Mr. Anti-Globalization Meet Alexander Ionov, the self-described ‘human rights defender’ who demanded that Russia label Meduza a ‘foreign agent’
After the Russian Justice Ministry added Meduza to its “foreign agent” list on April 23, we decided to challenge this designation in court. During pre-trial preparations on May 20, human rights lawyers Anastasia Burakova and Sergey Badamshin — who are representing Meduza’s interests in the case — gained access to documents that a shed bit of light on why Russia ended up recognizing Meduza as a “foreign agent.” Formally, the initiator of this decision was Alexander Ionov — the founder of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, who has been a leading character in Meduza investigations on more than one occasion. One of our reports offended Ionov so deeply that he decided to write a complaint about Meduza to Russia’s censorship agency, Roskomnadzor. Meduza shares the fascinating biography of Alexander Ionov, who, as it turns out, actually considers himself a “human rights defender.”
Meduza’s “foreign agent” status came as a surprise for Alexander Ionov — despite the fact that he was the one who filed the complaint upon which the Russian Justice Ministry based its decision. “When the Justice Ministry recognized you as a ‘foreign agent’ it was news to me all the same,” Ionov told a Meduza. “I thought there would be another response from them, where they’d show us that we missed something somewhere.”
Based on internal correspondence submitted to the court (and obtained by Meduza), you can see that officials from four different government branches quickly cooperated to designate Meduza as a “foreign agent.”
- Having received a complaint from Alexander Ionov on April 20, Roskomnadzor’s Deputy Head, Vadim Subbotin, sent it to the Justice Ministry’s relevant department the very next day, along with dozens of sheets of information on Meduza. This package included detailed analyses of our web traffic, mobile apps, and social media accounts, as well as our reporting;
- On April 21 and 22, Rosfinmonitoring (Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service) informed the Justice Ministry that “the organization receives foreign funding, including through indirect means”;
- On April 22, First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov sent confirmation to the Justice Ministry that “based on the information received from Rosfinmonitoring and Roskomnadzor, we are coordinating the inclusion of information about the specified legal entity in the relevant registry”;
- And on April 23, Deputy Justice Minister Oleg Sviridenko issued an order on including our legal entity, Medusa Project SIA, in the “foreign-agent media” registry.
Ionov filed his first complaint against Meduza in 2019, after he featured in one of our investigations. Meduza quoted Ionov in an investigative report about Russian military advisers and specialists being sent to protect Russian business interests in Venezuela in the aftermath of an averted coup.
In a comment to MBX Media on May 20, Ionov claimed that Meduza “attributed all sorts of stories” about a “troll factory in Venezuela” to him. However, the Venezuela investigation doesn’t mention troll factories once.
Later, in conversation with Meduza, Ionov corrected himself, specifying that it wasn’t Meduza correspondents who linked him to “troll factories” — it was other journalists who based their reporting on Meduza’s Venezuela investigation.
“When you wrote the article about me and Latin America, it and its English version became the starting point for the publication of articles in Ukraine, Poland, and other countries close to Latvia,” Ionov complained to Meduza. “Journalists immediately expanded [on] your material, just with a message completely different from yours: that I run some kind of ‘troll factory’ in Latin America.”
Ionov told Meduza that he first complained to the Justice Ministry after the Venezuela article came out (that said, he told MBX Media that he filed the complaint with Roskomnadzor). “I saw certain violations — I saw how a whole campaign was formed around this article,” Ionov explained. “I’m not trying to please anyone, you see: I don’t get income from the Russian Federation’s budget, I’m not a departmental contractor, I’m not expecting to show what a rah-rah patriot I am — I just want the law to be respected. And if something is written about me, I can’t sue Polish or Ukrainian journalists — they won’t even let me into those countries! But there’s an article that pushed this whole story forward — on the basis of which a number of materials were written, because of which I was forced to suffer. My only job is to prevent distortions of information: otherwise people go on the Internet and read about me and see that I’m some kind of ‘leader of trolls and killers’.”
In 2019, his complaint against Meduza was ignored, Ionov said: “Back then they [the Justice Ministry] thought our arguments were unconvincing and there wasn’t enough factual information to recognize you as a ‘foreign agent’.”
But in April 2021, he and his lawyers “decided to write to the Justice Ministry once again” (though in the end they appealed to Roskomnadzor). “First there was a report from the U.S. Justice Department, where they again stated that they would issue arrest warrants for our citizens around the world — including over the activities of ‘foreign agents’,” Ionov said, recalling events from April. “And we also saw how the activities of Russian media are being restricted in Latvia. What problems can Latvia have with RT?”
Court documents obtained by Meduza show that Alexander Ionov sent his appeal to Roskomnadzor (not the Russian Justice Ministry) on April 20, 2021. In it, he asks the censorship agency to consider “on the basis of legal requirements” the issue of including Meduza in the register of foreign media outlets performing the function of a “foreign agent.”
