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An unbeatable disappearing act New legislation in Russia will dramatically reduce transparency when it comes to state officials and their relatives. We asked investigative journalists how this affects their work.

Source: Meduza
A community in the prestigious “Rublyovka” residential area outside Moscow
Media_works / Shutterstock.com

This month, Russian lawmakers approved legislation that will allow the state to withhold information about the people who work in the judiciary, law enforcement, and regulatory oversight agencies — from the FSB to the Accounts Chamber (which itself compiles the transparency ratings for Russia’s federal agencies). We asked the authors of high-profile investigative reports how this new policy would have affected their research, and how they plan to continue their work once the bill is adopted.

The new legislation expands the scope of privacy protections extended to certain state officials that currently apply only when “life, health, or property” is at risk. These protections will now activate as soon officials assume office. The bill will also modify the type of data that the government can withhold, adding assurances for “the confidentiality of information about the protected persons and their property.” In other words, it will no longer be possible to obtain certain records, like real-estate deeds, when the property belongs to a protected state official or someone related to a protected state official.

Russian Federal Law No. 45 “On State Protection of Judges, Law Enforcement, and Supervisory Officials” lists employees of the following agencies and organizations:

  • All courts
  • State prosecutors
  • The Investigative Committee
  • The FSB (Federal Security Service)
  • The FSO (Federal Protective Service)
  • The FSIN (Federal Penitentiary Service)
  • The FSSP (Federal Bailiff Service)
  • The SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) 
  • The Interior Ministry 
  • Rosgvardia (Russia’s National Guard)
  • The Defense Ministry
  • The Customs Service
  • The FNS (Federal Tax Service)
  • The Accounts Chamber
  • The FAS (Federal Antimonopoly Service)
  • Rosfinmonitoring (Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service)
  • Executive-branch regulatory agencies
  • “State-controlled federal agencies”
  • Possibly other agencies as determined by the federal government

The new protections also extend to officials’ “relatives.” The law doesn’t define relatives, though the government likely has in mind Russia’s Family Code provision, which includes brothers and sisters (including half-siblings), parents, children, grandparents, and grandchildren.

How do the authorities plan to implement these changes?

The FSB will simply require “identity and property information providers” to stop issuing such data. The federal government will draft the statutes needed to regulate these procedures after the law is adopted, and senior officials at federal agencies will themselves determine whose data should be withheld. 

Which state records will the new policy affect?

The law specifies only two government registries: the Unified State Register of Legal Entities (EGRYuL) and the Unified State Register of Individual Entrepreneurs (EGRIP). The new policy applies generally, however, to any “providers” of personal data, which describes more than 400,000 organizations, including federal agencies that manage open databases (like Rosreestr, the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster, and Cartography) and private firms like cellular companies that compile clients’ records.

More on Russia’s records tinkering

Now you see them, now you don’t A new Russian tax policy is about to make it much harder to investigate corruption

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What’s the big deal?

Open databases are an important source of information for anti-corruption investigations. Using these records, journalists have managed to dig up business assets owned by the sons of Russia’s interior minister and the head of the National Guard, find real estate registered to a general in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and document criminal connections to the police colonel who orchestrated the arrest of Meduza special correspondent Ivan Golunov. Golunov’s own reporting is often based on records found in the EGRYuL, Rosreestr, and other public databases. We asked the authors of some of Russia’s biggest investigative reports in recent years how the government’s new recordkeeping policy might affect their work.

Roman Anin (Vazhnye Istorii), authored “Putin's Party Zolotov (Novaya Gazeta)

Novaya Gazeta

I think we could have [done an investigation about National Guard Director Viktor Zolotov even in the absence of open information] because there are still sources or people who can get hold of the data. Even if they block journalists from accessing this information, they won’t destroy it altogether; the intelligence community or other state agencies will still have access to these data. As journalists, we’ll be able to find sources within these agencies. Clearly, it will be more difficult, it will take more time, journalists will risk even more by publishing unverified information, and the state will be to blame.

