1. With slim chance of solving journalists’ murders in Africa, propaganda points the blame on Khodorkovsky who hired them
A month after the murder of three Russian journalists filming a documentary about Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic, credible accusations have emerged against the organizer of the journalists’ trip — opposition figurehead Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We learned how poorly planned the trip to one of the world’s most dangerous countries was from leaked chat messages. The correspondence was published by a media outlet affiliated with businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, believed to be the financial backer of the same Russian mercenary outfit that was the subject of the investigation.
- One of the Russia’s most experienced war correspondents, Orkhan Dzhemal, acclaimed documentary film director Alexander Rastorguev, and their cameraman, Kirill Radchenko, were killed in the CAR on 31 July. They were in the country, which is in a state of permanent civil war, to make a film about Russian mercenaries from Wagner, a private military company sponsored by Prigozhin, “Putin’s cook”, who is officially accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The investigation was ordered by the Center for Investigation Management (CIM), financed by Khodorkovsky. We wrote in detail about how the journalists died here. We haven’t learnt anything new about the murders since then. But there have been heated debates in Russia about the extent to which Khodorkovsky is to blame for the deaths.
- Khodorkovsky and CIM, for whom the murdered journalists were making a film, are accused of poor organization and trying to save money by cutting costs in a dangerous country. State-owned and pro-Kremlin media outlets blamed Khodorkovsky for the death of the journalists straight after the tragedy. But a reason for a more balanced discussion appeared only this week with the publication of correspondence between CIM editors and the journalists. The Russian outlet Federal News Agency (FAN) published the conversation laid the blame at Khodorkovsky’s doorstep. FAN is believed to be owned by Prigozhin. It is unclear how the publication got badly organized: the reporters did not have any security, nor means of communication with the organizers, nor local guides. At the same time, we learned the strangest detail of the whole story. The local fixer, called “Martin”, who described himself as an employee of the UN, was given to the murdered journalists ahead of their journey by a reporter from FAN, the publication that is connected to Prigozhin, whose activities the journalists planned to investigate.
- The organizers did not do a background check on Martin and didn’t investigate if he actually worked at the UN. After the murders, it emerged that no one even knew Martin’s last name, and a representative of the UN in CAR confirmed they do not have an employee with that name. Chats between Martin and CIM editors, passed on by a journalist, were published by the BBC Russian Service. From the chats, it is clear Martin ceased making contact just after the Russian journalists arrived in CAR. But he did give them a driver, who survived the deadly attack and is now in custody as a key witness.
- The publication of the correspondence gave pro-Kremlin journalists and bloggers the opportunity to stir up accusations against Khodorkovsky. On Thursday, Khodorkovsky announced the editor-in-chief of CIM had been fired and that he was ending his financial support of CIM. Russian journalists discussed to what extent the organizers of the trip are to blame, and how the editors should have behaved in this kind of situation. But the more important question remains: who murdered the journalists in CAR and could Wagner mercenaries have had anything to do with the killing? The chances of getting answers to these questions are growing slimmer by the day. The CAR government is not capable of carrying out an investigation — they were only able to repatriate the bodies with the help of the local UN mission. The affair will be investigated by Russia’s Investigative Committee — but Russian investigators flew to CAR for only two days. In all likelihood, we will never learn the truth.
Why the world should care
The story surrounding the murder of journalists in the CAR reveals a lot about the current state of Russia’s media. Under conditions when independent journalism is totally separate from mainstream media with its large audiences and budgets, investigations which are important for society as a whole are carried out by structures which are far from ideal for this purpose — such as the fund of opposition politician Navalny or projects funded to fight the Kremlin by businessman Khodorkovsky. In their discussions about the poorly organized trip to the CAR, Russian journalists admitted that in any other independent outlet the organizational process would not have been all that much better.
2. Putin offers limited concessions to pension reform plan
Just as we predicted, President Vladimir Putin played the role of the “good tsar” by announcing concessions over Russia’s most unpopular reform of the past decade — increases to the pension age. On Wednesday, Putin addressed the nation in a 30-minute televised speech.
