cake in your face, ha ha ha. Look, he's all covered in cake, ha ha ha."

Opposition activist and Navalny ally Leonid Volkov claimed that a member of the National Liberation Movement (NOD) -- an ultranationalist, pro-Kremlin group headed by United Russia lawmaker Yevgeny Fyodorov -- was behind the attack.
 
Volkov wrote on Facebook that a man named Gosha Tarasevich, whom he described as a NOD member, was praised on social networks for carrying out the attacks. Volkov also noted that Tarasevich had been accused of defacing a memorial to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
 
Tarasevich has been reported to be the nom guerre of Igor Beketov, an actor who leads apro-Kremlin activist group calling itself Liberation Movement SERB.
 
The cake incident  amid an escalating war of words between the opposition and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has labeled the Russian opposition "traitors" and "enemies of the people."

It marked the second confectionary-throwing incident this month.

On February 9, Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of the opposition Parnas party and a former prime minister, was approached by a group of men while he was dining and had a cake thrown in his face.

The incident came after Kadyrov posted an video on Instagram depicting Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a gun scope, and Kasyanov supporters have suggested that the cake-throwing men were from Chechnya.

Nearly one year ago, on February 27, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a central Moscow bridge, in view of the Kremlin. Five Chechens have been arrested for the attack.

Navalny wrote on Twitter of the cake incident: "I've washed both my head and my beard with soap and I still smell like vanilla, cream, and other confectionery stuff. It's impossible to work."


Defender of Putin, Detained in Russia: American Activist Deemed U.S. 'Agent' 

U.S. native Sharon Tennison established the Center For Citizen Initiatives in 1983 to "bring about a constructive relationship with the Soviet Union." 

Carl Schreck

For a person who has dedicated her life to improving ties between Moscow and the West -- and who has passionately denounced what she calls the "demonization" of President Vladimir Putin by Western media and officials -- Sharon Tennison has gotten a strange reception in Russia.

Tennison, an American activist whose bridge-building efforts date back to the Cold War, and her colleague were detained this week in the southern city of Volgograd for violating the terms of their tourist visas and fined 2,000 rubles ($26) apiece. 

A Volgograd court ruled on February 16 that Tennison and fellow activist Theodore McIntire were not acting as tourists when they held a meeting about relaunching programs run by the Center For Citizen Initiatives, a San Francisco-based NGO that Tennison launched in 1983 to "bring about a constructive relationship with the Soviet Union." 

That they were dinged for their visa status is not necessarily surprising: anecdotal evidence suggests that authorities in various Russian regions in recent years have clamped down on Western academics and NGO workers conducting research and other work on tourist or business visas. 

What is surprising is how Tennison, a staunch opponent of current U.S. policy toward Russia, and her organization have been portrayed in Kremlin-loyal and state-owned media: namely as nefarious agents of American influence.

The sensationalistic LifeNews website, which is widely believed to have ties to Russia's security services, reported that Tennison and McIntire "met with businessmen, conducted seminars, invited [people] to the United States for internships, and in every possible way tried to impose American values." 

The local Volgograd web portal V1.ru called the activists "U.S. State Department agents," while the local edition of the national broadsheet Moskovsky Komsomolets called them "propagandists from the U.S." 

The Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, meanwhile, appeared to imply that there was something suspicious about McIntire, writing "by the way, [he] is a former U.S. Army serviceman." 

The CCI describes McIntire as "a retired U.S. Air Force acquisitions officer." 

A Putin Defender

These characterizations appear wholly ignorant of Tennison's public -- and easily googlable -- commentary about contemporary Russia, which is notably sympathetic to Putin and highly critical of Washington's approach to dealing with the Kremlin.

Her positions place her firmly in the camp of U.S. academics and former officials like renowned historian Stephen Cohen and former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock. Critics have accused them of being Kremlin apologists for advocating greater bilateral cooperation amid Washington's standoff with Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.

In a column published earlier this month, Tennison echoed the Kremlin's narrative about purported threats from NATO, saying Russia has been forced to build up its military due to "the decisions of a few powerful people on the other side of the Atlantic to drive NATO up to Russia's borders."