Even now, people are afraid [to talk to journalists]. But ordinary people aren’t the only ones unhappy with the situation in Russia today — many in the government feel the same way. In my experience anyway, I’m seeing more and more people who want to share information with journalists, especially since you can do it anonymously now, thanks to modern communications. For example, with [Kirill] Shamalov’s story, we have no idea who leaked those documents to us, but the story came together nevertheless. 

Mikhail Maglov (Scanner Project), co-authored an investigation into Police Colonel Andrey Shchirov’s criminal ties

Does it make journalists’ work more difficult if data about law-enforcement officers and their close relatives can be withheld from the state registries? On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, does it solve the authorities’ problems as they see them? They believe that journalists are exposing intelligence agents, but there are different kinds of intelligence agents. There are agents who do a good job, and there are agents who plant drugs. There’s the Defense Ministry’s leadership, which has conflicts of interest through family connections, and there’s the National Guard where corruption plagues its supply chain. Deputies, hiding behind good intentions, will cover up and conceal this corruption. 

Holistically, the new records policy will not solve these problems. All sorts of information from government databases have been leaked and sold for decades, since the days of the Gorbushka marketplace [a consumer electronics market in Moscow that emerged in the late 1980s]. We built our story about Colonel Shchirov using evidence that was leaked decades ago.

There’s nothing new about classifying intelligence. Over the past few years, we’ve seen how data in Rosreestr was classified, starting with the information about former Attorney General Yuri Chaika’s children. Over the course of several investigations, we also saw that the real owners’ names in Rosreestr were replaced with the term “Russian Federation.” Even these measures didn’t stop journalists from proving that certain deputies or officials owned luxury real estate. We don’t rely on state registries alone; there are many different sources, including public records, that can be used to conduct investigations. 

I don’t think it will dramatically affect our work, but it will certainly make it more difficult. The state itself will bear the brunt of the policy’s catastrophic consequences because this is a step backward. There’s a big difference between a closed society and an open society. Dozens of countries have closed societies, and the results aren’t great. For example, Belarus is extremely closed in terms of information access, and we’ve been watching the result: a popular uprising.

Georgy Alburov (Anti-Corruption Foundation Investigations Department)

Evgeny Sofiychuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

One of our most high-profile investigations — a report on then Attorney General Yuri Chaika — relied in part on the Unified State Register of Legal Entities (EGRYuL) [Alburov and others found records confirming that Olga Lopatina, the wife of one of Chaika’s deputy officials, owned a joint-stock company with the wife of an infamous crime boss]. In all our investigations, the EGRYuL usually comes into play, somehow. Our report on then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s secret wealth was packed with EGRYuL data because all his palaces were registered to companies.

As for the pretext [the authorities] have offered (protection and security), I’d argue that our investigative work has given our subjects even more security, despite exposing where they live. Any [potential intruder] who watches our reports understands that these houses are obviously luxurious, but they see the guards and that these homes are owned by high-ranking officials with all the right connections in the FSB, the police, and more.

And information like this can lead to major dismissals. For example, there was this famous head of Russia’s anti-extremism police unit who was fired after his ex-wife provided evidence to his superiors that he owns an apartment in Bulgaria. When Medvedev went, it was due largely to our efforts because our investigation immediately cut his approval rating by 10 percent. Vladimir Pekhtin had to leave the State Duma after journalists discovered that he owned several apartments in Miami. 

Lately, there have been high-profile investigations every other day, and the authorities clearly want to limit this. There’s also a bill under consideration that would make defamation a felony that could carry prison time. Failing to remove certain information from the Internet is also an [administrative] offense. As for removing people from the EGRYuL, it’s a matter of political will. If they want to do it, they will — and soon. I think they’ll start enforcing it in 2021. It’s difficult to predict how it will work; with such broad criteria, they’ll most likely be able to withhold information about anyone.

Of course, if they block the data now, it will make things harder for us. The data on the old companies will remain available, but we won’t catch it on our radars if they register something new. We could miss it. There will still be other ways, though. Our government is so corrupt that everything is bought and sold cheaply enough. That isn’t going anywhere.

Andrey Zakharov (Proekt), authored “Mishustin’s Sister Owns Real Estate Worth 1 Billion Rubles, and Rosreestr Is Hiding It" (BBC Russian Service)

It is important to understand which databases will be closed off. Most likely, it will be Rosreestr and the EGRYuL blocking information about the businesses owned by the relatives of police officers and national defense officials.

