Tag Archives: Nord Stream 2

The PR Campaign:

April 2020 has witnessed a conspicuous uptick of publications in Western and Russian media in support of the Nord Stream 2 project:

All of these publications reference the release of results of an opinion poll and in English.

Who Paid for the PR Campaign? 

The poll was commissioned by the German Eastern Business Association (Ostausschuss – Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft, OAOEV)

OAOEV is a fairly new NGO that promotes German business in “Eastern” countries – from Russian to China. It was founded in 2018 through the partnership of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Eastern Committee) and the Eastern Europe Business Association of Germany.

In December 2019, several OAOEV members met with Vladimir Putin. Following the meeting, OAOEV published a press release.

The press contact for the Nord Strom 2 Survey listed on the OAOEV website is Andreas Metz. Metz is described by Politico Europe as “member of Berlin-based lobbying group Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which supports the pipeline Nord Stream 2.”

This OAOEV survey coincided with the November 1, 2019 appointment of Mario Mehren as the new spokesperson of its Russia working group. Mehren is a member of the shareholders committee of Nord Stream 2.

Mr. Mehren is also the Chairman and CEO of the natural gas and crude oil company Wintershall Dea – one of the two German companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project (the second is E.On). It is a joint venture of a German concern BASF (67%) and LetterOne (33%) co-owned by Russian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin, – Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan.

There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that these oligarchs have close ties with the Putin’s regime and its intelligence services.

Wintershall Dea owns stakes of gas reserves in Russia and chemical factories in Germany that rely on the export of that gas.

In this role as the head of Wintershall Dea, Mario Mehren met with the CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller numerous times:

Mr. Mehren has been on the record lobbying for Nord Stream 2 for a few years now. For example, he is a co-author of a 2018 disinformation piece about Nord Stream 2 in a US outlet.

Given the above connections of the oligarchs to the Kremlin and conflicted interests of the Wintershall Dea shareholders and top leadership, it is reasonable not to be believe in the independent nature or objectivity of this research poll.

Who Executed the Polls?

The Nord Stream 2 survey was executed by an infamous commercial polling agency Forsa Politik- und Sozialforschung AG, which had been accused of data manipulations in several of its past projects. In 2009, for example, the firm was involved in a scandal concerning a methodologically flawed survey whose cooked results claimed disapproval of the 2007 railroad operators’ strike and approval of privatization of the railway. It was uncovered that the biased study had been secretly funded by Deutsche Bahn.

Survey Claims:

Forsa’s Nord Stream 2 poll is based on a phone interview of 1,006 Germans and purports them to reflect the attitudes of the entire German population.

While neither the full Nord Stream 2 survey data nor its methodology have been made public, the Wintershall Dea website features the most extensive write-up of the Forsa Nord Stream 2 survey.

The Wintershall Dea website highlights the interpretation of data according to which the majority of German people do not see the U.S. as a reliable partner and juxtapose it to Putin’s Russia. Its title is “Forsa: less and less confidence in the U.S.

The survey’s other published findings also reinforce the anti-US and pro-Russian narrative through claims such as:

  • Only 10% of Germans regard the United States as a reliable energy supplier. That puts the U.S. behind the Middle East (with 14% of German citizens having confidence in the Middle East as a reliable energy supplier);
  • Over half (55%) of German citizens want closer economic ties with Russia;
  • More than three quarters (77%) of respondents say that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction should continue despite US opposition.

What Are the Prospects for Nord Stream 2?

With just a hundred miles of seabed pipeline construction remaining, the work on the Nord Stream 2 project was abruptly halted by US sanctions introduced in December 2019. The sanctions threaten to blacklist any foreign companies collaborating on the construction of the pipeline. This caused all foreign partners to pull-out from the construction and left Russia with no foreign vessels willing to complete the pipe-laying, according to analysis by Benjamin L. Schmitt published by the Jamestown Foundation.

Neither the sanctions, the Coronavirus Pandemic nor the perturbations on the global energy market seem to have any affect, as Putin vowed to finish the pipeline no later than the first quarter of 2021. Such a timeline, however, seems overly optimistic, for two reasons.

Firstly, Russia needs to receive a permit from Denmark to deploy in its territorial waters. Such a permit (given Denmark’s appreciation for the true nature and purpose of Nord Stream 2) is far from certain, and even if granted, may be issued with a significant delay. The Danish Energy Agency (DEA) had spent two and a half years evaluating Gazprom proposals before finally granting permission to build the pipeline in its waters in October 2019.

In February 2020, the Danish Energy Agency said it began negotiations with Nord Stream 2 AG regarding the unfinished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the involvement of any specific new vessels has not yet been discussed.

Secondly, Russia currently has no vessels equipped to carry on the construction. According to a European energy expert and Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Margarita Assenova, Russia has two ships it may potentially use to complete the project: Akademik Chersky and Fortuna.

