Russian Oligarchs Use Courts to Harass Journalists and Researchers and Challenge Sanctions
Most people who aren’t deeply steeped in Russian malign activities are not familiar with SLAPPs - strategic litigation against public participation, or defamation suits intended to shut down public scrutiny - and other Russian legal antics as retaliatory measures or hybrid warfare meant to bog down western legal systems and gag opponents. But to those of us who follow continued Russian antics, the abuse of the global legal system—especially in the UK—is well known.
While countries like Poland and Italy see more domestic SLAPP cases, the boom in companies willing to defend wealthy clients’ reputations for high fees has helped make the UK the top choice for those from abroad seeking to silence the press.
Russian oligarchs, with their deep pockets and willingness to overwhelm the European legal system with lawsuits to shut down legitimate investigations and journalists, have been abusing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), meant to protect the online privacy of European citizens to target investigative journalists and anyone else who works to subject their possible corruption to scrutiny.
Powerful claimants are increasingly aware of the power of GDPR. In 2021 nearly 300 cases against the media were brought in British courts under data-protection rules – more than half the total number of media-law claims that year. That was double the number brought under data-protection laws the year before, and far more than the number of defamation cases. Lawyers say this is just the start. A seismic shift in press freedom is under way.
The GDPR was meant to ensure that data other people hold about you should be transparent, secure, lawfully collected, and accurate. This last part is critical for Russian oligarchs, because per the law, you can demand copies of any information anyone might conceivably have about you, and if any of that information turns out to be inaccurate, you can sue.
Get it? Overwhelm those who are investigating your corrupt shenanigans and bog them down in legal proceedings. Most of these researchers and journalists couldn’t even come close to having the types of resources that the Russian kleptocrats have, so it’s much more difficult for them to defend themselves against these suits.
That’s what the corrupt oligarchs are counting on.
And wealthy London lawyers love it! Why not, right? They’re lining their pockets with dodgy oligarch money, which thankfully is becoming more difficult, since many of these kleptocrats are sanctioned and cannot pay their lawyers to harass independent journalists and researchers.
And it’s not just happening in the UK.
According to one of the researchers in my anticorruption advocacy group (ACAN), Alfa bank—sanctioned by the United States, EU, and the UK—has been trying to harass him, waging “lawfare” during the past year. Ilya Zaslavsky told us that Alfa Bank suggested that it is seeking out a group of unknown conspirators to tarnish their reputations.
Alfa argued they made up a story on a computer channel between Alfa bank and the Trump organization. I am not a computer guy and have never given any expert opinion on the merits of the computer links story. However, I am an expert on oligarchs and their political and economic proximity to the Kremlin and have talked with journalists on that sharing my research.
Ilya has been writing about Russian oligarchs and corruption for years.
As some of you know I have written multiple reports, predicting in 2013 that Russian global corruption will have severe national security implications in the West, exposing various layers of kleptocracy in the West, coming up with useful terms like corrosive practices, neo-Gulag values and kremligarchs. And yes, I have suggested strong western sanctions against around 15-20 oligarchs in particular that I researched thoroughly, including Alfa Bank.
Russian propaganda channels, oligarchs, and anyone who has access to the tools has tried to trash Ilya’s reputation, calling him a US spy and a traitor, and bizarrely even accusing him of being an ISIS proxy, sending these crazy allegations to the US Treasury.
In 2018, Ilya got some death threats too (couched as “friendly advice,” apparently), after he published his first report on Kremlin kleptocracy and worked on adding Alfa and a bunch of other oligarchs to the so-called Putin's list at the Free Russia Forum in Vilnius.
The intimidation tactics are real and terrifying. According to Zaslavsky, they continued, and Alfa Bank went on the offensive in 2020 after he announced he would be working on the second report about which Kremlin corruptocrats should be sanctioned and had included the bank among them. Although Ilya admits that he has no proof that Alfa Bank’s actions—subpoenaing all his communications on Alfa to their costly ambulance chaser at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP—are linked to the announcement about the second report, the timing is certainly auspicious.
