Until recently one of Vladimir Putin closest allies, former Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin, has launched a think tank in Berlin. The Dialogue of Civilizations Institute says it will focus on six “areas of research”, including “Economics of Post-Modernity: When Conventional Models Fail” and “East and West: Bridging the Post-Modernity (post-‘Global’?) Gap”, Deutsche Welle reports from the German capital.
The German broadcasters says Yakunin, sanctioned by the U.S. after the Crimea annexation, will spend €25 million of his own money over the next five years, and that the think tank denies taking any financing from the Kremlin. For once, a statement like this may be worth believing.
Yakunin headed Russian Railways (RZD) for ten years before he was fired by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2015, which in the informal code of practice in Putin’s Russia is equivalent to dismissal in disgrace. Usually, a fired official (and because 100% of RZD belongs to the Russian government, it is fair to call the company’s CEO an official) files for resignation and is then transferred to another position considered to be fit for an honorable retirement.
Indeed, Vladimir Yakunin was offered a seat in the Russian Senate—the upper house of the Russian parliament. Newspapers were reporting that former RZD president would become a Deputy Speaker or would at the very least get to chair a committee. Instead, Yakunin was offered a regular senatorial position, without an office in the Senate’s headquarters on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street in Moscow. He was further humiliated when he found out that his official car would be a Ford Focus instead of a BMW, Mercedes or Audi—business class vehicles that are supposed to be given to the Senate’s high-profile officials. To make Yakunin’s appointment to the Senate legal, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Yakunin had been granted the title of Ambassador a year ago—something that had never been made public before—thus making the former RZD CEO eligible to become a Senator.
Apparently, Vladimir Yakunin did not appreciate the efforts and officially asked to not be appointed. He explained his decision by saying that he had a strong desire “to focus on research and expertise, primarily in foreign policy, foreign relations and inter-civilization dialogue.” Yakunin also gave a searching interview to Gazeta.ru, in which he said that he had a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and promised him to not spend the rest of his life fishing. Instead he vowed to serve the greater good, which, according to him, had always been more important to him than his personal interests.
So apparently, a newly-opened think tank in Berlin is part of the promise given to Vladimir Putin. Two sources close to the Kremlin confirm that Yakunin is spending his own money on the project. The project, however, has zero to do with philanthropy.
Yakunin was fired after several scandals at RZD, with the furor surrounding the cancellation of suburban commuter rail service lines in several Russian regions in the beginning of 2015 being the most humiliating. The regional governments couldn’t afford to pay RZD for the service, and had accused the state transport monopolist of artificial price inflation. At the same time, as the economic crisis was worsening, RZD wouldn’t reduce its spending and kept asking for more subsidiaries from the federal budget, even with oil prices collapsing and with sanctions biting after the annexation of Crimea.
Fed up with the embarrassments, the Putin regime continued going after Yakunin even after it had fired him. In February, Moscow police searched the Mikhailov and Partners advertising company and the state-run news agency TASS. The searches were part of an ongoing investigation against RZD and its top management for suspiciously costly PR campaign for the Russian Railway. (TASS director and Mikhailov and Partners founder Sergey Mikhailov used to work as the corporate communication head at RZD). Furthermore, the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation promised to conduct an audit of RZD at the request of Putin’s All-Russia People’s Front movement, looking into the spending of 500 million rubles ($80 million) by RZD on its public image.
Yakunin’s latest initiative in Berlin is nothing more than an attempt to buy himself back into the good graces of the Kremlin, and to end the persecution. And he has more than enough from running RZD all these years to pay for it himself. For instance, Yakunin built a three-story marble-clad mansion on 70 hectares of land in a Moscow suburb, a mansion that includes a 50 meter pool, a garage for 15 cars, and a separate storage building for fur coats. Yakunin’s eldest son Andrei turned out to be the owner of a £35m mansion in London, after the British government published a list of properties in Britain worth more than £200 billion, that are owned by offshore entities.
Though Yakunin should be believed when he says his new think tank doesn’t take money from Moscow, his political interests are of course closely aligned with the Kremlin. The Dialogue of Civilizations, before its official launch in Berlin, was associated with an annual conference on the Greek island of Rhodes, where Yakunin gathered intellectuals from China, Iran, Pakistan, India and Europe to discuss developments in the global order. Yakunin himself thinks about humankind’s development a lot. Among his thoughts: he has described the new authorities in Ukraine as neo-Nazis and a military junta; he has defended Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law; and he accused those who voted for the Austrian transvestite singer Conchita Wurst at Eurovision of having an “abnormal psychology”.
Yakunin, of course, also thinks that Europe should stop “dancing to the USA’s tune”. Meanwhile, even Russia-friendly Germans got cold feet over being closely associated with an organization whose head is on the U.S. sanctions list: Matthias Platzeck, the chairman of the German-Russian Forum, was initially announced as a speaker at the think tank’s opening, but was then ultimately only listed as a participant. Ronald Pofalla, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s former chief of staff, and chairman of the Petersburg Dialogue, canceled his speech.
As for Yakunin, he spent the weekend with Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill on the island of Valaam, in Karelia. Maybe his investment is paying off after all.