Akademik Chersky, a vessel owned by a Moscow-based construction firm with a loan from Gazprombank, set sail from Russia’s Far East toward the Suez Port in Egypt in March 2020 and after several peculiar route diversions headed to Las Palmas in early April. It possesses dynamic positioning stipulated by Danish authorities. Chersky, however, requires a technology upgrade to be able to lay pipes. An upgrade can potentially be performed in two to three months. It would then take additional time for Akademik Chersky to reach the Baltic, said Assenova.

Fortuna, located in the Baltic Sea, does not have dynamic positioning. As explained by a CEPA report, “dynamic positioning is a computer-controlled system that automatically maintains the vessel’s position and heading, without the need to use anchors to maintain its course in deep waters. Avoiding anchors in the Baltic Sea is a key environmental and security requirement of Danish authorities for drilling platforms, research ships, and cable-laying and pipe-laying vessels.” Gazprom has floated an idea of attaching a tugboat with dynamic positioning to Fortuna, as reported in the Russian media.

Even if either of these schemes is successful, the vessels would still have to be insured, and its insurers would fall under the US sanctions. Russia has been developing its own instruments for insuring vessels under the new sanctions regime, according to Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis group.

What are the Objectives of this PR Campaign?

With its publicity campaign, Wintershall Dea has attempted to improve the political and social dynamics in Europe to facilitate the quickest completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so badly wanted by the Kremlin.

While revenues from gas exports are not essential for the Russian federal budget, the sector has become the primary instrument of expropriating state resources and channeling them into the accounts of Putin’s’ cronies. As such it is one of the key factors to the ability of Putin to remain in power.

Putin’s regime simply cannot afford to lose its market share to a highly competitive US LNG. Gas price manipulation has proved an effective strategy for Gazprom in the past decade. By completing Nord Stream 2, Gazprom is hoping to brainwash European consumers in its ability to sustain high volumes of affordable gas supply for the long term while in reality Russian gas has always come with the political strings attached, bringing corruption and subversion of democratic institutions.

With this PR campaign, the Kremlin attempts to shift the focus away from its track-record of price manipulation and to the commercial aspects of this partnership with the EU, as well as convince the society that the Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project and not a political weapon of the Kremlin.

Today we will talk about different aspects of Nord Stream-2.

About political aspects of the deal, like bypassing transit countries like Ukraine and Belarus and the fact that despite it being a 100 percent Gazprom venture, Nord Stream-2 is registered in Switzerland, which is not an EU country.

About security aspects of the deal, like the Russian navy patrolling in the Baltic Sea to protect their pipelines – in plural because in fact there will be about four of them when they are completed.

About economic aspects of the deal like the loss of three billion dollars in transit fees per year for Ukraine, but also about the enormous maintenance costs of underwater pipelines.

About environmental aspects of the deal like disturbing the seabed which is full of mines, chemical waste and munitions from WW II but also disturbing nature on the surface like bird and marine life.

About land-based alternatives of the deal which are still very much possible and probably a lot cheaper as well.

Will we talk about ethical aspects of the deal as well? About the people at the helm? The former chancellor of Germany who was still chancellor when the deal was in the making in 2005, about the managing director who worked for the secret services in East Germany and the rumors about his past, about the former Prime Minister from Finland who worked as an advisor for Nord Stream and the rumors about his past.

We should probably begin with the history of the Dutch-Russian business relationship.

I, myself, was born in Zaandam, a town 20 km north of Amsterdam. In the late 17th century, it was situated quite conveniently opposite the Golden Age Amsterdam and was well known for its ship building activities. Tsar Peter the Great happened to be very interested in ship building. In Izmailovo, at the time a nice estate of the Tsar’s family to the east of Moscow, with a wooden palace and a large pond, Peter got to know a Dutchman called Carsten Brandt. Carsten Brandt first came to Russia under Tsar Aleksey to help him build small boats, the so-called botiki. Peter asked him to build a sailing boat, and together they sailed on the Izmailovo pond and later on bigger lakes like the Pleshcheyevo lake near Pereslavl Zalesski to the north of Moscow.

In 1697, Peter came to Zaandam, incognito, to learn the craft of ship building from a Dutch carpenter. People recognized him though, and he had to move to Amsterdam where he worked in a shipyard. Today, the monument to Peter the Great on the main square of Zaandam and the small wooden house, where he apparently lived, are among the most popular tourist attractions in my hometown.

In mid – 17th century, there were Dutchmen living in Moscow, in the quarter that lodged all foreigners, the so-called Nemetskaya Sloboda, and since then the Dutch have not stopped to do business with Russia that was exciting and profitable for both Russian Tsars and small and medium-sized enterprises.

In the 18th century for example, the famous Ruslui (“Russia people”), who were traders and manufacturers from a small town of Vriezenveen in the east of the Netherlands, were successful in business in St Petersburg and owned a shop in the Gostiny Dvor on the Nevski Prospekt. Some of them managed to become official purveyors to the tsar’s court, especially with cigars and table linen. They also sold cocoa, coffee, tea, and flowers of course. The Netherlands Reformed Church on Nevski 20 still reminds us of this Dutch page in the history of St. Petersburg.