The document then goes on to explain why, in Ionov’s opinion, this decision would be justified. It claims that Meduza “is engaged in the dissemination of information to an unlimited number of people and receives foreign funding.” Ionov also enclosed copies of documents, such as extracts from the annual report of the Latvian company “Medusa Project,” as well as an excerpt from the Latvian Procurement Supervisory Bureau (from which it follows that in August 2019, Meduza won a tender from the Latvian Investment and Development Agency to advertise Latvian tourism to a Russian-speaking audience).
Ionov also makes the “additional argument” that Meduza’s articles repeatedly cite information from media outlets already recognized as “foreign agents.” He attached multiple pages of statistics on each and every “foreign agent” Meduza has mentioned, throughout the entire period of our newsroom’s existence (regardless of the date when the media outlet in question received its “foreign agent” designation).
Additionally, Ionov argued that in his view, Meduza’s editorial policy characterizes it as a “foreign agent.” In particular, he notes that “criticism of the actions of law enforcement agencies, coverage of the activities of opposition movements, as well as analysis of political trials” are “frequent topics” of Meduza’s reporting.
“I didn’t write shut down Meduza because it’s an opposition media outlet,” Ionov continued. “The basis for being recognized as a ‘foreign agent’ is, first and foremost, receiving funding from a foreign government — including from any ministry or organizations with state involvement. And you had a grant [from the Latvian Investment and Development Agency] for 70,000 euros.”
Ionov was referring to a contract for advertising Latvian tourism to a Russian-speaking audience, which Meduza won in a tender from a government agency. However, as explained Galina Arapova, the director and head lawyer of the Mass Media Defense Center, Russian legislation allows for assigning “foreign-agent media” status to any information distributor for any type of foreign funding. “A commercial contract with a foreign legal entity for the provision of services, according to which money was transferred, would be considered ‘foreign financing’,” Arapova said.
“Why don’t you write about swindlers in Latvia, for example?” Ionov complained to Meduza. “There’s a lot of swindlers there — we wrote a long article about this with Latvian Forbes, I can send it to you. But you’re afraid to write about them! And why don’t you talk about the fact that our citizens abroad are recognized as ‘foreign agents’? And why do the materials about some Russians that you post on your website have such a pro-Western bent?”
The Anti-Globalization Movement
In March 2012, Alexander Ionov registered a new public organization with the Russian Justice Ministry — the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (ADR, for short). According to Ionov’s website, the ADR’s task is to support “countries and peoples opposing the dictates of a unipolar world and seeking to propose an alternative agenda.”
In the spring of 2013, members of the ADR travelled to Damascus, where they presented Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with a certificate of honorary membership to their organization. In an RT interview in 2018, Ionov said that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro were also honorary members of the ADR.
Initially, the Anti-Globalization Movement’s activities were limited to solo pickets and a few rallies outside of the U.S. Embassy and NATO representative office in Moscow. But in December 2014, the ADR received a grant worth one million rubles ($13,600 by today’s exchange rate) from the National Charitable Foundation, which supports military and patriotic projects under the patronage of the Kremlin. This allowed the ADR to host its first official event — an international expert discussion called “A National Dialogue: the Right to Self-Determination and the Construction of a Multipolar World.”
In September 2015, the ADR held yet another major event funded by a National Charitable Foundation grant: a conference similarly titled, “A Dialogue of Nations: the Right to Self-Determination and the Construction of a Multipolar World.” The conference took place at the President Hotel in Moscow and was attended by delegates from a number of small independence movements from various countries, such as Ireland, the United States, Spain, and Italy.
The Anti-Globalization Movement hosted its second anti-globalization forum in Moscow in 2016. The event took on a grand scale, thanks in part to a presidential grant worth 3.5 million rubles ($47,600 by today’s exchange rate). At the time, Ionov told the Los Angeles Times that he received additional funding for the conference from private donors from “Texas and other countries.” In conversation with Meduza, however, Ionov denied the notion that he had received any funding from Texas or anywhere abroad in general. “The LA Times journalist either misunderstood something or wrote [that] on purpose,” he told Meduza.
A Russian businessman in Syria
In 2018, Alexander Ionov was one of the few Russian nationals who spoke out about the Wagner PMC’s losses in Syria amid military clashes involving the Russian mercenaries and American forces near the oil-rich territory of Deir al-Zour. Journalists from The New York Times referred to Ionov as a “Russian businessman working in Syria.”
Ionov worked in the security business and offered consulting services to local businessmen, as well as to nearly 60 Russian companies working in Syria. According to The Bell, he acted as a “dealer” — due to sanctions, any operations at that time went through a chain of middlemen.
Ionov’s projects in Syria operated through his company, Mubashar, as he himself told a Meduza correspondent in 2018. The company’s Syrian office was located at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus. Ionov was going to bid on tenders to rebuild the country, a project which, as he told Meduza, Syria was preparing to undertake at the time.
Before entering into negotiations with the Syrian government, Ionov gathered a pool of more than 60 Russian firms that had expressed their readiness to work in Syria (this included companies from the security, energy, insurance, and IT sectors). Ionov complained to Meduza in 2018 that it would be difficult for Russian businesses to break into the Syrian market: they had to compete with suppliers from Iran and even Belarus, and the project had received no political support from the Russian government.
