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The Kremlin’s Influence Game

Does he or doesn’t he? (Work for the Russians, that is.) With the tensions between Russia and the West growing, Russian subversion seems to be everywhere, including the genteel world of think thanks and NGOs. It’s no surprise, then, that the European Center of Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA), a Polish think tank, is finding itself under suspicion of working for the Kremlin. After all, it publishes some highly pro-Russian articles and analyses, including a recent interview with Aleksandr Kofman, the foreign minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic (a.k.a. the pro-Russian breakaway region of Ukraine).

The ECGA’s president, Marcin Domagala, says such reports are just evil rumors: “Today anyone in Poland who presents a positive image of Russia is painted out to be a Russian agent. Yes, I and other specialists at ECAG are sometimes interviewed by Russian media, and we travel to Russia, but we’re not paid by the Russians receive no money from them. We pay for our tickets ourselves.” From its office in Paris, the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (IDC), led by the former Soviet diplomat Natalia Narochnitskaya, likewise presents Russian-friendly interpretations on matters such as human rights and foreign policy. And in Tallinn, the Legal Information for Human Rights (LICHR) dispenses advice to ethnic minorities in Estonia and produces reports such as a recent one condemning Estonia’s treatment of its 25 percent Russian minority. That, too, is useful to Russia.

The Estonian human rights report was financed by the Kremlin’s recently established Fund to Support and Protect the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad (usually referred to as the Compatriot Fund), which along the Russkiy Mir Foundation, Russia’s “soft power” agency, provides funding for the LICHR’s operations. According to Estonia’s KAPO intelligence agency, the LICHR is in reality a Kremlin influence operation. Latvian officials suspect that the Latvian Human Rights Committee, too, coordinates its actions with Russia. “Organizations like these create false data or put right data in the wrong context,” explains a high-ranking Baltic intelligence official. “The real damage is done if organizations like these are able to damage our reputation, especially on the international stage.” The LIHCR’s director, Aleksei Semjonov, denies working for the Kremlin, adding that the KAPO’s reports are “extremely biased and invalid.” “I have no connections with the Russian government,” he says. “Yes, my contacts with one staff member of the Russian Embassy are more or less regular, but only with regard to the meetings of the council of Russian compatriots living in Estonia.”

In Transnistria and other breakaway republics, Russian-backed NGOs promote the virtues of Russia, as do NGOs based in North Kosovo, which is loyal to Serbia and offers the added benefit of weak financial disclosure regulations. And at the other end of the spectrum, some European organizations boast about their Kremlin connections. Nasa Srbija, a Serbian organization that arranges youth activities and promotes Serbian culture, recently signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), “a major foreign policy analytical center of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” as Nasa Srbija noted. No empty claim, that: RISS develops the Kremlin’s foreign policy and reports directly to Putin. (Its director, Leonid Reshetnikov, served as a KGB/SVR officer for more than three decades and joined the RISS upon retiring from the SVR in 2009.)

The Kremlin is, of course, not alone in financing NGOs abroad. The US State Department liberally underwrites foreign human rights groups, as do the European Commission and European governments. But unlike its Western counterparts, Russkiy Mir and the Compatriot Fund don’t publish their grants, so nobody knows for sure who is funded by them. Such ambiguity, fueled by the groups’ inherent bias toward a transparently antidemocratic and corrupt regime, suggests a cozy link with the Kremlin and its pervasive KGB mentality. And, like any good spy drama, it increases the mystery: Who’s secretly working with whom? The Riga-based investigative journalism group Re:Baltica has, however, dug up some hard numbers: By 2012, 20 Latvian organizations had received money from Russkiy Mir. Somewhat ironically, the Russian government is quickly adding names to the list of “foreign agents” sponsored by foreign governments. The tally has now reached 42, up from 24 at the end of last year.

Russia’s Presidential Directorate for Interregional Relations and Cultural Contacts with Foreign Countries, established in 2005, coordinates the soft power push, which in addition to Russkiy Mir and the Compatriot Fund includes the Gorchakov Fund, founded by the Russian government five years ago to dispense grants and “defend Russia’s interests.” “Throwing mud at other countries is so easy,” notes Andis Kudors, executive director of the Center for East European Policy Studies, in Riga, the Latvian capital. “In the West, NGOs have credibility, which is something governments don’t have.” Latvia and Estonia, with their small populations and significant Russian minorities, offer an easy target for the Kremlin: “Their aim is to increase divisions here, not to improve what they call the poor treatment of Russians.”

The Institute of European Studies, also in Riga, receives Russian government funding, but according to one researcher there, Andrejs Starikovs, that doesn’t make it a Kremlin mouthpiece. “A few of our projects support the Russian-speaking minority in the Baltic states,” he reports. “However, the variety of our research and projects is very broad and not directed on supporting any current ethnical group.” Starikovs recently wrote to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, criticizing Latvia’s treatment of its Russian minority. An LHRC spokesperson explains, in turn, that the group has conducted several projects with both Russkiy Mir and the Compatriot Fund but adds that it has partners from other countries as well. Its activities, however, focus heavily on the plight of Russians in Latvia. Right now, this seemingly marginal group is playing a central role in the standoff between Russia and the West: With its 26 percent ethnic Russian minority, Latvia is considered the country most vulnerable to Kremlin-instigated subversion and aggression.

“Russia is running a very well-controlled system of using NGOs and propaganda,” acknowledges the Baltic intelligence official. “But considering the money involved, it’s not very effective. The Russians don’t understand the West. They think that if you throw more money at propaganda, you get better results.” Yet the efforts are yielding dividends. Mention Latvia these days, and many people immediately think of Waffen-SS veterans, a feat achieved mainly by the five-year-old group World Without Nazism, which Baltic intelligence agencies allege is a Kremlin front organization.

And together, the think tanks form a reliable pro-Russia front. Take John Laughland, a British philosopher and the IDC’s director of studies, who rarely misses an opportunity to defend the Kremlin and predict doom and gloom in Europe in appearances on RT and commentaries that routinely appear in western European publications. The IDC’s most recent research listed is a speech given by Laughland at a conference named the Rhodes Forum last year that highlights the connections between the pro-Russia groups. The Vienna-based World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations (WPFDC), founded by Putin confidante and Russian Railways boss Vladimir Yakunin, organizes the forum. WPFDC spokeswoman Lidiia Vdovina stresses, however, that Yakunin is involved in the group not as a Russian official, but as “an active public figure, philanthropist, and professor.”

Laughland’s boss, Natalia Narochnitskaya, sits on the advisory board of Russkiy Mir, which also includes Yakunin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Yet, Laughland insists in an e-mail, the “IDC has no links at all to the Russian government.” As for the IDC’s finances, Laughland explains that backers “have included businesses, banks, the electricity supply company Mosenergosbyt, oil companies etc. But there are no state companies like Gazprom and that is why I repeat that there are no public or even semi-public funds behind us.” But in a report published by WikiLeaks, an American diplomat notes the Russian government’s plans to allocate more than $1 million to the think tank, which according to its New York director coordinates its positions with the Kremlin.

Western audiences are accustomed to reading reports from think tanks and NGOs. That’s because these groups and their reports are not linked to state donors or “independent” donors that depend on states with a penchant for corruption and coercion. Given that European think tanks and other NGOs provide information and analysis that shape opinions throughout the West, intelligence agencies and journalists alike in those countries may find it useful to pay close attention. “In the Western tradition, NGOs haven’t been monitored by intelligence agencies thanks to freedom of speech, and also because they haven’t been seen as a threat,” notes the Baltic intelligence official. “But the threat scenario is changing now that Russia and Islamists are active in this space.” For his part, Domagala, the ECGA’s president, jokingly says he wishes he were receiving money from Russia, which “would at least make the accusations true.” And, in an unexpected convergence with the Baltic intelligence official, he adds: “Intelligence agencies should look at NGOs’ sources of funding.” The espionage world is moving closer to the world of wonks.

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