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2021.04.08 08:00

How Kremlin interferes in the Baltic states – investigation

Dossier Centre2021.04.08 08:00

The Kremlin trustee Yevgeny Umerenkov has long supervised Russia’s relations with the Baltic states. During his time in office, Umerenkov has overseen propaganda and smear campaigns, including against the former Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė.

The Dossier Centre, the investigative journalism centre founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, acquired working documents of Vladimir Chernov, Russian presidential administration’s head for foreign relations. This investigation was prepared in cooperation with Eesti Ekspress and Siena.lt Center for Investigative Journalism. The full investigation was translated with permission by LRT English.

February 26, 2020. Moscow, Old Square. Office of Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for relations with the countries of the former USSR.

Guests include Vladimir Chernov, Foreign Intelligence (SVR) General, and Yevgeny Umerenkov, SVR Colonel, who at the time supervised the Baltic states at the department for relations with the near abroad. Five days later, Umerenkov will celebrate his 65th birthday. Kozak congratulates the colonel and presents him with the Order of Friendship.

Umerenkov spent his childhood in military towns. He was born in Leningrad in a missile officer’s family. His father first worked at Pinozero rocket bases in Murmansk region. Later, he served in the Soviet Forces in Germany and the Odessa Military District.

Read more: Impasse with Russia. Is there a way out for Baltics and Europe?

After the eighth grade, Umerenkov returned to Leningrad. After graduating high school, he enrolled at the Faculty of Journalism at Leningrad State University. Later, he was appointed to the Moscow officer of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid founded by the Communist Party in 1925, where he had worked for almost 20 years.

The fact that Umerenkov was a foreign intelligence colonel was reported to the Dossier Centre by one of the members of the KP Special Correspondents’ Club, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Under the Soviet Union, our newspaper had a quota of about 15 percent for employees of KGB’s First Chief Directorate that, under the guise of journalistic credentials, spied abroad. We called them roof covers,” the source said.

“As far as I know, after studying at Leningrad State University, Yevgeny Umerenkov graduated from the KGB’s Foreign Intelligence Academy and supervised several international journalists in the editorial office. Then, he was sent abroad under the roof. Before that, he already had the rank of the colonel,” the source added.

At first, Umerenkov was sent to Mexico City. Under the journalistic cover, he worked in New York from 2001 to 2006. In August 2006, he left KP and started working in Izvestia, another Russian daily. A year later, he was invited to work in the presidential administration overseeing the Baltic states.

Judging by the regalia, Umerenkov’s career developed successfully. In 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev awarded him the title of the third-class state adviser. In 2013, Umerenkov was banned from entering Lithuania. In April 2015, he received an Order of Merit from President Vladimir Putin for “supporting the activities of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation and many years of impeccable civil service”.

Curator for the Baltics

For the first time the name of Yevgeny Umerenkov, curator for the Baltic States, became known to the public in September 2010, when he arrived as an honoured guest at a conference, “The perspective of the Baltic region – to live in peace and partnership”, organised the former Lithuanian prime minister and chairman of the Lithuanian People’s Party Kazimira Prunskienė.

Prunskienė was previously suspected of collaborating with the KGB and Russian intelligence. In 2011, she signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party.

In 2010, Umerenkov gave a lengthy interview to the Lithuanian Courrier where he claimed that Russia was open for cooperation with Lithuania. But judging by the documents, he was interested in something else – the colonel systematically created a network of agents in the Baltic states and collected dirt on local politicians.

In 2015, Umerenkov coordinated a media campaign to discredit the then Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė. It stated that in her youth, Grybauskaitė was allegedly recruited by the KGB and became a liaison between the CIA and the FSB. No documented proof was given to back up the statements. The only quoted source was a former employee of the CPSU Central Committee, who wished to remain anonymous.

Promising people

As became clear from General Chernov’s documents, in 2013, SRV’s Baltic Department compiled lists of politicians and journalists that could be used for information collection and propaganda campaigns. The Estonian list involved 19 names of promising people, Latvian – 9, and Lithuanian – 7.

The most prominent of the promising Estonians turned out to be Mikhail Kylvart, the current mayor of Tallinn. As stated in the documents, he was “a member of the Centre Party and actively supported Russian schools”.

Kylvart was born in 1974 in Kazakhstan to an Estonian father and a mother from a Korean family repressed by Stalin's regime.

In June 1999, a mysterious story related to Kylvart took place. He lent his friend Shamil Lolaeva a Mercedes. As soon as the man got into the car, there was an explosion. In a bag left in Kylvart’s apartment, the police found a mask, bullets, a shotgun, and a police uniform. Kylvart spent a month under arrest on suspicion of having connections with the criminal world but was later released.

In the spring of 2012, the Estonian Security Police’s (KAPO) newsletter stated that the civil servant Kylvart was in unofficial contact with Yuri Tsvetkov, the third Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Estonia. In response, Kylvart said that he had given the Russian diplomat textbooks on the Estonian history. He filed a lawsuit against KAPO but lost.

