An explosive exposé alleging Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was deeply corrupt blew up on the Russian internet last week. Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation published a report and a movie (with English subtitles) that link Medvedev to an impressive number of residences, yachts and even two vineyards, both in Russia and abroad. The report has garnered so much attention—the video has had 6.5 million views on YouTube at time of writing—that even the New York Times took notice. What’s missing in most stories covering Navalny’s report is what it actually means: Medvedev is under attack. And yes, in Putin’s Russia, where journalists are murdered for doing their jobs, politicians are shot dead right in front of the Kremlin, and even a serving Minister is arrested, an eye-popping exposé on the Prime Minister’s extravagant wealth is necessarily an attack on him.
But first, the shimmering details: According to Navalny’s research, Medvedev is linked to four massive estates, including one in Moscow’s luxurious suburb of Rublevka and one in Sochi, two vineyards—one in the south of Russia and one in Tuscany worth $10 million, an 18th century mansion in Saint Petersburg, and two yachts worth a total $16 million. None of this property is formally owned by Medvedev, but all of them are connected to charity foundations headed by Medvedev’s close friends and former colleagues from school. The most frequently mentioned person in the report is Gazprombank’s board member Ilya Eliseev who graduated the same University with Medvedev. (Gazprombank is sanctioned by the United States.) Eliseev is a supervisory council member of the Dar (Gift) charity foundation that used to own a residence in the Russian city of Ples before it was transferred to another foundation, also headed by a Dar board member.
Eliseev heads another foundation, Socgorproekt, which has among its assets the Rublevka mansion—a gift from Russia’s third richest man and one of Putin’s closest friends, Alisher Usmanov, from 2010. Offshore companies registered to Eliseev also acquired the Tuscan vineyard and both of the aforementioned yachts.
Apart from Usmanov’s gift, foundations associated with Medvedev were given multi-million dollar donations from Leonid Mikhelson, who is a major stakeholder in the second largest gas company in Russia, Novatek, and the richest man in Russia according to Forbes’ rankings. Along with gifts from another Novatek shareholder, Alexey Simanovsky, the amount of donations to Medvedev’s foundations exceeded $650 million. Money also poured in from businesses, both private and those partly owned by the government. A loan for $473 million was drawn from Gazprombank to buy one of the yachts, while the Bashneft oil company, which at that time belonged to businessman Vladimir Evtushenkov but which was recently seized by the government, gave money that went towards buying the Saint Petersburg mansion. The investigation says that companies associated with charity foundations were resold to each other, and that it remains unclear if various loans were ever paid back to creditors.
Navalny’s investigation estimates the entire amount of “money being circulated between Medvedev’s foundations and companies” to be at around 70 billion rubles—over $1.1 billion.
The investigation may appear impressive, but in truth there are only two genuinely new pieces of information in it: the Tuscan vineyard and one of the two yachts. All the other facts had been published in Russian media before. Novaya Gazeta wrote about Dar foundation back in 2011. Navalny himself published an investigation on the Ples residence in September 2016, which alleged that that Mikhelson and Simanovsky had financed its reconstruction. At the time, Medvedev’s Press Secretary Natalia Timakova said that the Prime Minister only uses the residence for temporary stays, and doesn’t own it.
The most revealing thing about the recent Navalny investigation is that for the most part it repeats a news article in Sobesednik (a Russian newspaper) published two weeks ago, without attribution. The Sobesednik piece reveals that it’s not only Dar, but an entire financial group, including tens of affiliated and associated business entities, that have clustered around the person of Dmitry Medvedev.
There are three possibilities for how this apparent act of plagiarism could have come about. First is that Navalny’s team used the Sobesednik investigation without citing it. This is quite unlikely, because Navalny would have to know that he would be quickly exposed and embarrassed. An opposition leader who exposes the lies and thefts of Russian officials cannot be a liar and a thief himself. Moreover, even if they had opted to plagiarize Sobesednik, it’s highly unlikely they could have pulled together such a high quality video production in only two weeks.
The second possibility is that the two investigations—by Sobesednik and by Navalny’s foundation—were being carried out in parallel, and finished almost simultaneously. This is possible, but hard to believe, given the how tightly held most information is in a police state like Russia.
