A Berlin-based think tank founded and chaired by sanctioned Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin is exploring the possibility of opening an office in the United States, a spokesperson for the group told ThinkProgress.
Jean-Christophe Bas, the current CEO of Yakunin’s Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) think tank, said that he’s considering opening a “liaison office” in New York. The office “would be liaising with the United Nations,” as well as with international groups like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bas said.
Bas said the DOC also plans to expand to Brussels. “My objective is to make this organization truly global… I think in a way we can easily operate in many parts of the world,” Bas, who joined the DOC last year, told ThinkProgress. “What has to be put to the credit of Dr. Yakunin, and it’s not really the easiest or most comfortable way to do it, is that he’s made this initiative to create this organization, to engage and reach out.”
DOC Press Officer Leen Barghouti told ThinkProgress that there is no “concrete or imminent plan” regarding the potential expansion, and that “no decision” has yet been made. Bas did not give a projected timeline for the potential expansion, but the move would be a big step for a think tank that has spent the past few years mired in controversy — largely due to the involvement of Yakunin.
Yakunin has been on the U.S. sanctions list since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, identified as a key player in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. The oligarch has long been a member of Putin’s inner circle, and was closely involved in the early networks used to cement Putin’s power.
Yakunin helped found the DOC, and is currently chairman of its supervisory board. The DOC says it aims to “forge shared world views through dialogue, and to contribute to a fair, sustainable and peaceful world order.”
But the DOC’s critics say the think tank has a clear bias. The DOC “promotes the idea of Russia’s ‘special way’ in politics and the notion that Russia and the Putin regime are entitled to special treatment [in] the international arena,” wrote Olga Shorina in a recent report on pro-Kremlin organizations for the Free Russia Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to highlighting the Kremlin’s crimes. Shorina is the former executive director of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, a foundation named after slain Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.
The DOC claims to be independently funded, but German media reported that Yakunin planned to give tens of millions of dollars to the DOC to help fund its operations. Shorina wrote that “Yakunin reportedly has invested $28 million of his personal wealth in the think tank over five years, but the organization has no official record of its income and expenses.”
The source of Yakunin’s wealth is unclear: The former KGB general and one-time head of Russian Railways has been close to Putin for decades, and well-known anti-corruption activists like Alexei Navalny have alleged that Yakunin used that relationship to steal staggering sums from Russian governmental coffers. In the 1990s, Yakunin and Putin co-founded the Ozero Dacha Cooperative, cited by experts on Russian corruption like Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy, as the beginning of the kleptocratic cabal that would eventually lead the Kremlin. (Yakunin has denied that any of his wealth is ill-gotten.)
One Reuters investigation in 2014 found that Russian Railways appeared to be involved in possible money laundering under Yakunin. With the former KGB general as its head, the company had “paid billions of dollars to private contractors that disguise their ultimate owners and have little or no presence at their registered headquarters.” Navalny wrote in 2016 that Yakunin’s family had “built a huge business empire” through “corruption and mismanagement,” accruing a network of wealth “worth billions of dollars.” Navalny even uncovered in 2013 that Yakunin’s mansion had, among other things, a storage room devoted solely to fur coats.
Yakunin was also the subject of an extensive investigation by Quartz in 2017, which examined how the sanctioned Russian oligarch stood as the poster-child for “reputation laundering,” using British companies to spin a new image of himself for Western audiences. (The DOC’s biography page for Yakunin doesn’t mention anything about the oligarch’s work as a KGB general, but instead identifies him as a “business leader and philanthropist.”)
As Deutsche Welle recently wrote, “Many doubt Yakunin has acquired his fortune honestly.”
Now, the questions about Yakunin’s wealth — and the fact that he’s been sanctioned by both the U.S. and Australia — have begun to trip up the DOC’s plans. Just last week, the European Leadership in Cultural, Science and Innovation Diplomacy (EL-CSID), an EU-funded group, publicly dropped Yakunin from a high-level conference in Brussels on “cultural and science diplomacy.” As BuzzFeed reported, Yakunin’s planned presence caused notable concern among European officials.
Bas said he was “shocked” that Yakunin was dropped from the conference. “Dr. Yakunin was really willing to contribute in a positive and constructive way to this debate,” he said. “I’m not naive and not blind — I understand there are tensions currently between Europe and Russia, but to my knowledge Dr. Yakunin doesn’t represent the government of Russia.”
Despite the setback, and even with both the Obama and Trump administrations sanctioning Yakunin, Bas said he is still moving ahead with DOC’s expansion plans. Yakunin already has links to other groups based in the U.S., including the notoriously anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. Multiple media outlets, and even WCF promotional materials, have said Yakunin has sponsored the group, though a representative for Yakunin denied to ThinkProgress that Yakunin has funded the WCF.
To Bas, the potential expansion isn’t part of any “grand plan” for Yakunin’s think tank. It’s simply a way to increase the reach of the DOC, an organization in which Bas acknowledges Yakunin is “playing a very important role.”
“I don’t feel there’s any kind of hidden agenda,” Bas said. “I belong to, and I believe in, Western values. And I just turned 60, and this isn’t the time to compromise with my values.”
This post has been updated with a comment from the DOC’s press officer.