In the 19th century, the relationship between the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Russian Empire became extremely close. Our Kingdom had a Russian-born queen. The daughter of Tsar Pavel, Anna Pavlovna, granddaughter of Catherine the Great, married our William, the heir to the Dutch throne. She lived in a modest palace, nothing like the huge palaces of St. Petersburg.

We have gotten to the 20th century. The Anglo-Dutch company Shell was one of the first ones to enter the oilfields in Azerbaijan, the world’s largest oilfields in the early 20th century. Together with the Nobel Brothers, they built the oil transport infrastructure that still provides the basis for today’s oil transportation in the Caucasus. They controlled 75 percent of the oil production. Baku was the world’s largest and busiest port with a huge fleet of oil tankers. The Baku-Tbilisi-Batumi railway was built as well as the world’s longest oil pipeline of almost 900 km between Baku and Batumi. The Baku oilfields were of extreme strategic importance during the WWII. Nazi Germany got its oil from Russia, especially during the period from 1939 to 1941 when the Nazi military needed an enormous amount of oil. In 1941, Hitler decided to attack his strategic partner, the Soviet Union, and the Nazi army’s first and foremost goal was to reach Baku to ensure a steady oil supply. We all know how this ended. And we also know how it ended for Shell and the Nobel Brothers. They lost all their assets when the Bolsheviks entered Baku in 1920 and nationalized the oil industry.

Then came 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union. All big western companies were very eager to enter the Russian market and of course Shell was as well. And Shell liked to do it big so why not take huge shares in new projects? Thus, it became involved in the Sakhalin 2 Oil and Gas Project. Today, it is heavily involved in North Stream 2, a 100 percent offshoot of Gazprom, a Russian company with headquarters in Switzerland, doing business with and in the European Union. Shell is not a shareholder but it provides 10 percent of the financing, just like other major EU players.
Let’s make a trip to Sakhalin. Sakhalin, the largest island of the Russian Federation to the north of Japan, was first put on the map by a Dutchman. Martin de Vries sailed in 1643 from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin to draw a new map of that exciting part of the world. The first Russians arrived in the 18th century, and the Japanese controlled the southern part of the island. In the late 19th century, Sakhalin became notorious as a “prison island.” The most famous man who visited the island was probably the writer Anton Chekhov, who wrote about the misery of the inmates and their families in 1890.

Apart from the Japanese who refused to sign the takeover by the Soviets, no one seemed interested in the island after the war. On Japanese maps the island is still marked as No Man’s Land. In 1983, Sakhalin appeared on the news again when a South Korean airliner was shot down by mistake by Soviet air defense forces. The Soviets first tried to deny that it had happened, and then claimed that this had been a spy mission. The flight data recordings were finally released ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This tragedy that has almost been forgotten was nevertheless one of the tensest moments of the Cold War. Also, this story reminded me a little of MH17.

The development of the Sakhalin-2 Oil and Gas Project began in the late 80s. In 1991, the Russian state, two Texan oil companies, and Japan’s Mitsui founded a consortium. Shell joined one year later and became the majority shareholder with 55%. The Texan companies sold their shares. Everything went well, and a huge project was launched involving a small town for expat workers, an LNG plant, and a lot of infrastructure.

But then Russia had a new president, and things started to change. Gazprom appeared on the horizon and it advanced quickly. It all happened during the period from 2003 to 2005 when the private oil company Yukos tried to merge with Sibneft, and then suddenly everything changed. Major lawsuit threats were followed by the arrest of Khodorkovski. Yukosneftegas was indirectly taken over by Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft.

Abramovich felt obligated to sell Sibneft to Gazprom for 13 billion dollars. It was then that Gazprom and Rosneft conquered the oil and gas industry in Russia.

However, there was still Sakhalin II owned by the Anglo-Dutch company Shell and two minority Japanese shareholders.

A “useful idiot” was quickly found. The Sakhalin-2 project had a negative impact on the environment. An organization called the Sakhalin Environmental Watch brought up all kind of complaints and claims. The first complaints were about the construction of the LNG plant and the disappearance of pedestrian lanes which made it dangerous for school-age children to use the roads. These were followed by the complaints about the noise produced by heavy vehicles. Moreover, the Dutch who were carrying out the drilling were accused of having caused a decline in freshwater fish populations. Also, it turned out that the population of whales was endangered as well.

Normally, major oil companies or governments of oil-rich counties do not bother with such complaints. Moreover, Shell had had its share of accusations in the past of working with the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 70s and corrupt officials in Nigeria as well as polluting the environment. Consequently, Shell might have seen this as the inevitable side-effect associated with taking risks.