The only remaining explanation is that the newspaper and the anti-corruption investigator were both leaked the information at roughly the same time, and are part of a coordinated and well-planned attack on Dmitry Medvedev.
A quick history lesson on Alexey Navalny: While we would not accuse him of being the Kremlin’s puppet or agent, one has to remember that he has been successfully used by the Kremlin to further its needs several times. It first happened in 2013 at the time of the Moscow mayoral elections.
Sergey Sobyanin had been Moscow’s Mayor since 2010, appointed to his post by the Moscow City Duma, upon the recommendation of then-President Dmitry Medvedev. Two years later, Medvedev initiated the process of restoring the direct election of governors, previously eliminated by Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin and Sobyanin decided that Moscow City elections should be legitimate, and that the mayor should be elected. While Sobyanin’s ratings were high, he resigned early and announced early elections. Navalny was the ideal candidate for legitimizing Sobyanin’s successful bid.
By the time the campaign had officially started, Navalny was fighting embezzlement charges as part of the Kirovles case, a clearly unlawful and politically motivated prosecution. Navalny was found guilty and taken into custody, but that fact did not technically disqualify him from running—it only prevented him from campaigning. When his campaign chief announced that Navalny would therefore withdraw his bid for the Mayorship, the very next day, Navalny was released.
And this was not the last gift from the Kremlin.
Russian law states that a person running for Mayor as an independent must collect the signatures of 6 percent of Moscow’s municipal legislators to be registered as candidate. Navalny couldn’t pull it together, and so the Kremlin’s United Russia party shared its signatures with him, allowing him to run and lose. Meanwhile, the Kremlin managed to pull off probably the most clean and honest elections in recent Russian history, allowing Sobyanin to declare that he had been legitimately elected to his post. Navalny has never been able to answer the question straight: Why does he think he was given those signatures in 2013? He has always been evasive.
What about the impressive dossiers Navalny managed to collect on Attorney General Chaika’s family, and their various ties to the criminal underworld? His headline-grabbing investigation on the corruption schemes surrounding Transneft? His recent investigation of Vice Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, which revealed that his dogs fly on a private jet to dog shows in Switzerland? Well, even the OCCRP managed to complete its groundbreaking investigation on the Panama Papers because a former employee of the law firm specializing in creating offshore company leaked the documents to them.
And in Russia, in a state tightly controlled by the security services, where freedoms are regularly repressed, there is a guy who collects and distributes information on high-profile officials and gets away with it? In a country where media outlets are being fined by the state media watchdog for using the word “annexation” instead of “consolidation” when it comes to Crimea? Impossible.
There is little doubt that Navalny receives his information from the people in power. In fact, he created an anonymous electronic drop box, where as he says anyone can securely leave information on corrupt officials—perfect cover for guys connected to the siloviki—or more precisely, the FSB.
And there’s no reason why Navalny wouldn’t use it—if it’s true, why not?
And why would Medevedev be attacked? For one, according to the Russian Constitution, the Prime Minister is the successor in case if the President’s term ends early for whatever unexpected reason. For another, Medvedev is said to be valued and trusted by Putin for being true to his word and following through on the “castling maneuver”, or rokirovka, that the two pulled off in 2008 and again in 2012. Especially if Putin decided to step down or not run for a fourth term, he thinks he can count on his trusted deputy to let him retire in peace.
Apparently, among the feuding groups of siloviki, one doesn’t want to see Medvedev as a successor. And because of the special relationship between Putin and Medvedev, it’s impossible to just persuade Vladimir Putin to fire his pal. But by publicly revealing Medvedev to be just another corrupt official who likes to live it up and thus fatally tarnishing his image, Russia’s President might have to pick a different person to succeed him, if he doesn’t want to run again in 2018.
This is the essential subtext of Navalny’s recent investigation of Medvedev. This, unfortunately, tells us that there is a good chance that after Vladimir Putin, the reins of power will slide into the hands of yet another group of KGBists. The main difference from the last time this happened, in 2001, would be that there will be almost zero traces of civil society left in Putin’s wake for his successors to grapple with, giving them an option to turn Russia into an paramilitary state.