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Dead souls The Anti-Corruption Foundation’s ex-chairman says the West should lift sanctions against repentant Russian elites, but his group has cleared just three people since August (after they died)
Last week, Alexey Navalny’s longtime associate Leonid Volkov resigned from his chairman’s post at ACF International (also known as the Anti-Corruption Foundation), amid a scandal around his surreptitious signing of two letters seeking sanctions relief for several Russian oligarchs. But Volkov hasn’t abandoned the rationale he endorsed in those letters. In an invited policy op-ed published in the March 18 issue of The Economist (where he is identified as “Navalny’s chief of staff”), Volkov continues to argue the same line about the need for “rethinking” personal sanctions against Russia’s elites. The scandal around Volkov’s abuse of his position at ACF, however, has revealed inconsistencies and murky places in the foundation’s own international policy proposals.
Leonid Volkov resigned from his chairman’s post at ACF International amid a feud with Alexey Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of the now defunct Echo of Moscow radio station. After ACF had targeted Venediktov in one of its investigations, accusing him of profiting from a corrupt scheme involving Moscow’s municipal authorities, Venediktov parried the exposé by publishing a controversial letter featuring, among others, Leonid Volkov’s signature.
Addressed to European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen and E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, the letter advocated the removal of “unreasonable” personal sanctions against two investment bankers behind Alfa Group, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven. Its arguments about the two oligarchs’ investments in the Ukrainian economy and their sponsorship of “important charitable projects” like Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial were signed by a number of prominent figures in the Russian liberal opposition, including Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov and imprisoned politician Ilya Yashin.
Volkov, however, immediately denied his signature’s authenticity. But after Venediktov proposed alerting the European Commission that the letter they’d received must have been a forgery, Volkov admitted to having indeed signed this and a second letter concerning the removal of sanctions from the Alfa Group investment bankers. The latter was a policy note to Josep Borrell, signed by Volkov in his capacity as Anti-Corruption Foundation’s chair but without telling anyone else at the foundation. Admitting that this letter had been a “big political mistake,” Volkov announced he was taking a break from politics.
Still, the March 18 issue of The Economist, which features an invited policy article by Volkov, attributes the op-ed to “Navalny’s chief of staff.” In this new piece, Volkov continues to argue the need for “rethinking” personal sanctions against Russia’s elites:
While some of these sanctions vary in detail, they have one thing in common: They have not had any significant effect on Mr. Putin’s ability to continue his criminal war. They have not caused a split within the Russian elite or triggered defections. Instead, they help to consolidate support for the regime and encourage the return of individuals facing sanctions back to Russia where they have poured their energies into saving their businesses.
“This is because getting on the sanctions list is a one-way ticket,” argues Volkov:
Anyone placed on it knows that the only guaranteed way off it is to die. As a result, people who have been placed under sanctions feel they have no option but to stay on board Mr. Putin’s boat, even if it is sinking. Sanctions actually push people into Mr. Putin’s arms, both figuratively (they feel that their political fates are now more closely linked than before) and in the most direct sense (those of them who have lived in the West are often forced to return to Russia, and their dependence on the Kremlin authorities grows).
“A smart sanctions policy should not consolidate Mr. Putin’s entourage around him,” Volkov explains, “but isolate him, weaken him, and make him toxic.” This would require refining the process of lifting sanctions, which could then encourage the sanctioned elites to break with Putin and to transfer large portions of their wealth to Ukraine. Volkov offers the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s work as a model for this solution:
Our suggested approach is based on a real experiment. In April 2022, we at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, founded by the opposition leader Alexey Navalny (for whom I work), published a list of 6,000 individuals who should be placed under sanctions. Since then, we have regularly and transparently updated and revised it. Every two weeks we add new individuals to our lists. But on several occasions, we have also taken them off our lists because they have denounced the war or quit their positions in state companies.
It’s true that ACF has removed from its sanctions lists more than 40 people in total. But when faulting the E.U. for making death the only grounds for lifting sanctions, Volkov didn’t address the fact that ACF itself has removed just three names from its “warmonger” list since last August — in each case, because the individual had died.
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Based on ACF’s notices of updates to the list, most removals occurred in the first half of 2022. Sometimes this was due to deaths, and in other cases, the evidence against a particular person was deemed insufficient. On occasion, the person in question had condemned the war and left the complicit organizations and government structures. At least two of the people who’d been cleared had contacted the Navalny team, offering their help with verifying the contents of the list. At least one blacklisted entity, the French Eutelsat corporation that allegedly “retransmitted Russian propaganda over its satellites,” also contacted the foundation to discuss being removed from its list.
Some of ACF’s attributions were controversial. The inclusion of journalist and pundit Oleg Kashin, for example, spurred Yury Dud to ask ACF chief investigator Maria Pevchikh in an interview about the reasons for including an open opponent of the war. “Oleg Kashin condemns the war,” said Dud, “but at the same time, Oleg Kashin is a longtime ACF hater.” Pevchikh’s reply was evasive: She only said that she doesn’t herself “read Kashin.”
Officially, ACF keeps Kashin’s name on its “warmonger” list based on three texts he wrote before February 2022, where he described the invasion as inevitable, if not desirable. But Kashin now denounces the war directly and openly and accuses Putin of “declaring a war not so much on Ukraine as on the Russian Federation” and for obliterating three decades worth of the country’s post-Soviet development.
At the same time, some of the names removed from ACF’s lists have been no less controversial. In late July 2022, for example, the foundation removed NtechLab co-founders Alexander Kabakov and Artyom Kukharenko, who had developed facial recognition systems now used by the Moscow police to track down and prosecute members of the political opposition.
Volkov has claimed that the two former NtechLab executives were removed from the list because they left the company shortly after the start of the invasion and condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. (The only public statement of this kind found by Meduza was an antiwar petition posted by Kabakov on what appears to be his Twitter account.) As for the actual date of Kabakov’s departure from NtechLab, it reportedly occurred as far back as December 2021. Kukharenko left the company shortly afterwards.
Explaining ACF’s decision to de-list these men, Volkov suggested that Kabakov and Kukharenko had “done a great deal” to make their facial-recognition system “harder to use.” In September 2022, he also said the two engineers had given the Navalny team a detailed account of how Moscow’s surveillance cameras work and who had installed them. “We know a great deal about how Moscow’s surveillance system works, and this will be very useful in some of our future projects,” Volkov said.
But AFC once again blacklisted both Kabakov and Kukharenko in October 2022, explaining that their repentance hadn’t been sufficiently public and that the value of the information they’d provided was “incommensurate with their contribution to building a police state.” “We were wrong,” the foundation said in a statement, “and this is why we have returned Kabakov and Kukharenko to our list and await new steps from them: an open and unequivocal condemnation of the war, repentance for collaborating with Putin’s regime, and real actions directed at compensating the harm they’ve caused to society.”
No one has been removed from ACF sanctions list since October 2022.
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