Her arguments are also consistent with the Kremlin's position on Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory and the war between Kyiv's forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine. The West accuses Moscow of arming, funding, and bolstering the separatists with personnel— allegations Russia denies despite significant evidence of such support.

Tennison has also written highly favorably of Putin, whom she met in 1992 when he was working for the St. Petersburg mayor's office. 

"It is astounding to me how much progress Russia has made in the past 14 years since an unknown man with no experience walked into Russia's presidency and took over a country that was flat on its belly," she wrote of Putin's reign in 2014. "So why do our leaders and media demean and demonize Putin and Russia?" 

'GosDep Patronage'

The Russian media's portrayal of Tennison as a menacing U.S. operative comes amid Kremlin tightening of its control over nongovernmental organizations and foreign funding of grassroots political movements, a trend that worsened since Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 following a four-year stint as prime minister.

Russian media appeared to refer to her organization's earlier funding by the U.S. government in their reporting on her visa troubles in Volgograd.CCI received grants from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the 1990s to run economic development programs in Russia, according to government documents. 

LifeNews, which published court documents and footage of migration officials detaining Tennison and McIntire, described CCI as "acting under GosDep patronage," using a common Russian shorthand for the State Department.

But Tennison called the LifeNews article "bogus," telling RFE/RL that she has not had any involvement with the State Department "in 10 years."

"I get no money from any government agency," she said in an e-mail. "I've never done any 'democracy-building' programs. I am not pushing any point of view."

The State Department did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment. 

'Citizen Diplomacy'

Tennison said that this month she has been doing "long-term evaluations of our CCI alumni in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Volgograd, just to see myself whether the U.S.-based management training we did throughout the years has been effective."

She added that the training has been "greatly effective."

Tennison said that she thought she had a business visa but that it may have been converted to a tourist visa without her knowledge the last time she renewed it.

Tennison launched the CCI in 1983 "with a mission of using citizen diplomacy to improve relations between the two nuclear Superpowers," the group says in its official history.

Three years later, it sponsored a trip of more than 30 members of Alcoholics Anonymous to the Soviet Union to spread the message of sobriety at a time when reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev was undertaking an antialcohol campaign.

Over the next two decades, Tennison organized a range of economic, environmental, and social programs between Americans and Russians. She was also named to the board of directors of the Russian-American Enterprise Fund, created by President Bill Clinton in 1993 "to invest in the creation and expansion of privately owned and controlled small and medium-sized enterprises in Russia" with $340 million in funding. 

'Perplexing' Media Reports

CCI says its funding began to dry up in 2010, at the height of U.S. President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia. But the group decided to relaunch its efforts amid plunging ties between Moscow and the West to Cold War-level lows, according to its website.

"Once again it's time for citizen diplomats from both countries to step in and help guide us back from the precipice at which we've arrived," the site states.

It was in connection with this mission that Tennison and McIntire landed in hot water. According to a copy of the court order published by LifeNews, they violated the terms of their tourist visas by holding a meeting February 16 at a Volgograd chapter of Rotary International to discuss "the resumption of the [CCI's] programs in the Russian Federation." 

The court shortened the time they were allowed to stay in Russia but did not order their deportation, according to media reports.

The president of the Volgograd Rotary chapter, Pavel Shabalkov, said he was perplexed by media insinuations that the two activists were spreading "propaganda." 

"At a meeting of our club, we gave them a chance to speak. There were no lectures, and of course no seminars or propaganda," V1.ru quoted him as saying, adding that Tennison "has spent lots of her time, energy, and resources to prove to Americans that [Russians] are normal people." 

Shabalkov also defended the patriotism of his club, which is part of Rotary's international network of community-service clubs made up mainly of business and civic leaders. 

"We start every meeting of our club by singing the national anthem of the Russian Federation," he said. "This is an iron-clad rule of our club. I don't think any other explanations are needed."
 


War On Earth Or World War III? Medvedev Interview Stirs Translation Tempest

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks to Handelsblatt during an interview at the Gorki state residence outside Moscow on February 11.