- The main concession Putin promised was to raise the pension age for women not by 8 years, but by 5 years; from 55 years to 60 years. The pension age for men will be increased as planned, from 60 years to 65 years. Putin explained that it would be unfair to increase the pension age for men and women differently. The president has strange ideas about fairness and equality: the pension age for men and women remains different, although the U.S. and dozens of other countries have the same pension age for both sexes. This is particularly surprising given that in Russia women on average live ten years longer than men, and 43% of Russian men won’t live (Russian) to reach 65 years of age. Nor is it beneficial for the nation’s finances either to have women retire earlier — there are far more female pensioners than male. As a result of Putin’s concession, the budget will lose almost all of the gains it hoped to achieve.
- Government officials are already calculating what they will lose. According to their sums, the budget will lose about $7 billion over the next six years because of Putin’s suggestion and by 2039 the budget will be down $52 billion.
- However, after Putin’s televised address, it was Russian business that was the most upset. The president promised to make it illegal to fire pension-age employees. In reality, this will lead to companies simply not hiring anyone over the age of 50.
Why the world should care
All told, Putin’s concessions were relatively minor, demonstrating that the Kremlin is confident the president’s level of popular support is robust. His approval rating took a hit in the summer when the pension reform plan was announced. But, even before the televised address, which had a record high number of viewers, his rating had begun to rise.
3. Forbes Russia gets a new owner and its journalists claim victory
The conflict between the owner of Russian Forbes and his journalists, which we wrote about in July, was resolved this week. Russia’s most important business magazine got a new owner: Magomed Musaev, a businessman from the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, a former government official, venture capitalist, founder of the U.S. fund GVA Capital and owner of Hack Temple. He has phone numbers for all the major Russian oligarchs in his contact book, one of his partners told The Bell. Musaev has promised to preserve Forbes’ editorial independence, and, for now, Forbes journalists are confident they have won a rare victory.
- Since 2015, when Russian Forbes was bought by unremarkable businessman, Alexander Fedotov, scandal has swirled around the magazine. Fedotov attempted to censor the editorial team at the same time as he was experiencing escalating financial troubles. After the seizure of some of his real estate and an uprising by the journalists at Forbes, he was forced to look for a new owner.
- Musaev has a contradictory biography. “He has had the phone numbers of all the oligarchs in his address book since Soviet times. He used his address book and his talents to develop Russian businesses,” Pavel Cherkashin, Musaev’s partner in GVA Capital, told us. Musaev himself has never spoken directly about his own business. When Moscow was run by legendary mayor Yury Luzhkov in the 1990s and 2000s, Musaev ran the giant Soviet expo center VDNKh. In 2009, Musaev worked for the Moscow mayor’s office and then in the local government of Dagestan where he was responsible for innovation — the last thing that comes to mind when you think about business in the Caucasus. But Musaev didn’t stay in government for long.
- In 2011, Musaev, together with venture investor Pavel Cherkashin and businessman Abdul Abdulkerimov, founded the fund GVA Capital in Silicon Valley. GVA Capital initially had $10 million under management; it now has $120 million. According to Musaev, the fund invested in almost 50 tech companies which are now collectively worth more than $5 billion. An acquaintance of Musaev’s told The Bell that some of those who Musaev helped with deals in the U.S. were other Dagestani natives and billionaires: Suleiman Kerimov and Ziyavudin Magomedov (the latter was arrested in April 2018). To demonstrate that the fund in Silicon Valley was serious, two years ago the partners bought the former church of Maria Guadaloupe in San Francisco for $7 million, which they converted into a co-living space and renamed Hack Temple.
- Under the deal, U.S. Forbes extended the license to the Russian version of the magazine until 2023 (the license payment is about $1 million a year). Musaev was able to reach an agreement, in his own words, thanks to his close relations with the Forbes family and the magazine’s Hong Kong shareholders. After the deal, Musaev announced he would guarantee editorial independence and the former editor-in-chief, who was fired by the previous owner, returned to the company. He also invited former editors, including The Bell founder Liza Osetinskaya, to join Russian Forbes’ board of directors. Forbes journalists are confident that this is a happy ending, but it’s difficult to predict how things will develop from here. Businessmen media owners in Russia are unpredictable, and a lot depends on their relationship with the government.