However, having been thrown out of Baku in 1920, they did not quite expect to be thrown out of the new modern post-communist Russia as well. Well they were wrong. In 2006, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources began showing support for Sakhalin environmentalists. What followed was a threat of a lawsuit by Russia’s government environmental protection agency Rosprirodnadzor. The lawsuit sought 50 billion dollars in damages.
The entire Sakhalin -2 project was worth only about 22 billion dollars.
But of course there was a solution. Shell and its Japanese partners could sell half of their shares to a company called …Gazprom. For how much? For 7.5 billion dollars.

Rosneft has also tried to get some money ($1.5 billion) out of the American companies that were involved in the Sakhalin-1 project. Thus, Rosneft accused Exxon Mobil of extracting some crude oil from the concession area under its control. Eventually, the dispute was settled out of court in 2018.
It is also worth mentioning that Sechin plans to build his own LNG plant on Sakhalin in order to keep up with the Yamal plant of Mikhelson/Novatek and that of Gazprom on Sakhalin.

Meanwhile Shell remains a shareholder in Sakhalin-2, with its stake having been cut by half from 55 to 27.5 percent.

What has become of the “useful idiot,” the Sakhalin Environment Watch?
Well it got a taste of its own medicine when in 2015 Leonardo di Caprio’s Wildlife foundation wanted to give it a grant of 159.000 dollars for its activities in wildlife care on Sakhalin.

The Russian government however made it clear that the Sakhalin Environment Watch had to stop its activities and close down its office in Russia or else be labeled as a “foreign agent.” Having chosen to refuse the grant, the organization keeps fighting for the beautiful wildlife of Sakhalin.


Activatica * Free Russia Foundation * Free Russia House Kyiv * Forum Russischsprachiger Europäer e.V. * Solidarus * Stowarzyszenie “Za Wolną Rosję”* Russie-Libertes * Herzen Foundation

invite you to a conference


learn more at RethinkTheDeal.eu

OCTOBER 10, 2019

9:00 AM to 15:30 PM


10117 BERLIN


The Nord Stream 2 project – that delivers no new gas to Europe, exploits political and strategic vulnerabilities, increases supply risks, destroys nature and drives members of the EU apart – is quickly advancing toward its completion.

Yet no public discussion of this important decision has been held where the German people can evaluate the basics of the Nord Stream 2 on its merits.

You’ve heard from the gas lobbyists, the gas companies and the Kremlin (the same Kremlin that has carried out yet another assassination on the EU soil). What you won’t hear from them are the environmental, security and financial risks of completing the pipeline. There is another side.

Please join us for this open forum where prominent European energy experts, environmental scientists, strategists and human rights defenders examine the true objectives and costs of the Nord Stream 2.

Free Admission. Registration is required.

With questions, email: [email protected]


08:30 – 09:00 Registration and Breakfast

09:00 – 09:15 Opening Remarks

09:15 – 10:30 Panel I: Examining the Nord Stream 2 Deal on Its Merits

10:30 – 10:45 Coffee Break

10:45 – 12:00 Panel II: Environmental Impact of NS2

12:00 – 12:30 Buffet Lunch

12:30 – 13:45 Panel III: Economic Implications of NS2 for Germany and the EU

13:45 – 14:00 Coffee Break

14:00 – 15:15 Panel IV: NS2 as Politics by Other Means

15:15 – 15:30 Closing Remarks

15:30 Adjournment

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Natalia Arno, President, Free Russia Foundation
  • Ralf Fuecks, Managing Director, Zentrum Liberale Moderne
  • Rebecca Harms, former Member of the European Parliament
  • Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR
  • Ilya Zaslavskiy, Head of Research, Free Russia Foundation
  • Evgeniya Chirikova, Environmental activist, Activatica
  • Mikhail Korchemkin, East European Gas Analysis
  • Margarita Assenova, Associate Scholar, Center for European Policy Analysis; Director of Programs for the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Jamestown Foundation
  • Alan Riley, Senior Fellow, the Institute for Statecraft in London
  • Julian Röpcke, BILD
  • Marko Mihkelson, Deputy Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee of Estonian Parliament
  • Svitlana Zalishchuk, former MP of Ukrainian Parliament
  • Olena Pavlenko, President of DiXi Group
  • Sijbren de Jong, SHAPE NATO
  • Boris Reitschuster, Journalist
  • Jens Høvsgaard, Danish author

Activatica * Free Russia Foundation * Free Russia House Kyiv * Forum Russischsprachiger Europäer e.V. * Solidarus * Stowarzyszenie Za Wolną Rosję* Herzen Foundation * Russie-Libertés

invite you to a conference


learn more at RethinkTheDeal.eu

September 26, 2019

9:00 am to 3:30 pm

Hilton the Hague hotel

Zeestraat 35, 2518

The Hague, the Netherlands


The Nord Stream 2 project – that delivers no new gas to Europe, exploits political and strategic vulnerabilities, increases supply risks, destroys nature and drives members of the EU apart – is quickly advancing toward its completion.