Meduza also found out that in 2017, Alexander Ionov may have been involved in organizing the international exhibition Re-Build Syria, which was dedicated to the post-war reconstruction of the country. A booklet for potential participants lists the email address email@example.com — this domain is registered to the Russian LLC Ionov Transkontinental, whose sole founder and director listed in the register of legal entities is none other than Alexander Ionov. An email address on this domain was also used to send the complaint about Meduza to Roskomnadzor on Alexander Ionov’s behalf on April 20, 2021.
Alexander Ionov — human rights defender
In May 2019, British journalist Dean Sterling Jones wrote that Alexander Ionov helped Alexander Malkevich, a U.S.-sanctioned political strategist linked to oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin, with crowdfunding efforts in support of Russian national Maria Butina (who was in prison in the U.S. at the time after being convicted of conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government).
Malkevich allegedly told Sterling Jones in an email that his non-profit, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FZNC), was circumventing U.S. sanctions by donating money to pay Butina’s legal bills through Ionov’s Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (the ADR). This came after Malkevich’s non-profit organization announced that it had paid 5 million rubles ($68,000 by today’s exchange rate) into an American fund in support of Butina.
According to the SPARK-Interfax database, the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia owns the domain mariabutinafund.ru, which hosted a now defunct website in support of Butina. And it was Alexander Ionov, along with Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who met Butina at the airport when she landed back in Moscow after her release from U.S. prison in October 2019.
On May 14, 2021, the Foundation for Combatting Repressions, which was founded by Evgeny Prigozhin in March, announced plans to cooperate with Alexander Ionov. Writing about this news, the online publication RIA FAN, which is also linked to Prigozhin, described Ionov as a “public figure” but made no mention of his Anti-Globalization Movement.
“As for the Foundation for Combating Repressions, I appealed to them for help: they help various activists with the provision of legal services,” Alexander Ionov told Meduza. “And that’s all. If some other of our citizens or foreign colleagues need help, I will appeal to them again. We simply don’t have funds like the Western NED [National Endowment for Democracy], which finances such things.”
Also as a human rights defender, Ionov has been involved with the cases of Russian hackers arrested abroad on suspicion of cyber crimes and interference in U.S. elections. Commenting on the arrest of Russian national Pyotr Levashov in Spain in 2017, Ionov told Gazeta.ru that this was “a direct threat to a Russian citizens travelling abroad.” The pro-Kremlin outlet described Ionov as Vice President of the Russian branch of the International Human Rights Defense Committee.
As reported by Foreign Policy in March 2021 and later confirmed by investigators from Bellingcat, the International Human Rights Defense Committee — known by the acronym of its French name CIPDH — is a mysterious, self-described human rights group that has been accused of fraud repeatedly. For example, the CIPDH claimed to be a partner of the United Nations and more than a dozen of its agencies, but the UN denied that any such relationship existed; the CIPDH also issued fake diplomatic license plates and diplomatic passports to its members, which the European Commission later blacklisted as “fantasy passports.” At least two people affiliated with the CIPDH have been charged with involvement in criminal activity.
These publications also described Ionov as CIPDH Vice President. When CIPDH awarded him a “Medal of Honor” in 2018, Ionov was referred to as a “famous Russian human rights defender.” However, Ionov told Foreign Policy in March 2021 that he no longer works for the CIPDH (though his profile was still listed on the organization’s website at the time of publication). In a video posted on his Facebook account in late March, Ionov said that he isn’t a member of the CIPDH committee (while simultaneously accusing foreign media outlets of writing critical articles about Russians).
In conversation with Meduza, Ionov asked to be referred to as a human rights defender or Vice President of the International Human Rights Defense Committee. When Meduza’s correspondent reminded Ionov that he told Foreign Policy he wasn’t Vice President of the CIPDH committee any more, Ionov said that he was no longer associated with the organization after all. “It was your colleagues from abroad who received an order to hound the committee,” Ionov said suddenly. “Although it had no problems in Moscow — and while I worked there as Vice President we were engaged in very clear cases. Do you see how the propaganda works?”
Alexander Ionov has a certificate of merit “For providing assistance to the bodies of the Federal Security Service” — it’s dated February 27, 2017, and signed by FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov himself.
But Ionov hardly has anything to do with the FSB, he asserted in conversation with Meduza: “Only through the Officers of Russia: I did events for them. Well, and for employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service that I met through the Public Monitoring Commission,” he said, referring to his time as a member of Moscow’s prisoners’ rights watchdog. Apparently, Ionov received the certificate of merit from Bortnikov for organizing a volleyball tournament for veterans of the intelligence services. “This certificate is for a sports tournament. We, [people] from the Officers of Russia, organized a volleyball tournament for teams veterans,” Ionov explained.
Returning to his decision to urge Roskomnadzor to recognize Meduza as a “foreign agent,” Alexander Ionov offered the following piece of advice: “If you receive foreign funding in the form of grant support, you should report it! For example, my organization's reports on receiving grant support are publicly available on the Internet.”
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart