Anastasia Kirilenko
Anastasia Kirilenko
An independent investigative journalist, one of the author of "Who is Mister Putin?" documentary
Karen Dawisha and the truth she spoke loudly

Many people and under various circumstances have developed serious hunches about Vladimir Putin’s shady financial ties to the St. Petersburg mafia and the symbiotic relationship with law enforcement agencies. This information was first publicized in 2005 by an American journalist Robert Eringer, whose investigation of a Monaco-based mafia network led him to a princely palace rumored to belong to a powerful Russian. In response, a massive smear campaign was unraveled against Eringer, painting him an alcoholic and a madman gathering rumors.

Then, in 2000, there was Jürgen Roth, a journalist from Germany, who obtained documents from the German BND – Federal Intelligence Service establishing Putin’s involvement in money laundering, even featuring Putin’s personal signature. Unbeknownst to the public, Kurt Spitzer, an Austrian special prosecutor who investigated the resulting criminal case became the target of numerous hate websites. When Jürgen Roth died last year, obituaries dubbed his work “controversial”, not only displaying an outrageous lack of sensitivity for his family’s grief but clearly pushing a specific political agenda.

A Spanish prosecutor José Grinda, who collected testimonies on ways St. Petersburg gangsters laundered not only money but also their image in Europe with the support of Russia’s top leadership, was declared a pedophile by the media and social networks. According to the ongoing investigation, this defamation attack was funded by Putin’s friend in St. Petersburg’s mayor’s office.

Though from different countries, professions, and walks of life, these people are alike in their commitment to integrity and justice even when it is their safety and life are at stake. A towering presence among them was Karen Dawisha.

Karen’s research became the decisive contribution to our understanding of Putin’s crimes and the nature of his regime. It irreversibly took the discussion outside the realm of hunches and insinuations and into the worlds of widely acknowledged facts. Getting this done was a herculean task not only intellectually and through investigative means, but politically. English publishers had refused to print her submissions, despite the book’s meticulously referencing previously available publications in the Russian press and documents.

Karen’s book “Putin’s Kleptocracy” was finally printed in the United States, just in time for the new “unexpected” aggression that Putin unraveled against Ukraine. In a documentary based on this book, Karen explained that initially, she had no prejudice against Putin. Like many scholars of Russia, she had believed that the country was steadily moving toward democracy, even if with some hiccups. At one point, she even posed for a photo together with Putin. However, a scrupulous examination of evidence allowed her to conclude that Putin and his friends had been stealing from the very beginning.

Studying the Russian kleptocracy requires an uncommon amount of courage, clarity and moral fortitude. An excuse we often hear from those who shy away or even condone Putin is that Russia is dealing with many challenges, and the corruption is the only one point on the list. The point they are missing is that most of Russia’s worst problems are the consequences of kleptocracy.  Another popular theme is that Putin doing the best he can controlling the Russian gangsters while not himself being the mastermind of corruption. Karen Dawisha’s book refutes these platitudes once and for all. It takes the drama and glamour out of the story and presents it in their plain vulgarity: the bribes, corporation raids and seizures, trusts tucked away in Lichtenstein, intimidation of Western law enforcement. All of that began in 1990 and all this continues to this day.

The book by Karen Dawisha sent shockwaves through Washington. The information blockade had been finally breached. And yet, the truth has still not triumphed. To most of my journalist friends the proposition of the kleptocracy of Putin and his friends, as well as their connection with the mafia, seem so monstrous and improbable, that they do not even try to check it.

Indeed, Putin’s real biography and his professional CV, as discerned bit by bit from documents, his statements and eyewitness accounts, read like scripts of a gangster comedy. Just consider his decree to create a municipal casino, purportedly to benefit low-income citizens, but in reality, to be run by the St. Petersburg and Japanese mafias.

Investigating Putin kills

“Criminal groups and KGB were concerned about gaining control over the money of the CPSU. Those who tried to prevent it, like Galina Starovoitova, were killed”, – says Spanish the prosecutor Jose Grinda. Part of the money of the CPSU – and this is only officially – ended up at the private bank “Rossiya” – the bank of Putin’s friends, which two reputed mafia boss as shareholders.

Alexander Litvinenko, whose case became famous when he was poisoned by Russian intelligence services, claimed that Putin was involved in drug trafficking and that he had reliable documents on this matter. Much less attention was paid to a Russian parliamentarian Yuri Shutov, who suddenly died in a Russian prison, compiled file on Putin and his “board” of St. Petersburg security officers, documenting schemes such as illegal privatization of hotels. In her book, Karen Dawisha revisited the forgotten case of Shutov. For this, his family and friends would be forever grateful, as they hope that the full dossier will be published one day.

Karen Dawisha was a pioneer. She was an objective researcher whose findings and narratives were not motivated by political agenda or political struggle, — an argument that the Kremlin frequently uses to discredit similar efforts by democracy activists and human rights defenders.

Some Russians believe that the West has many powerful tools to deal with Putin, for instance, arresting his bank accounts the moment it finds doing so expedient. Those familiar with the Rule of Law based societies understand that it is not the case. A state governed by law, in the short term, seems at a disadvantage when dealing with a rogue regime. Just consider the legal nuances involved in closing bank accounts in Monaco and Liechtenstein, as compared to a business registered in Delaware. Or, for a more complicated case, take a Delaware company who owns a firm in Panama with an account in Switzerland and buys land in Mallorca for a friend of Putin. How can the Washington Obcom shut it down?

Of course, the role of the Western governments and its commitment to freedom is very important. Taking a jab at inconsistencies, Russian TV channel announces that Angela Merkel expels Russian diplomats in response to Skripal’s poisoning with one hand while approving the construction of the “Nord Stream 2” with another hand. That is a very salient point.

The President of France has been recently the target of hacking attacks by a GRU contractor. A capo controls everything— as it typical for the mafia, so the owner of the company turns out to be a neighbor of Putin’s summerhouse friends, and he bought his apartment from the Tambov mafia boss (a criminal process of which was held in Madrid). And despite it all, the “hacked” Emmanuel Macron is now heading to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to improve relations with Putin.

Still, we do have many reasons to remain optimistic. A couple of days ago, Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Russia Today propaganda channel called an ambulance for her sick child and was surprised that medics that arrived looked impoverished. In a rare gleam of humanity, she suddenly felt ashamed of her own wealth.

I do not know when the patience of all Russians will end. But I do believe that people like Karen Dawisha could get through to even the Simonyans of the Putin’s regime. Not all of Putin’s “Joe Blows” understand for whom they work. Let them scold the independent journalists and writers and read furtively— what else they wrote about our mafia government? “The truth does not need to be told loudly,” said Robert Eringer explaining to me why his blog created such an uproar. And Karen was able to do the impossible: tell the truth loudly, and for that, I will be forever grateful to her. We will remember.

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