Yet no public discussion of this important decision has been held where the Dutch people can evaluate the basics of the Nord Stream 2 on its merits.

You’ve heard from the gas lobbyists, the gas companies and the Kremlin (the same Kremlin that still won’t tell the truth about MH 17). What you won’t hear from them are the environmental, security and financial risks of completing the pipeline. There is another side.

Please join us for this open forum where prominent European energy experts, environmental scientists, strategists and human rights defenders examine the true objectives and costs of the Nord Stream 2.

Free Admission. Registration is required. REGISTER HERE

With questions, email: [email protected]


09:00 – 09:15 Opening remarks:

  • Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation
  • Richard Hoogland, D66 Board Member Department International Cooperation

09:15 – 10:30 Examining the Nord Stream 2 Deal on Its Merits

Moderator: Ilya Zaslavskiy, Head of Research, FRF


  • Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, D66 MP
  • Bram van Ojik, politician and diplomat of the GreenLeft party
  • Mikhail Krutikhin, Partner, RusEnergy consulting agency
  • Jan Frederik Braun, Strategic Energy Analyst, the Hague Center for Strategic Studies
  • Can Ögütcü, Lead analyst for energy security, NATO SHAPE

10:30 – 10:45 Coffee Break

10:45 – 12:00 Environmental Impact of NS2

Moderator: Jan Frederik Braun, Strategic Energy Analyst, the Hague Center for Strategic Studies


  • Evgeniya Chirikova, Environmental activist, Activatica
  • Scott Martin, Global Rights Compliance
  • Dmitry Berezhkov, former Vice President, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North
  • Stephan Singer, Senior Advisor Global Energy Policies, Climate Action Network International

12:00 – 12:30 Lunch

12:30 – 13:45 Economic implications of NS2 for the Netherlands and the EU

Moderator: Roman Nitsovych, Research Director, DiXi Group


  • Mikhail Korchemkin, East European Gas Analysis
  • Prof. Alan Riley, Senior Fellow, the Institute for Statecraft in London
  • Borbála Takácsné Tóth, Senior Research Associate, Regional Centre for Energy Policy Research

13:45 – 14:00 Coffee break

14:00 – 15:15 NS2 as Kremlin Politics by Other Means

Moderator: Tony van der Togt, Associate Senior Research Fellow Clingendael


  • Rem Korteweg, Senior Research Fellow, Clingendael Institute
  • Svitlana Zalishchuk, former MP of Ukrainian Parliament
  • Jan Šír, Assistant Professor, Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague
  • Ilya Zaslavskiy, Head of Research, FRF

15:15 – 15:30 Closing remarks:

  • Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation recently sat down with Yevgeniya Chirikova, a Russian environmental activist who currently lives in Estonia, to talk about civil society and activism in Russia – whether it can develop in an oppressive environment and its efforts are noticed in the West.


When the West looks at Russia, it seems that it often sees Putin and the regime, and fewer people think about civil society and activism in Russia. Does Russian activism exist?

Yes, it does and it has been growing and developing very rapidly for the last 10 years. I understand why there is such an attitude because for a very long time — in Soviet times and for a long time during the Putin regime — there was no activism like there is now. In my opinion, the rapid growth of activism began around 2010. Of course, some manifestations of activism existed before – Russia is a big country – but activism did not have a massive influence and it was not the norm. For a long time, the notion of an activist was generally negative. The perception was that an activist is not someone who is completely mentally normal — that if a person participates in activism without an order from his superiors, then there is clearly something wrong with this person. This is such a heavy legacy of the Soviet regime. So, starting from the forest fires of 2010, when people realized that they were on their own against nature because the authorities were not going to solve their problems, they began to organize themselves and solve problems independently. This gained good public coverage and in terms of timing coincided with our movement in protecting the Khimki forest.  At the time we managed to gather a large rally on Pushkin Square in Moscow – there were 5,000 people protesting. That was a lot; there hadn’t been any rallies like that in over 10 years. Later on, we managed to gather 100,000 people in support of fair elections, but in 2010 that would have been nonsense. We managed to achieve an incredible thing in the history of Russia: then-president Dmitry Medvedev said he would suspend the building of the Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway through the Khimki forest which we opposed.

I believe that activism is very young in Russia. You can see the descriptions of various forms of activism on our website, activatica.org. We created this website to support activists and we also have a database on Russian activism. There is a map there that traces various activist efforts and there are already thousands of points, where each point represents a particular undertaking. So yes, activism exists in Russia.

Why do you think activism persists despite the growing repressions and do you think it will continue to grow or not in the current political environment?

It will definitely keep growing. Putin and his regime will lose money because of the sanctions and the sanctions will continue because Putin will not give up his militarist policy. But Putin is used to living well, to buying off foreign politicians, to spending money on a repressive apparatus, on a propaganda machine and his own luxurious lifestyle. So he will need money and will extract it from people, who are basically the “new oil”. New unjust laws and decisions will be adopted, such as the Platon electronic toll road system — essentially double taxation for trucks — which provoked a powerful movement of truck drivers against the system throughout Russia and even in a region like Dagestan, which has always voted for Putin. The whole of Dagestan took to the streets against this system. Activism seemed to arise where it had not existed at all. Right now Putin’s pension reform has generated strong protests, which have taken place in 70 Russian cities despite the fact that participating can be dangerous.

I think repressions will intensify, but also as the political and economic situation worsens the number of protests will increase and the more severe the repressions are, the more brutal the protests will be.

Do you think people will overcome the fear of taking to the streets?

But they will not have any other options. It is not about overcoming something; people will be put in situations like the aforementioned truckers who just understood that they won’t earn any money and if they don’t come out to the streets, nothing will change. And they were able to achieve some change. So people will come out because of hopelessness. The Russian authorities do not leave any scope for normal, legal, peaceful problem solving – you cannot go to court, you cannot write a letter to anyone, because that will not solve your problem. By getting rid of the ways of peaceful and legal resolution, the Russian authorities end up forcing people to the street. As with the pension reform, for example, the authorities rejected a proposal from the Communist Party to hold a referendum, arguing that people are not educated enough to understand the matter. Essentially, people are capable of working until they’re 65 but they aren’t capable of understanding the question on raising the retirement age.

Do you think the authorities will make any concessions?

Of course they will, but it will depend on the strength of the protests. The more people protest, the fewer opportunities the authorities have for implementing tough measures. The government is in the process of acquiring this horrible new equipment for suppressing popular uprisings called “stena”.  And this is happening in the context of the pension reform protests; at a time when people are demanding political change. But the more people are out there, the less likely it is that the authorities will use severe methods to suppress protests.

The government runs into trouble when it makes decisions that affect a broad group of people – like the pension reform. The protests against raising the retirement age will inevitably lead to concessions. Even now, these relatively small protests have led to Putin already reducing the retirement age for women. The more the protests continue to grow, the more concessions will be made. Our authorities have a very good sixth sense and understand they can be taken out of power at one moment and they are afraid of that. But any concessions will be proportional to the efforts of the civil society.

Is it possible that the pension reforms have had such a negative effect on people that even if concessions are made, a lot of people have got a taste of activism and this could potentially lead to political change in the future?

Of course, because when a person becomes an activist, when they begin to take to the streets, they take on a different view of the state. They will begin to experience police lawlessness and they will begin to really understand what propaganda is. When a person becomes an activist, they watch TV in a different way after that, they begin to see the real picture of the Russian reality, it changes them. This does not mean that everyone will immediately become active oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, but it will definitively change their mind.

How does your website help activists?

First of all, we offer media support, including through social networks. When we first started this activity, there was very little information about activism available. Now, thank God, other projects such as ours are emerging as well and we welcome it. We are happy that this topic has become extremely popular and we feel we can be useful in supporting activists and spreading information about their activities. Sometimes spreading information is a matter of physical survival for an activist — that’s in my own biography. There were several cases when timely journalistic investigation about who has beaten up the activists helped stop the beatings and saved their lives.

The psychotherapeutic factor is important, too. It is very difficult to be an activist in Russia – everyone says at best you are crazy, an outcast and an accomplice of the United States. But when you open our website and see the map that tracks activism, you’ll see that all of Russia is actually engaged in this and you feel different. And of course, the role of our website is to unite activists so they can do joint campaigns and support each other.

Returning to the first question: If the Western world, looking at Russia, mainly sees Putin and the regime, how can it be shown that Russia – it is also an evolving civil society? How could this message be conveyed?

It is a very good question and I don’t have a clear answer. But I try to do just that, speaking at different venues about activism in Russia, and I usually surprise people. I recently spoke at the US Congress – everything I said seemed like news there. I talked about campaigns that are already 2-3 years old and I saw that it was a surprise to hear about that.

But it is actually more difficult with Europe – after the conflict with Ukraine, Europe has become more active in its purchasing of oil and gas from Putin’s regime. Germany is buying twice the amount and Nord Stream 2, led by Putin and former German Chancellor Schröder, is under way. So, the West consists of different people. For the West that makes decisions, at least in Europe, it may not even be very profitable for there to be another Russia – the Russia that exists today is very convenient as you can buy oil and gas for cheap. Of course, if something changes in Russia and another, democratic government comes to power, the first thing they will do is stop the current model for supplying gas. In Russia, 30% of people are without gas, and instead use coal for heating, which leads to catastrophic environmental consequences. Of course, Germany will cease to receive its cheap gas and Holland will not receive its cheap oil, and many will be upset. Whoever launders the money will also be upset. Take the scandal at the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, which has laundered a huge amount of Russian money. Someone gained incredible profits and this someone will be very upset if everything changes in Russia. So the West is not all about being good and it simply may not really want to see civil society flourish in Russia.