Why the world should care
Historically, Forbes in Russia was not just another business magazine, but one of the country’s main sources of investigative journalism. The Bell founder Osetinskaya, who served as editor-in-chief of Russian Forbes from 2011 until 2013, wrote about this in detail here. Forbes’ rating of Russian billionaires is so authoritative that the U.S. Treasury Department even used it as the basis for compiling its “Kremlin List”. Osetinskaya has not yet decided if she will accept the position on Forbes’ board of directors. What do you think: should she accept the offer?
4. Conversations between Yeltsin and Clinton made public today shed a new light on Russian-U.S. relations in the 1990s
Today, Russians learned a lot of new information about their country’s history in the 1990s — Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library made public the transcripts of telephone conversations between Clinton and Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin which took place between 1993 and 1999. Several conversations are surprising — for example, Yeltsin’s request ahead of the 1996 Russian presidential election for a loan of $2.5 billion, because without these funds it would be difficult for him to fund his election campaign. We selected the most interesting fragments to better understand U.S.-Russia relations in the 1990s.
On NATO expansion, 1996:
Yeltsin: I want to get a clear understanding of your idea of NATO expansion because now I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed. How do you think it looks to us if one bloc continues to exist while the Warsaw Pact has been abolished? It’s a new form of encirclement if the one surviving Cold War bloc expands right up to the borders of Russia. Many Russians have a sense of fear. What do you want to achieve with this if Russia is your partner? They ask. I ask it too: Why do you want to do this? We need a new structure for Pan-European security, not old ones!
On Crimea, 1996
Yeltsin: There is a U.S. press campaign suggesting that people should not be afraid of the communists; that they are good, honorable and kind people. I warn people not to believe this. More than half of them are fanatics; they would destroy everything. It would mean civil war. They would abolish the boundaries between the republics (of the former Soviet Union). They want to take back Crimea; they even make claims against Alaska.
On the Russian presidential election, 1996
Yeltsin: And I have another question. Bill. Please understand me correctly. Bill, for my election campaign, I urgently need for Russia a loan of $2.5 billion.
Clinton: Let me ask this: didn’t it help you a lot when the Paris Club rescheduled Russia’s debt? I thought that would have caused several billions of dollars to flow into your country.
Yeltsin: No. It will be coming in the second half of the year. And in the first half of the year, we will only have $300 million due to conditions set by the IMF. <…> But the problem is I need money to pay pensions and wages. Without resolving this matter of pensions and wages, it will be very difficult to go into the election campaign. You know, if we could resolve this subject in a way with [IMF] providing the $2.5 billion in the first half, we could perhaps manage.
On the bombing of Yugoslavia, 1999
Clinton: I know you are aware already that Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder and the rest of the Europeans have decided we have to launch airstrikes against military targets in Serbia soon. <…> I know that you oppose what we are doing, but I want you to know that I am determined to do whatever I can to keep our disagreement on this from ruining everything else we have done and can do together in the coming years.
Yeltsin: I’m afraid we shall not succeed in that. If you do that [unintelligible] our side very much. Because what was needed to have begun were political discussions again and again and again, instead of bombing and destroying people.
On Vladimir Putin, 1999
Yeltsin: It took me a lot of time to think who might be the next Russian president in the year 2000. Unfortunately, at that time, I could not find any sitting candidate. Finally, I came across him, that is, Putin, and I explored his bio, his interests, his acquaintances, and so on and so forth. I found out he is a solid man who is kept well abreast of various subjects under his purview. At the same time, he is thorough and strong, very sociable. And he can easily have good relations and contact with people who are his partners. I am sure you will find him to be a highly qualified partner. I am very much convinced that he will be supported as a candidate in the year 2000. We are working on it accordingly.
Clinton: Who will win the election?
Yeltsin: Putin, of course. He will be the successor to Boris Yeltsin. He’s a democrat, and he knows the West.
Clinton: He’s very smart.
Yeltsin: He’s tough. He has an internal ramrod. He’s tough internally, and I will do everything possible for him to win—legally, of course. And he will win. You’ll do business together. He will continue the Yeltsin line on democracy and economics and widen Russia’s contacts. He has the energy and the brains to succeed.
Why the world should care
American “Russia” experts have long debated: where did the U.S. go wrong in its relationship with Russia in the 1990s, and could the U.S. have prevented the rise of an autocratic regime in Russia and the subsequent conflict between Russia and the West? The publication of Yeltsin and Clinton’s conversations will likely revive these discussions.
This newsletter is made with the support of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.