In April 2019, Kylvart was elected Mayor of the Estonian capital. On this occasion, the observer of KP Galina Sapozhnikova, who usually tarnished the Baltic states, published a laudatory article calling Kylvart “a modest, intelligent, and very decent person”. Sapozhnikova was responsible for compiling lists of the promising people.

In an interview with Eesti Ekspress, the mayor of Tallinn denied any links with the Kremlin.

Another Estonian among the promising people was Mikhail Korb of the Centre Party. At the time of compiling the list, he held a post in Tallinn’s Kesklinn district. In 2017, when he was already a State Administration Minister, he expressed regret about Estonia’s membership in NATO and resigned after the ensuing scandal.

When asked by Eesti Ekspress, Korb also said that he did not know anything about the Russian department for the near abroad.

Read more: Why the Baltics behave as they do toward Russia

The inclusion in the list of promising Estonians also came as a surprise to the ex-member of the Estonian parliament Olga Ivanova of the Centre Party. But in 2018, Ivanova was mentioned in a document with Kremlin influencers’ names that appeared on Estonian social networks. The former parliament member told Eesti Express that she interacted with Russian authorities via official channels.

“When I was in parliament, I was part of the Estonian-Russian friendship group. In 2015, we visited the State Duma with other deputies. But I didn’t know that the Kremlin had a special interest in me,” she said.

Famous people were also featured in the Latvian list. It included Ingus Bērziņš, the chief editor of the popular Delfi.lv news website, and Anatoly Golubov, head of Delfi’s Russian edition, although there was a note next to the latter’s name saying that he was “absolutely loyal to the Latvian regime”.

The Lithuanian list included journalists from Alfa.lt, Diena.lt, Delfi.lt, Kauno Diena, Delfi TV and Info TV. Only Zita Voitiulevičiūtė (Diena.lt), who is now a housewife, and Mantas Stankevičius (Alfa.lt) agreed to comment. Both were surprised by their inclusion in the list. According to them, they have never communicated with any Russian diplomats and have not received any invitations.

The Baltic network

Vadim Smirnov was another prominent actor who worked under Umerenkov. After the colonel’s resignation in 2020, he became the Baltics’ curator in the department for the near abroad.

Previously, Smirnov worked for Kaliningradskaya Pravda, RIA Novosti, and Vremia Novosti. In 2010, he was appointed press secretary of Nikolai Tsukanov, the governor of Kaliningrad, but soon resigned.

In 2012, Smirnov defended his PhD thesis at Moscow State University on the topic of “Structural changes in the political elite of post-Soviet Lithuania”. While preparing his thesis, he visited Lithuania several times and interviewed local politicians and journalists. But his visits were not purely academic. In October 2013, the Lithuanian secret services accused Smirnov of espionage and declared him persona non grata.

Along with Sapozhnikova, Colonel Umerenkov supervised two other KP journalists, including Andrei Baranov and Alexander Grishin, and closely coordinated their anti-Baltic articles.

“Good afternoon, Yevgevy Yevgenievich! I am sending you an interview with Sasha Dyukov for approval. […] Correct what you need. Sincerely, A. Grishin,” read one of the letters obtained by Dossier Centre.

Soon, the interview with Alexander Dyukov, who calls himself a historian-archivist, was published in KP. Its headline read “Russia can bring the Baltic states to justice for their crimes as Nazi accomplices”.

Dyukov is head of the Historical Memory Foundation. It was founded in 2008 to promote “objective scientific research on the Russian and Eastern European history of the twentieth century”. Its activities are also related to the Baltics. According to a report presented to Umerenkov, the Foundation’s priorities were:

– systemic opposition to the historical and propagandist concepts of "Soviet genocide" and "Soviet occupation”

– exposure of direct falsifications of history undertaken by local historians and politicians

– discrediting local historical and political structures in the eyes of Russian and European historians

– the formation, protection, and promotion of ideas that are in the interests of Russia

– support of local historians that disagree with the official historical and political narrative.

Another observer Andrei Baranov, who replaced Umerenkov as head of the international department of KP, also sent his articles to the Old Square for editing.

Besides, the Baltic network created by Colonel Umerenkov included the RuBaltic columnist Alexander Nosovich, who wrote the book “History of Decline. Why did the Baltics fail?”, President of the Russian Association for Baltic Studies Nikolai Mezhevich, and a commentator of Russian TV channels, Polish citizen Machei Vishnevsky.

As it became known to the Dossier Centre, Umerkov was dismissed as the Baltics supervisor not long ago. He returned to the KP’s international affairs department and his protégé, Vadim Smirnow, is now responsible for the Baltics in the presidential administration.

In March 2020, Smirnov had to take part in St Petersburg University’s round table discussion “30 years of the proclamation of independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia”. The event did not take place due to the coronavirus.

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