Russia has recruited allies in German chancellor Angela Merkel’s “inner circle” and in Austrian intelligence services, exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky has warned.
But they are just part of a wider pro-Kremlin network in EU states, including the Czech Republic, Cyprus, France, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, he said.
Khodorkovsky made the revelations in a video-hearing with a European Parliament (EP) committee on foreign interference on Monday (10 May).
A German-registered think-tank, called Dialogue of Civilisations, created by Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin “is used to identify potential Kremlin allies among European elites,” he said.
And “one of Yakunin’s … sources that he refers to in his reports to the Kremlin forms part of Angela Merkel’s inner circle,” Khodorkovsky added.
A former Austrian business executive called Jan Marsalek was also used by Russia to recruit “a high-ranking Austrian intelligence officer” and to host parties to gather information on other security chiefs and politicians, Khodorkovsky said.
He did not name the Merkel confidante or senior Austrian spy in his public remarks to MEPs due to the sensitivity of the cases.
“Some of the information provided here cannot be corroborated by our sources in court because of fear for their lives and the lives of their families [in Russia],” Khodorkovsky said.
But his UK-based pro-democracy NGO, The Dossier Centre, the same day, disclosed details in a 60-page report made available to members of the EP committee via a secure website.
Meanwhile, Yevgeny Prigozhin, another pro-Kremlin tycoon, was also doing harm in Europe, Khodorkovsky said in Monday’s hearing.
Prigozhin’s activities included procuring German components for Russian “weapons of mass destruction” and recruiting German politicians to legitimise dodgy elections in Russia-friendly states in Africa.
Prigozhin’s internet “troll factories” were “engaged in fomenting anti-French sentiment in African countries” and trying to “provoke a diplomatic conflict between France and Italy”.
And Prigozhin’s staff tried to create a pro-Kremlin political party in Greece centred around Greek politician Konstantin Gabaeridis, Khodorkovsky said.
He named and shamed two far-right French politicians – Thierry Mariani (an MEP) and Aymeric Chauprade (a former MEP) – as Kremlin stooges.
Chauprade, for instance, helped introduce French politicians to Kremlin contacts and “even offered ghost-writing services” to Yakunin, Khodorkovsky said.
Russia’s network in the Czech Republic included “high-ranking Czech government officials”, as well as communist MP Zdeněk Ondráček, Khodorkovsky noted.
Its fifth column in Cyprus involved Eleni Loizidou, a former prosecutor, who “informally advised Russian authorities over many years, providing insider information” and who “interfered in [legal] proceedings on behalf of the Kremlin,” Khodorkovsky said.
A former Polish MP, Mateusz Piskorski, was also tasked by a Kremlin-linked PR firm with “finding loyal European politicians”, whom he invited to Kremlin-sponsored events, Khodorkovsky said.
In Lithuania, Kremlin spin-doctors identified Vygaudas Ušackas, a former foreign minister and EU ambassador to Russia, as “a friendly candidate for the Lithuanian presidency”.
And Latvia looked like a playground for the Kremlin elite, where relatives of Russian oligarchs Yuri Kovalchuk and Nikolai Tokarev, for instance, owned real estate and shares in local firms.
“Tokarev and Kovalchuk were the main links in the financing scheme for Putin’s palace which was the subject of Navalny’s film,” Khodorkovsky noted, referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin and opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who recently exposed Putin’s opulent private mansion on YouTube.
“The main impact mechanism on European political and business elites is about [financial] corruption,” Khodorkovsky said.
“We are prepared to provide proof that we have upon request of respective law enforcement agencies, but, of course, we’re not going to share this evidence with those who are potentially linked to the Kremlin,” he added, referring to documents and other information which underpinned his testimony on Monday.
But if he was concerned about protecting sources, then some MEPs might themselves pose a threat.
Mariani, whom Khodorkovsky named and shamed, is a member of the EP foreign-interference committee and was meant to have privileged access to Khodorkovsky’s 60-page dossier, for instance.
And while the French MEP did not speak on Monday, a fellow French euro-deputy from Mariani’s Independence and Democracy group, Jean-Lin Lacapelle, intervened on his behalf.
Khodorkovsky was accused of a “string of assassinations” and “money-laundering” and the EP should not have invited him to speak, Lacapelle said, parroting Russian propaganda.
“I’d like to present my apologies because I heard one of our colleagues attack you in a very vulgar and unfair way,” French liberal MEP Bernard Guetta told Khodorkovsky.
“The EU needs to clean its own house from hybrid Kremlin influence, dirty money, and corruption,” Andrius Kubilius, a centre-right Lithuanian MEP and former prime minister, also said, in general remarks.
“If we want to promote democratic development in Russia, we need to clean our own house,” Kubilius said.