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‘Journalists like that are worse than terrorists’ Meet Vitaly Borodin, the activist whose complaint led Russia to outlaw the investigative news outlet ‘Proekt’

Source: Meduza
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‘Journalists like that are worse than terrorists’ Meet Vitaly Borodin, the activist whose complaint led Russia to outlaw the investigative news outlet ‘Proekt’

Source: Meduza

On July 15, the Russian authorities declared the investigative outlet Proekt “undesirable” — a designation that officials previously used only with NGOs. The same day, a number of their journalists (and three from other outlets) were declared “foreign agents.” Each one had been the object of a complaint to Russia’s Attorney General filed by an obscure activist named Vitaly Borodin, who’s also a veteran Interior Ministry employee. Borodin leads the Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Kremlin-backed organization whose name and structure are strikingly similar to those of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was declared an “extremist” group in June. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke to Borodin about his past, his organization, and his motives for going after independent journalists.

Vitaly Borodin kicked off his interview with Meduza by asking some questions of his own. “At some point, the concept of ‘journalists’ took a wrong turn. A journalist should be someone who has a license, a vocation, specialized education. Take you, for example — where did you study?” he asked.

Roman Badanin, who was recently blacklisted as a “foreign agent” after Borodin filed a complaint against his workplace (investigative news outlet Proekt), studied history at Moscow State University. In Badanin’s view, a history degree is “irrelevant” for a journalist.

The fact that even the Russian Labor Ministry doesn’t require news correspondents to have studied journalism doesn’t faze Borodin. “Do your colleagues [at Proekt and the Russian news website Open Media] even have journalism degrees?” he asked Meduza’s correspondent. “Because I’d like to find out for myself who exactly these people are — this organized group that doesn’t even hide the fact that it’s being financed by [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, a fugitive oligarch, who’s currently trying to pull off some kind of political coup with Navalny’s help. How come Khodorkovsky suddenly decided to become a journalist? He’s certainly not a journalist by trade — he’s a crook, a thief, and a villain.”

It turns out that Borodin knows surprisingly little about the outlets and journalists that were blacklisted as “foreign agents” or “undesirable” as a result of his complaints. Nonetheless, he’s convinced that they’re all dangerous enemies that need to be addressed.

No respect

One of Proekt’s reports particularly bothered Borodin. In an investigation of billionaire property developer God Nisanov, Proekt journalists included information about Nisanov’s personal friendship with Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The two men are so close that Naryshkin reportedly goes swimming every year in Nisanov’s personal pool at the Evropeisky shopping center.

Proekt journalists caught Naryshkin in the Evropeisky parking lot after visiting the pool on multiple occasions. They even filmed him talking to Nisanov, a relative of the Azerbaijani prime minister, like they were old friends — the two fist-bumped when they parted ways.

“How can you investigate the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service? How can you just take photos and videos of someone with criminal immunity and upload his meetings to the Internet?” said Borodin. “That’s a job for intelligence services, not people who have no connection whatsoever — and who are funded by the West.”

Proekt’s piece about Nisanov and Naryshkin was published on December 16, 2020. Exactly two months later, on February 17, 2021, Russia’s state-controlled television network Russia Today published a report based on documents about Proekt receiving foreign funding that were given to RT’s editorial office. Borodin used data from the RT article to file his complaint against Proekt.

According to the Attorney General’s office, Borodin’s complaint reached it on July 15. If this is true, the decision to blacklist Proekt was made almost as soon as the complaint was filed.

The leadership of the Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Foundation (FPBK), on whose behalf Borodin sent his complaint, includes two senior officials from the Attorney General’s office: Colonel-General Vladimir Zubrin, who previously served as both Deputy Prosecutor General and as Solicitor General, and former Surgut Deputy Prosecutor General Rafael Kovalyov, who was named prosecutor of the city of Pokachi (in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug) in 2014 and still occupies that position today, according to public records.

Borodin confirmed that there are people with experience at the Attorney General’s office who are currently working at FPBK, but he added that the organization itself was founded without help from the authorities.