And Skadden, a huge firm, apparently has no problem working for shady characters, since their money is just as green as anyone else’s. In 2019, Skadden entered into a plea agreement with the Justice Department and agreed to pay more than $4.6 million for acting as an agent of the Government of Ukraine by contributing to a public relations campaign directed at select members of the US media and being paid from a Cypriot bank account of an entity named Black Sea View Ltd.—controlled by none other than Paul Manafort—and failing to register as a foreign agent.
Ilya Zaslavsky fought the subpoenas and won.
On December 8, 2021, Mr. Zaslavskiy filed a motion to quash the deposition subpoena, arguing that Alfa Bank was improperly using the subpoena not to obtain information for its lawsuit, but to harass Mr. Zaslavskiy for his research into anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian corrosive activities of Russian oligarchs (including Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan, the principal officials of Alfa Bank) and their connections to President Putin. Alfa Bank issued the subpoena shortly after Mr. Zaslavskiy published several reports related to why certain Russian oligarchs, including those at Alfa Bank, should be sanctioned for their close personal ties to Putin and the Kremlin. Alfa Bank served Mr. Zaslavskiy with the document subpoena fewer than two months after he announced his intent to write a new report on sanctions against Alfa Bank principals and several other Kremlin oligarchs on a public Anti-Corruption Advocacy Network (ACAN) forum.
But independent researchers and journalists are not the only ones getting an avalanche of harassment from Russians. Oligarchs and their family members are “spamming” the EU legal system with challenges to their inclusion on the sanctions list, spurred on by Putin, who wants them to overwhelm the EU legal system. So far, there has been little success.
Designated Putin crony and head of sanctioned Wagner Group, Evgeniy Prigozhin, who was sanctioned by the EU in 2020 for financing mercenaries who committed human rights abuses in Libya, and who tried to challenge sanctions against him in the EU’s General Court in Luxembourg, failed. His assets in the EU are frozen, and he is under a travel ban.
Russian aluminum tycoon, Oleg Deripaska, continues trying to get himself removed from the SDN list—and losing—with the latest rejection of his appeal issued in March.
Speaking of aluminum and Deripaska, Russian aluminum producer Rusal, in which both Deripaska and sanctioned Russian Oligarch Victor Vekselberg own shares, has filed a lawsuit against global miner Rio Tinto, seeking to win back access to its 20 percent share of the alumina—a compound from which aluminum is derived—produced at a jointly owned refiner in Queensland, Australia.
Oligarch Roman Abramovich is among the at least 20 kleptocrats included on the EU’s sanctions list that is suing the bloc, along with Alfa Bank’s Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, as well as Alisher Usmanov and the Russian Direct Investment Fund after the EU banned investment into it in March.
The wife of Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko is suing the EU, claiming that the decision to sanction her along with her husband is “irrational” because she has never held Russian citizenship or resided in Russia. Aleksandra Melnichenko was born in Belgrade and holds Serbian and Croatian citizenship, but just happened to have gotten control of her husband’s coal company SUEK AO and fertilizer company EuroChem Group AG the day before the EU put him on a sanctions list. Purely a coincidence, right?
Former Ukrainian president and Putin crony Viktor Yanukovych, whose assets were frozen in 2014 for embezzling state funds, is still on the list despite the fact that a European court ruled in 2019 that the bloc had failed to provide proper justification for prolonging the measures. The EU shrugged and included him on the list anyway, using a different legal justification. But Yanukovych is not giving up and filed two separate cases in Europe last month.
I cannot see them being successful in their flood of litigation. For the courts, dealing with lawsuits is their entire purpose, and I would wager that if they need to bring in more judges or litigators, they will do so.
I do, however, worry about the targets of Russia’s vindictive legal campaigns. While the oligarchs and kleptocrats certainly have the resources to pay high-priced lawyers to harass ordinary researchers and journalists, I’m grateful that people like Ilya Zaslavsky have access to generous attorneys and organizations such as the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice who are dedicated to the battle against these malign actors.
My hope is that more and more individuals and companies in the legal profession will shun these evil, corrupt Russian actors and their facilitators on moral principles, and that more and more will stand up and help fight them.