In reality, though, sources like Rosreestr have been excluding such information for a long time already. For whatever reason, they’ve used the term “Russian Federation” as a stand-in for property owners. Now they’ll just altogether remove the property records you want. In other words, we’re already familiar with situations where we check a building’s records and this happens. We knew the Patriarch had an apartment in the House on the Embankment; we could see the neighboring apartments, but it was like his apartment simply didn’t exist.

Why does it matter which database they purge? Let’s say they erase something from the Federal Tax Service’s records. Many [journalists] would still have sources in the agency. For example, with my investigation into Mishustin’s sister, Stenina, it turned out that her real estate in Khamovniki was registered in Rosreestr under “Russian Federation,” but a source at the tax service gave us the information that it belonged to her.

A year ago, we at the BBC were dealing with a high-ranking security official and we discovered, after requesting information from our source, that his relatives’ records were already concealed at the time. What ended up happening was we first asked to check the person by their full name, but there was no record of that person — even though there was a business registered in his name. We could even see his taxpayer ID number in the EGRYuL, which meant it was impossible that he wasn’t logged with the tax service. I think this was a result of the “Tax-3” system [according to a BBC report in 2019, Russia’s “Tax-3” software allows officials to delete tax records manually]. We’re talking about a high-ranking security official, though not an agency head. In other words, there’s a cover-up already underway.

The information in these databases could become even harder to find than it is now. Let’s say you learn that the Khamovniki chief of police owns a bunch of apartments, but you can’t verify this in any way. Plus, you’ve got another problem: is there a prevailing public interest in this story? Can you write about it, or would you be divulging state secrets and breaking the law?

It seems to me, however, that this new policy is a response less to anti-corruption investigations than the stories that de-anonymized police officers after the 2019 Moscow protests and the de-anonymizations carried out by the Nexta oppositionist Telegram channel in Belarus.

Roman Shleinov (OCCRP regional editor)

Novaya Gazeta

These amendments are certainly surprising. The state itself created these information sources to promote transparency and openness. The new bill would mean a rollback of all the openness and transparency, contradicting statements by the president and other state officials about the importance of civil society.

It’s not only journalists who need this information. How will realtors work without official records? A lot of property in Russia belongs to the people in these categories. Will they end up being the only ones who can get their records? 

Journalism will be harder, but I think you’ll find folks who are more than eager to hack these databases. By creating open registries, the government wanted to eliminate illegal opportunities for obtaining this information and curtail the huge black market for data, but once [the data] is blocked, the black market will probably reemerge. 

Journalists will continue to seek and obtain this data, so the law on mass media will need to be amended because it’s not mere curiosity but the public interest that fuels reporters’ interest in state officials, their property, and their lives. So, in theory, the next step might be amendments to Russia’s media laws that strip away everything adopted in more democratic times, when the concept of the public interest still existed.

Ilya Shumanov (Transparency International Russia)

[The bill] doesn’t say anything about government registers; it talks about information-system providers, and Russia has dozens, if not hundreds, of these. One part of the bill deals with records involving certain categories of public officials: not everyone, but judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers. Certain information about these individuals would be withheld from information systems, which would reduce our organization’s knowledge, and the public’s generation awareness, about possible abuses of authority. These people could be excluded from all our many monitoring activities. 

We specialize in situations that involve conflicts of interest. But, of course, if they remove such a sweeping group of people from all information resources, public oversight effectively ceases to exist for these individuals.

At the same time, even this legislation wouldn’t have stopped us from carrying out our previous investigative reports. For example, when we went looking for [Roskosmos head Dmitry] Rogozin’s apartment, they’d already purged his data from Rosreestr. So we investigated using circumstantial evidence. [With the new policy], we’ll nevertheless need to invest more resources into such investigations, and our accuracy will suffer. When these data disappear, the highest corrupt officials won’t get proper public and media attention.