Carl Schreck

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev grabbed global headlines this week with his interview in the German newspaper Handelsblatt in which he was quoted as warning that the Syria conflict could lead to a “new world war.”

But did Medvedev actually utter a phrase suggesting World War III is potentially nigh?

That question is the center of a kerfuffle that drew critical remarks from the U.S. State Department ahead of the annual Munich Security Conference, which kicked off February 12.

In the interview, published February 11, Medvedev was asked his opinion about the prospect of Arab countries sending fighters to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s staunch ally, is battling both the extremist Islamic State group and more moderate opposition groups. Some of those moderate groups have received backing from the United States and its allies.

Handelsblatt’s German translation quoted Medvedev as saying that such a move could spark “einen neuen Weltkrieg,” or “a new world war.”

The word “Weltkrieg” and its English translation was, in journalistic parlance, sexy enough to earn a spot in the headlines of the Handelsblatt story. Global news agencies like Reuters, the Associated Press, and AFP also used the word. 

The “world war” quote even made its way into the daily State Department press briefing in Washington the same day, in a question posed to spokesman Mark Toner. He said the specter of a “broader conflict” was “concerning” but accused Russia of exacerbating the Syria conflict with its support for Assad.

But the accuracy of the Handelsblatt translation was called into question on social media after Medvedev’s office released a Russian-language transcript of the interview that quoted him uttering a notably softer phrasing.

Medvedev, who spoke Russian during the interview, was quoted as saying that world powers must force all sides to sit down at the negotiating table and “not start yet another war on Earth.” (In Russian: “не начинать очередную войну на Земле.”)

Russia’s state-funded global news network RT, meanwhile, accused Reuters of misquoting Medvedev by reprinting Handelsblatt’s “incorrect” translation.

“The [Reuters] report referred to a German translation of his words, which is incorrect and implies that Russia is warning that a full-scale war between leading world powers may be ignited from the Syrian conflict,” RT wrote in a February 12 post on its website that did not include a byline.

Massaged Transcripts

The translation tempest ultimately prompted Handelsblatt to issue a clarification and defend its use of the phrase “world war.”

In a note on the English-language version of the newspaper’s website, Kevin O’Brien, editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition, wrote that “the Kremlin…approved a German-language version of the interview.”

“The German quote approved by the Kremlin contained the term ‘einen neuen Weltkrieg,’ or a new world war,” O’Brien wrote. 

The Kremlin and Medvedev’s office operate in separate bureaucratic structures, and it was not immediately clear whether O’Brien intended to refer to the prime minister’s office as “the Kremlin.” Typically, Medvedev’s staff would manage such an interview.

O’Brien did not respond immediately to an e-mail seeking clarification about the Kremlin’s potential role in approving the German translation. In an earlier e-mail, he referred questions about Medvedev’s verbatim quote in Russian to correspondent Mathias Brueggmann, who spoke Russian to the prime minister during the interview.

Brueggmann, head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. He interviewed Medvedev together with the newspaper’s editor in chief, Sven Afhueppe, who spoke in German during the meeting.

The Russian government has previously massaged or omitted contentious comments by foreign and domestic officials in official records of public statements.

Standing next to Putin at a May 2015 news conference in Moscow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in German, called Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula the previous year “verbrecherisch,” or “criminal.”

The official Russian-language interpreter at the press conference, however, omitted the word “criminal” during the event, and the official Kremlin transcript left out the word as well.

It is, however, included in the transcript published by Merkel’s office.

At last year’s Munich Security Conference -- an influential gathering that draws diplomats, foreign ministers, business leaders, and academics -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to hoots of derision from the audience at his defense of the Crimea takeover being in line with international law by saying, in Russian: “I guess it’s funny.”

He suggested that he found things said earlier “funny as well, but I controlled myself.”

These comments were not included in the Foreign Ministry’s official transcript of the event. 

Whether Medvedev’s office took similar liberties in transcribing his interview with Handelsblatt was not immediately clear.

Of course, publicly releasing the audio recording of the interview would certainly settle the matter once and for all.

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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