He also insisted that the decision to file complaints against independent media outlets was made by him alone after he became the “victim” of one too many “smear campaigns,” referring to articles accusing him of using drugs and receiving American funds. “They created these garbage publications, and now they rake muck onto decent people,” the activist told Meduza. “There ought to be a little more regulation in this regard.”

Borodin believes an article published by the website tvtver.ru (which has since been deleted but still exists on other sites) was inaccurate. The article was an interview with Borodin himself, in which he spoke about receiving funding from the American National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — the same organization whose funding served as the basis for his complaint against Proekt.

In the article, which was published in 2020, Borodin praises the NED for “pissing off all kinds of sorry Russian assholes.” Now, however, Borodin denies having given the interview at all. “Just look at what kind of site it [tvtver.ru] is!” he said to Meduza. “A total mess. And they wrote so much nonsense. We’re going to fight through the courts to eradicate this disease. How about I send you my passport — you won’t see a single American stamp.” (By the time this article was published, Borodin had not sent a copy of his passport to Meduza. We weren’t able to reach the NED for comment, either, and tvtver.ru editor-in-chief Oleg Yeremeyev ignored multiple requests for comment.)

As examples of “dirty” journalism, Borodin cited two publications on a Saratov oblast news site about a man who shares his name and birth year getting arrested for drug possession. “If you write a smear piece for money, at least make it plausible,” he said. “I’ve been an athlete since childhood — and I trained my son to become a Moscow Thai boxing champion at nine years old. How could I be taking drugs?”

The accusations of drug possession and sympathizing with the U.S. seem even more absurd to Borodin given that he’s dedicated his entire life to “national security work.”

“They conduct constant checks for all assignments! How could they rope me in when I’ve been dealing with this stuff my whole life?” said Borodin. “There have even been attempts on my life! People have tried to kill me four times. I’ve fought organized crime, sent crooks and crime bosses to jail — how could they write me into a story like this?”

A Putin-in-training

Borodin joined the Yeletsky Criminal Investigation Department immediately after graduating from military college (he doesn’t say which). He claims to have worked as an operative for the Interior Ministry’s drug control department for the second half of the aughts, and he “had the highest conviction rate among his colleagues.”

In early 2009, Borodin “left for the private sector and became the economic security director for Stroiinvest.” By 2012, according to SPARK-Interfax, he was a co-owner of the firm, and by 2014, he received a share in another company called Spetspromstroi. “A young man decided to leave the security world and started earning good money — what’s wrong with that?” said Borodin.

Stroiinvest, which has been linked to former State Duma deputy Igor Kasyanov, oversaw dozens of properties in Moscow — including the Bolshoi Theater, the Natural Resources Ministry, city parks, hospitals, and government buildings. According to the Russian newspaper Sobesednik, from 2011 to 2014 alone, Borodin’s company made 160 million rubles ($2.17 million) from government contracts — though all of the tenders were awarded on a noncompetitive basis.

“Your colleagues at Sobesednik wrote that I was financed by the state, but I was just a salaried employee in the company,” Borodin told Meduza. “I was just the economic security director, then the vice president.”

In 2015, Borodin earned a Master’s degree from the Russian Presidential Academy. Soon after, he told the magazine Vremya Innovatsii that he planned to go into public administration. “I’d like to become the perfect politician and to have clear tones in my political arsenal. […] My political idol is Vladimir Putin,” Borodin said at the time.

In 2016, as promised, he went into politics: he joined the management team for United Russia’s Youth Anti-Corruption Network, began serving on a Moscow police district’s public council, and took part in an expert council for the State Duma’s Security Committee (which was led at the time by Irina Yarovaya, whom the Kirovsky Communist Party’s press service later described as Borodin’s “number one patron”).

Vitaly Borodin (back row, center) lays flowers on Moscow’s Poklonnaya Gora with other representatives of United Russia’s Youth Anti-Corruption Network. February 23, 2016.
United Russia

That same year, Borodin ran for State Duma as an “independent candidate and United Russia supporter”; according to him, he didn’t receive any support from the party. “[United Russia faction head Sergey] Neverov later gathered everyone who’d managed to get results in the Moscow electoral districts and said about me, ‘His campaign was the most creative.’” But I still didn’t make it [to parliament], so I no longer have any relationship with the party. I belonged to the Youth Anti-Corruption Network as a non-partisan member,” Borodin told Meduza.

His second foray into politics came in 2019, when he joined the party People Against Corruption (NPK) — officially, he was a deputy chairman, but in the spring of 2020, he was “asked to lead” the party, he says. “I was at a party meeting, and I saw how they had no ideology, nothing you could see or hear. The only thing was when I sent a question to the Attorney General via [singer Olga] Buzova — that’s when I first found out about the party,” he recalled. “After that, Roman Putin came and took my place.”

Borodin for morality

In 2019, in his capacity as NPK deputy head, Borodin asked Russia’s Attorney General to block singer Olga Buzova’s Instagram account after she uploaded a video in which she licks a plate and calls herself a “blockade girl” (alluding to those in Leningrad who starved during the Nazi siege).

Borodin is constantly positioning himself as a leader in the fight against moral decay. In the fall of 2019, for example, he called for actress Natalya Bochkareva to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law after she was caught with cocaine — he even appealed to the prosecutor and demanded she be sent to rehab. Borodin later asked the head of the Interior Ministry to hold singer Dima Bilan responsible after experts from the Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Foundation analyzed a video from one of his concerts and supposedly determined he was under the influence of drugs. In April 2021, Borodin suggested actress Anastasia Ivleyev’s license be revoked after she committed a traffic violation.

In 2019, Borodin called for Russia’s regional authorities to follow Ramzan Kadyrov’s model for educating young people. “I’ll give you one example: Ramzan Kadyrov, who instills a sense of patriotism in [Chechen] youth. They don’t have any drug problems, no homelessness, lots of people exercise. He personally gathers up the drug addicts and helps rehabilitate them,” said Borodin.

Roman Putin, Vladimir Putin’s first cousin once removed and a former FSB officer, became head of the NPK in June 2020. According to Borodin, there were no hard feelings between himself and Putin: “I was deputy chairman, but I also fulfilled the chairman’s duties for three months [until June], and when the term ended, I just told them I was no longer interested. I mean, they didn’t even participate in elections. The party only existed on paper.”

“I came in and laid down the law”

In 2016, having failed to join the State Duma, Borodin relocated to Russia’s North Caucasus, where he served as an advisor to the head of Ingushetia in a voluntary capacity. “Then [after the elections], I combined all these things — the Youth Anti-Corruption Network, the State Duma’s Security Committee, and the Moscow police department’s public council — and I left to work for [Ingushetian leader Yunus-bek] Yevkurov,” said Borodin.

On Ingushetia’s government websites, Borodin is mentioned only twice — once in the context of his official meetings with the leader of the “Antidealer” anti-drug movement, and once alongside Irina Volk, an Interior Ministry representative. Meanwhile, Borodin himself describes his work in Ingushetia as a combat mission: “Believe me, whenever they liquidated [sic] terrorists in the North Caucasus, we automatically ended up in the counter-terrorism operation zone.”

Vitaly Borodin at an Ingushetia government meeting. August 31, 2017

He complained to Meduza’s correspondent that journalists don’t want to acknowledge his “security” work in the North Caucasus, and he listed some of his other military accomplishments, which include “missions” to Syria, Crimea, and Donbas. “You can write this down: I took part in a military operation in Syria,” Borodin said. “I flew there a year ago. And I had an assignment in Lugansk, and in Donetsk — I was on the front lines. I ran around with a machine gun. Sure, I may appear on television in a suit and tie, but I still pick up a machine gun, from time to time — and for me, there’s no fear associated with it. It gives me pleasure.”

Borodin’s last civil service position was his job as deputy head of the Solnechnogorsk security administration. But in the spring of 2020, when a number of blogs and Telegram channels started accusing him of bribing a Moscow business owner (Borodin’s assistant was allegedly caught at the scene of the bribe), he had to step down.

Borodin told Meduza that he fired his subordinate — who was indeed caught taking one and a half million rubles ($20,000) by the FSB and the Interior Ministry’s Economic Crimes Division — “three weeks” before police made any arrests. The fact that Borodin left his own post soon thereafter, he insists, is completely unrelated. “Someone ordered these publications — and we’ll soon hold them responsible,” said Borodin. “When I worked in Solnechnogorsk, I demolished illegal buildings, exposed management companies that rob people, and dealt with the landfill shadow economy. Just picture it, a young guy like me coming in and laying down the law — who’s gonna like that? And what do you think people are going to do? They’ll make a political corpse out of me — they’ll order smear pieces about me.”

“Is this a clone of Navalny’s foundation?”

Borodin hasn’t held a government position for a year now. These days, he only has one link to public policy: the Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Foundation (FPBK), which he founded himself.

Registered in the summer of 2017 to a small apartment in Moscow’s Mytishinsky district, the FPBK is United Russia’s response to Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), according to reporting from the BBC Russian Service (though Borodin denies this).

The organization positions itself as being led by democratic values. According to its website, its goals are “to fight against [...] the root causes behind corruption” and to contribute to the “formation of civil institutions.” Even the organization’s abbreviated name, FPBK, is strikingly close to Navalny’s FBK, but Borodin offered an explanation: “There aren't very many words related to this topic in Russian.”

At first, the FPBK really did try to exhibit the level of aggression one might expect from people who care about fighting corruption. In November 2017, a picture of Borodin appeared on the organization’s Instagram account (they’ve since replaced it with a new account). It shows the activist in a suit, smartphone in hand, next to a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “He who wishes to be rich in a day will be hanged in a year.”

As if intentionally imitating Navalny, Borodin started in this role by talking about corruption in the family of former Attorney General Yury Chaika: at a Moscow City Duma round table event, Borodin threatened to “strike a blow” against the “clan of trash birds” and to “land the pack of thieves behind bars.” After Ivan Golunov’s arrest, Borodin decided to go after the “cemetery mafia” in the Vladimir Oblast and Samara — he claims to have gotten the idea from an investigation conducted by one of Meduza’s journalists.

Today, however, Borodin says he “never conducted any investigation against Chaika,” and that the entire transcript of his Duma speech is “a fake.” “People just commissioned it: I even have a recording of one political strategist — I think he’s from United Russia — calling me and saying, ‘Vitaly Nikolayevich, they paid money for you — now we’re going to come up with a story about you and hammer you online,” he told Meduza.

At the end of 2018, the FPBK reported its own involvement in the termination of 128 corrupt security officials — in Krasnodar Krai only, they reportedly “dissolved the Interior Ministry’s entire economic crimes division.” A year later, Borodin reported that “88 criminal cases against offshore companies” had been initiated, and a year after that, he reported that a hundred cases had made it to court.

The FPBK’s leadership

At various times, the organization’s leadership structure has included Ruslan Khautiyev (former Ingushetian external affairs minister and People Against Corruption regional branch head); and Roman Khudyakov (a former State Duma deputy who began his career in the LDPR and ultimately switched to Rodina. In January 2020, when multiple candidates with little name recognition ran in an effort to help crush the protest electorate, Khudyakov created a new party called Dignified Life.

The organization has begun opening units in rural areas, as well. “Is this a clone of Navalny’s FBK?” asked the Yaroslavl press after a FPBK office opened in the city. But there’s a crucial difference between the FBK and the FPBK: the latter has strong, if unofficial, ties to the Putin administration.

“The FPBK was created with the support of the Russian presidential administration to help implement public control over the enforcement of anti-corruption legislation.” This redundant statement, and others like it, appeared in a number of news articles about the organization’s activities; some directly mention the “oversight of the presidential administration.” The FPBK’s leadership structure even includes a position responsible for “collaboration with the presidential administration.”

But a source inside the Kremlin’s political bloc claimed not to have heard about the FPBK before speaking to Meduza for this story. Borodin himself also denies ever working closely with the Kremlin on the project. “How could an NGO be created with support from the presidential administration? If any citizen can hold a meeting and submit documents to the Justice Ministry, how can the Kremlin be involved?”

“The business community helps”

According to the organization’s own data, the FPBK has about 50 branches outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and its employees work alongside the Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, the FSB, and the Prosecutor’s Office. “We try our best to deal with the people in charge,” said FPBK deputy head Ruslan Khautiyev. “If necessary, we get on television,” said Borodin.

At first, the FPBK demonstrated a genuine commitment to its stated mission: it held an “anti-corruption convention” along with Cossack leaders and the far-right National Liberation Movement and organized raids on grocery stores and places where homeless people congregate. Wearing polo shirts and coats with the group’s logo printed on them — and invariably followed by cameras from federal news networks — the activists strongly resembled members of other Kremlin-backed groups.

Each of the organization’s visits to a new town ended in a press conference where members issued threats to local officials. At times, the threats were so specific that the press labeled the activists “political killers.” “We didn’t hear any examples of blatant corruption in the region,” wrote journalist Natalya Shiryayeva after an FPBK event in Samara. “The only thing the speaker did passionately was repeat like a spell that the Samara construction and housing minister must be fired.”

On July 19, 2019, the FPBK held a similar press conference in Kirov. Borodin promised journalists he would discuss “instances of corruption in the city administration,” but he ended up devoting most of his time to criticizing city manager Ilya Shulgin — and promised to ask the Attorney General’s Office why Shulgin has a “15 million ruble ($203,000) house.” “People like Shulgin discredit not only the governor but the president, too!” he added.

Borodin and his delegation were a far cry from the “cool political strategists” one news site had promised would come from Moscow to “cream” Shulgin. Nonetheless, in October 2020, Shulgin was detained under suspicion of abuse of power. “We issue statements every day to the Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, and to the General Prosecutor — not only against journalists but against public officials. Lots of our statements get concrete results: the Samara construction manager, for example, resigned. Before that, there was the head of Kirov and the mayor of Lipetsk,” said Borodin.

Websites that specialize in compromising information about public figures refer to the FPBK’s work as “blackmailing regional officials.” In conversation with Meduza, however, Borodin claimed that his exposures of public officials were meant to serve the common good. But he refuses to reveal both who’s financing the organization (including a rented facility across from the State Duma) and the budget items themselves. “Sure, the business community helps us out, but our sponsors don’t need any advertisements,” he said.

According to data from SPARK Interfax, the FPBK filed a zero tax return in 2019 and didn’t file a tax return at all in 2020.

“Journalists like that are worse than terrorists”

Borodin tried his best to justify his new focus — fighting against investigative journalism — during his conversation with Meduza.

“Do you remember when the Ingushetian leader’s car was blown up?” asked Borodin. “What do you think, why did that happen? As an operative, I’ll tell you why: because of people like [Proekt editor-in-chief Roman] Badanin, who leaked information about who was traveling on what vehicle, and what path they were taking. And according to the head of the SVR [in the article], both his car and the people around him ended up in photos and on video. Don’t you think we’ve had enough terrorist attacks in Moscow?”

Borodin promised to streamline another discovery about the supposed foreign funding of “commissioned” investigations, claiming that another report to government agencies is being prepared right now (though Borodin refused to specify what media outlet he reported and to what government agency). “A lot of commissioned articles get published,” he told Meduza. “To help stop the attacks, we decided to create a group of experts at the FPBK who can monitor the media market, every day. And if we find people writing articles for financial gain, then we’ll fight it. Journalists like that are worse than terrorists. At least terrorists have an ideology.”

He was able to provide a bit of information about the people involved in this initiative. “The expert group will include people from Russia’s regions as well as Elena Krait, who used to work for REN-TV — she’s my common-law wife.”

Borodin is uncertain whether his fight against the independent media will serve to further his political career. “Recently, they asked us to run for State Duma on the New People ticket, but I refused. I want to stay in my current role for a while,” he said.

In September, the FPBK will raise the issue of creating a Center for Preventing and Combating Corruption, to be modeled after the organization itself, in the State Duma. According to Borodin, they already suggested such an initiative once before, a year ago. “Now’s the time to work on prevention!” said Borodin.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Lilia Yapparova with additional report by Andrey Pertsev, edited by Tatiana Lysova

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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