Anastasia Kirilenko, a Russian journalist based in France, began investigating kleptocracy in Russia in the early 2000s. It was then that she came across documents with Vladimir Putin’s signatures on corrupt schemes that link him to Russian organised crime.
“Putin was accused of money embezzlement in the early 90s,” she says. “He is pretending Russia was a desperate place in the 90s, crime gangs reigned, but when he became president, it all stopped; almost nobody was in prison.”
In an exclusive interview with LRT English, the author of the hard-hitting documentary ‘Putin and Mafia’ reveals how she came under censorship attempts in Germany and France, and the contemporary links between Russian President Vladimir Putin, organised crime, and Europe.
“I think that these kleptocracy and mafia links are the true reason why Putin is not ready to give up power,” she says. “The system is more difficult to describe than the more classical Italian mafia.”
What are the key threads running across all of your investigations?
The real biography of Putin is still waiting for its researchers. [Organised crime] succeeded in putting Putin into the president's office and the machine is still running – they have so much money that they have their politicians in Europe and the US.
They penetrate the West economically in a way that you could not push them away. I have evidence [on a Russian oligarch] who's prosecuted in Spain for organised crime, but now he’s rooted in France and has big partnerships with two companies that are the basis of the French economy.
A Russian drug trafficker offered his help to Vilnius to restore Soviet monuments on the Green Bridge. I found his letter to Vilnius’ mayor, saying “I’m an Orthodox philanthropist”.
Vilnius lost its chance to profit on drug trafficking money.
It doesn't surprise me he failed in Lithuania. But countries in Western Europe, like Germany, that don’t have a common border with Russia, are more confused.
A preliminary investigation was dropped by the Germans into a huge Russian money laundering case – they don’t see it as a threat. Politicians like [French President Emmanuel] Macron, who say we should work with Russia, will fail.
Did Putin’s kleptocracy now expand into geopolitics, for example, with Private Military Companies (PMCs) in the Central African Republic (CAR) or Ukraine?
There are two possibilities – people like Konstantin Malofeev, or Yevgeny Prigozhin [the so-called Putin’s Chef], have a plan, they have to show it to Putin, and ask for Putin’s approval. Or Putin himself can ask oligarchs to finance pro-Russian initiatives.
For example in France, a Russian oligarch, Iskander Makhmudovan, who is prosecuted by Spain for organised crime and money laundering, is co-sponsoring French-Russian dialogue [initiatives].
He is not a public person, so I’m sure that it wasn’t his idea to [sponsor] pro-Russian dialogue organisations, and it looks like he was asked to do it.
There’s a man linked to drug trafficking, he’s organising pro-Russian festivals in Spain, Germany and France – and he is bragging about his ties to the Russian government.
In Spain, he [offered] a lot of money [from the Russian Culture Ministry] to a local festival, and now there’s a pro-Putin film festival. This works like soft power.
How is the mafia linked with PMCs?
In the CAR, they operate with the state. So on the one hand, Prigozhin was in jail for fraud [and] there is convicing evidence that he is involved in murdering three Russian journalists in the CAR, so I think we can call him a mafioso.
On the other hand, it’s not possible to operate without planes that the Russian [state] supplies.
Now I’m investigating the [situation in the] CAR, where [the Russians] did harm to the French embassy in order to discourage the embassy from helping Russian journalists investigate [the three killings].
Three Russian journalists from the Dossier Center – Aleksandr Rastorguev, Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko – were killed in the CAR on July 30, 2018 while investigating Russian PMC ‘Wagner’ affiliated with the so-called ‘Putin’s Chef’, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Evidence gathered by the Dossier Center puts responsibility for the killings on the PMC and various Russian figures, while the Kremlin says the murders were a botched robbery attempt.
According to Kirilenko, the Russian oligarchs don’t operate completely out of their own pockets.
Are the sanctions hurting people that operate on the Kremlin's behalf?
[Oligarchs] are whitewashing their image, [like Malofeev] saying, I’m an Orthodox philanthropist. But [...] part of the money comes from drug trafficking, another part from the Russian Ministry of Culture.
He was pardoned for the [230 million US dollars he allegedly stole from another close Putin associate, Andrey Kostin from VTB Bank]. Kostin was suing Malofeev, but after 2014 everything was dropped.
In my opinion, most probably it was Malofeev who proposed the plan for Ukraine.
Are sanctions affecting people like him?
A person opened new initiatives in Germany [while being] under sanctions.
It affected them psychologically, but that’s it. There are a second category of people, like a pro-Russian Georgian in Austria making the connection between the Austrian Party of Freedom and [Chechen leader] Kadyrov. [The Georgian] is not under sanctions, so I think some of them are still in the shadows.
What do you think would help topple this house of cards?
When Malofeev was accused of money theft in France, it never went to court. They always prefer to settle politically.
So no one believes in justice. Even in the EU, it doesn’t work. I saw many cases of money laundering against Russians dropped, because the Russian prosecutors’ office said they have nothing to reproach.
For example, there is a Russian oligarch who bought a football club in Venice. The city hall said: we don’t know the origin of his money, but nothing proves that it’s dirty money. They said they didn’t have a paper from Russia with a stamp saying that the money was dirty.
In Spain, people who are notorious gangsters in many countries and are operating with millions of euros, were acquitted, because the Russian FSB sent evidence that they were not criminals.
So if prosecution doesn’t work, what can be done?
When a judge receives a report from the Russian FSB, and if she or he has other evidence from the civil society, the judge can still use it [to make a case].
There was a policy to push [Russian mobsters] out, but not to put them in prison because they’re close to the Kremlin.
I even saw a report written by an Italian, I think, prosecutor saying that European prosecutors are not allowed to deeply investigate the Russian mafia because it cooperates with the Russian state, is protected by the Russian state, so [the case] becomes political.
A French company paid kickbacks for Russian government procurement [tenders], there was an investigation by NGOs like the Bank Watch, and the French prosecutors opened the case because of this activism. But they said in private that we will send a request to Russia, they won’t respond, so there’s little chance [for prosecution].
Suleyman Kerimov, a Russian senator, was detained in France after investing around 300 million euros in the French Riviera, and there were reports that they brought the money in cash.
[The case] became political, the Russian Senate said it was ‘Russophobia’, and he was released.
Do you fear for your safety?
Last time I was in Russia, several months ago, I had my five minutes of fame. During a seminar on fake news, Russian TV appeared and did a fake report on me that I’m an enemy of the state.
I’m happy they did that, because now they can’t pretend that my investigations are not known.
Your documentary came under censorship attempts?
When you want to kill a report, you need to find a reason. Germany and France tried to ban it. When the date of the broadcast came up on ZDF in Germany, they put another title – something that didn't mention the mafia. [Another documentary screening] was cancelled when the Russian Embassy sent a letter.
It’s a vicious circle – [some media organisations] have partnerships with Gazprom.
Europeans are sometimes so vulnerable.
Anastasia Kirilenko is a Russian independent investigative reporter and radio journalist. From 2009 to 2014, Kirilenko was a staff reporter at the Russian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where she published a number of journalistic investigations on corruption in Russia. Since 2015, she works for The Insider, Russian investigative website registered in Latvia. Co-author with Nicolas Tonev of the TV documentary 'Putin and the mafia' (French-Swiss production) in 2018. Nominee of Sakarov prize "Journalism as a deed" in 2018. Since 2016 member of the expert group "Fighting transborder corruption" under the umbrella of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.
In Lithuania, she took part in Vilnius Consultations 2019 conference organised by the Vilnius Institute for Policy