Maria Zholobova (Proekt), co-authored a story about property registered to Tula Governor Alexey Dyumin (Dozhd)

This is a horrible, stupid, harmful bill that will make the work of all investigative journalists very difficult. A lot of investigations are based on the data in the legal-entity registry and data from Rosreestr. And a lot of investigations will become impossible if this bill is adopted. Additional resources don’t always work. For example, on December 16, we published an article about the millionaire God Nisanov and his friendship with important officials. In the text, we mention the apartment owned by the daughter of Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. We’re talking about an apartment worth 100 million rubles ($1.4 million) that she couldn’t have afforded on her own. We also had an investigation about Putin's secret dacha in Rublevka [a prestigious suburb outside Moscow]. No one would have found out about it either if it had been classified in Rosreestr. At that time, the owner obviously wasn’t marked as “Vladimir Putin,” but it was associated with offshore companies linked to his friends. But we wouldn’t have dug further if it weren’t for those records.

Denis Korotkov (Novaya Gazeta)

There’s nothing novel here. They’ve always hidden information like this, such as records about the cars certain people own. The only difference now is that it would be enshrined in the law. Also, this sort of thing used to apply to senior officials, not the field detectives working gang cases. The last time I ran into any of this, it was with a district head in the traffic police. 

I don’t think it has anything to do with security, since the bad guys will find a way to buy this information anyway. It seems to me that this service is just another toy for the authorities. They like special license plates and sirens on their cars, they like doctorates mentioned on their business cards, and this will be yet another status symbol. 

Will journalists’ work become harder? Of course, but we’ll still find a way to get our jobs done. I think data about some National Guard grunt or patrol sergeant will remain available anyway because nobody cares about them. And we’ll still find the mansions owned by government ministers and police chiefs, whatever the obstacles.

I think the other part of this bill [Article 2 of the new bill] is much funnier: it prohibits citizens and the representatives of legal entities from disclosing the content of requests they receive from various investigative agencies. That sounds pretty scary, but it loses all meaning if we read the legislation’s next paragraph, which states that this information can be disclosed if it is mentioned in a recorded complaint. In other words, if I receive a request from an investigative agency, I cannot tell the press or anyone else about it, but I get the right to do exactly this, just as soon as I file a formal complaint with anyone where I outline the agency’s request.

Ivan Begtin (open data specialist and “Information Culture” director) 

Pyotr Kovalev / TASS

This bill is aimed almost entirely at reporters and investigative journalists. It clearly violates Russian laws on the mass media. If journalists write about records that are deemed confidential, they’ll say in court that they were guided by the public interest, which Russia’s media law articulates, while the other side will cite this new legislation [if it’s adopted]. This is a public-interest violation. The public will have no way of learning about corruption.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve been building a whole framework for anti-corruption oversight that includes public watchdogs. The first thing this bill would affect is the system used to audit contractors and compliance. There are major players here; they’re quite advanced and they collect information from all available sources. This sort of thing makes investments in Russia possible (any foreign contract partner always audits everything), and it prevents fraud and so on. And now it looks like a whole swath of people will just up and disappear.

When it comes to the relatives of all the individuals described in this new legislation, you’re talking about millions of people. The Interior Ministry alone has almost a million employees, plus there are around five or six million law enforcement officers across the country. Throw in their relatives, and that’s half the country. It all resembles the government's actions in 2017 when it allowed state companies to withhold information about suppliers and contractors and classified all purchases made by the Defense Ministry, FSB, and SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). The new legislation continues this practice. 

Incidentally, the bill also complicates the lives of these officials’ family members, making it harder for them to get loans and other banking and insurance products because their records simply won’t exist in Russia’s Unified State Register of Legal Entities. So they’ll actually lose the opportunity to do business.

While all this is happening, moreover, the government has indicated that it’s still pursuing cooperation with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Russia seems to have adopted two opposing agendas at once. On the one hand, lawmakers are moving forward with legislation that will conceal certain information, contradicting the OECD’s principles. On the other hand, the government is very keen to work with the OECD. 

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

Interviews by Alexey Kovalev, Alexandra Sivtsova, Anastasia Yakoreva, Irina Kravtsova, Kristina Safonova, and Farida Rustamova

Translation by Karina Mamadzhanyan

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