There are two trends here – there is this wonderful sale of hydrocarbons, which not only did not stop but actually increased after the annexation of the Crimea and the war against Ukraine. The West has not stopped communicating with Putin and has actually strengthened Putin’s regime with hydrocarbon money. On the other hand, at exactly the same moment as the annexation of the Crimea, when the “law on foreign agents” was adopted in Russia, the West and Western donors stopped helping civil society due to fear of these laws. Thus, the nascent Russian civil society was left without support. And it is a good question: how can we change this situation? We need to combine our efforts somehow and I am very glad that Free Russia Foundation has also become engaged with issues of activism.  It seems to me that it is necessary to organize more conferences and events through joint efforts.

I would also note that I have more events in the States than in Europe, which is very disappointing because Europe is closer to us and it could share experience and knowledge. But even in America it is becoming more difficult, especially after Trump was elected. I sense the donors have problems with helping Russia. It feels like the help they try to provide is being blocked, whereas the interactions with Putin’s regime seem to continue.

The interview took place on 20 September 2018 in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo credit: wtaq.com

As part of my work for Free Russia Foundation, I am carrying out research on two projects. The first one is devoted to influencing that Gazprom and its pipeline projects have in the EU. The second is an ongoing project called Underminers which focuses on agents of post-Soviet corruption in the West and will be fully launched in the fall. Between May and July this year we presented some of the findings from these two projects in Washington and in six European capitals. We got some insightful feedback and would like to share it here.

On May 24, our report paper The Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe: Implications for Policy Makers was presented at the U.S. Senate, where Senator Jeanne Shaheen formulated her long standing opposition to the pipeline due to its security implications for the European Union and transatlantic relations. A few days later Kremlin-controlled media outlet Life.Ru commented on our event with deceitful propaganda, saying that “Russian opposition lobbies new sanctions against Gazprom” and that the real reason for that is the greed of US LNG companies that simply want to replace Russian gas in Europe. Incidentally, just a few days ago this outlet was reportedly defunded by Kremlin which shows that lies do not sell forever.

Meanwhile, about the same time, Trump administration signed long awaited legislation to fight corruption and gross human rights violators around the world called Global Magnitsky Act. However, we at FRF remain skeptical about actual political will within the executive to use this instrument wholeheartedly against post-Soviet kleptocracies, although we remain hopeful that the Congress will not reduce its pressure in this policy area.

In Europe, we started in Sofia where we held two presentations at The Centre for the Study of Democracy of which the paper on Gazprom was the most publicly discussed. Bulgaria is heavily influenced by Russian energy companies and Gazprom’s proposal to extend Turkish Stream into the country remains one of the most contentious issues in the region. Our colleagues from CSD suggested that Gazprom’s pipeline projects by-passing Ukraine represent a financial and security threat to Bulgaria itself, not only to Ukraine, and that corruption of Russian energy companies has a pervasive negative impact on democratic institutions and domestic politics. However, there was a lot of discussion about the need for a wider and more coherent European and US response to Kremlin’s aggression. There is a strong pro-Putin faction among Bulgarian policy-makers that has been continuously supported by Moscow with money, propaganda and other destructive means, including through what CSD calls Russian amplifiers, i.e. Kremlin-connected kleptocratic operatives in Bulgaria.

Our next stop was in London at Chatham House and The Henry Jackson Society. The first meeting was under Chatham House rules, so without giving any concrete affiliation, I can say that there was a number of Gazprom’s European partners who advocated in favor of Nord Stream 2, claiming that it is strictly a commercial project financially lucrative to Europe, that its construction might give impetus to Eastern Europe to reform its gas networks after transit payments from Russia stop and that Ukraine has been “a basket case for 25 years.” We offered our counter arguments, claiming that Nord Stream 2 as previously Nord Stream 1 and expansion of pipelines within Russia for the South Stream had been highly corrupt and benefited Putin’s cronies, that such corruption at the expense of taxpayers would not be confined to Russia alone and is being already exported to Europe, that Ukraine has proven to be a more reliable partner despite Kremlin’s provocations in 2006 and 2009, especially in the last three years and that security implications of Kremlin’s gas plans are much wider than just bypassing Ukraine.

Discussion of post-Soviet underminers of democracy in London had to be timid because of the outdated libel laws of the country that really favor oligarchs, not free press and critically minded researchers, but the turnout at the event was impressive. I was personally surprised to see a former master of a major Oxford college who previously approved donations to the University from Russian kleptocrats but now seemed to have changed his views on this subject. The need to distinguish between corruption and corrosive practices and other key takeaways from the event was brilliantly summarized here.

At our next event in Warsaw jointly held with Za Wolna Rosja association and Buziness Alert we primarily focused on political and security threats of Gazprom to Central and Eastern Europe and EU laws, principles and institutions. Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, rightfully pointed out that German policymakers, when not talking to the press, treat Gazprom’s pipeline projects as political and so should each country in the EU without any pretense that this is only about economics and commercial gain. Interestingly, Belarussian TV station (not controlled by Minsk) covered the event in detail, showing that this Russian-speaking Belarusian diaspora also understands the problem and does not want Belarus to end up at the mercy of Gazprom and its partners in Berlin if Germany became the main receiving hub for Russian gas in Europe.

We then had a closed session organized by https://www.martenscentre.eu with EU parliamentarians from the ruling EPP coalition in Strasbourg (covered only by Latvian media as one of the organizers was from Latvia), where there was almost a total unity on understanding threats from Kremlin-led pipeline projects and corruption for European aspirations of transparency, governance and energy competition and diversification. However, one deputy said that EU is a hopeless place where we won’t be able to overcome the influence of lobbyists and politicians paid by Kremlin and that FRF should concentrate its efforts of changing attitudes in Washington, D.C., a stance that shows how bleak the EU picture is for some policymakers. Notably, as if to prove his point, we subsequently learned that this event was somehow crashed by representatives of Gazprom lobbyists and Russian diplomats who quietly recorded our discussion.

However, the most complicated event was in Berlin at the German Council on Foreign Relations where I had to face two panelists in favor of Nord Stream 2 and an audience which was heavily attended by Gazprom’s representatives, partners and supporters. We had to discuss some of the same points as proposed by energy companies at the Chatham House few days before, while Kirsten Westphal from Berlin fund of science and politics (SWP) offered a very narrow gas supply/demand view of Western European security and both panelists and representatives of energy companies questioned my “allegations” of widespread corruption in Gazprom and its export to Germany and Europe. This took place despite me citing concrete and multiple undisputable investigations carried out both by western and Russian independent media outlets.

Even more shocking was a remark of one of the organizers of the event to me that “your position against Gazprom was too American and this is why your actual points were not properly appreciated by the audience.” While I definitely spoke as a representative of the Free Russia Foundation and an expert on gas with a background in both Russia and the U.S., I think the commentator was actually right and the anti-American sentiment and ways how Moscow skillfully exploits it are indeed highly present in Germany nowadays. Luckily later that day we met with a group of Russian-speaking activists residing in Berlin that are not duped by Kremlin propaganda and appreciates the need to counter kleptocratic export to the EU.

Our last stop was in Kyiv where we did not have to explain these obvious things about the corruption of Gazprom and Kremlin’s subversive propaganda in Europe. The most prominent event was at Ukrainian Crisis Center together with local think tanks and Deputy Minister of Energy Natalia Boyko. While experts had different views on the actual prospects of Gazprom pipelines intended to by-pass Ukraine, all seemed to agree that Kyiv should remain proactive and its response should be focused on domestic reforms: liberalization of its own gas sector, strict abiding by existing international contracts and being a reliable partner keen to be integrated into European gas regulatory and business norms. TV and radio interviews showed that there is genuinely free journalism now in Ukraine capable of asking critical questions about our expert abilities, EU and US adherence to democracy and joint security, pervasive power of trans-border corruption and stumbling blocks in Ukrainian politics.

Notably, very similar topics – such as US and EU ability to counter post-Soviet kleptocracy – were raised at the Helsinki Commission upon our return to Washington, D.C. I have been raising the issue of influence of Kremlin-controlled oligarchs on the US for years, including lately on Trump’s administration, and was pleasantly surprised that this topic got attention and brought large audience to the event (see here) and comments from top-level experts like Dan Fried, a former top State Department official on sanctions policy.

Finally, the topic of corruption of Gazprom and Kremlin-connected oligarchs in the energy sector also got a brilliant coverage for a Russian-speaking audience, as an expert of the Free Russian Foundation, Vladimir Milov, who is a former deputy minister of energy, is now part of the main opposition movement in Russia led by Aleksei Navalny. Milov runs his own YouTube show in Moscow and his program on economy called Where Is the Money? is part of NavalnyLive YouTube program and has hundreds of thousands of views. For those of you who understand Russian here is an hour-long program from early August where we freely discuss all main Kremlin state energy companies and infrastructure projects and how they influence the whole region with their pervasive corruption.

We continue active research and exposure of post-Soviet corruption. The Free Russian Foundation is going to issue a special report on Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the fall, while the project Underminers will see a major boost for its launch scheduled for the end of September. Mark your calendars, as on October 11, 2017 Kleptocracy Initiative of the Hudson Institute will present our research paper on How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West (exact time and announcements will be provided closer to the event). This study seeks to provide some theoretical basis and key concepts for the very practical ideas of the Underminers project which we hope will educate about the export of corrosive practices from Eurasia and we welcome your interest and participation in this discussion and research.

Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu’s Eurasia Center and the Free Russia Foundation presents “The Kremlin’s Gas Games in Europe: Implications for Policy Makers,” a new brief by our expert Ilya Zaslavsky.

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