Behind the crackdown on Russia’s “foreign agents”: a pro-Kremlin and anti-globalization crusader

MOSCOW – As Russia expands its list of so-called “foreign agent” media outlets, slapping them with a label that hinders their work, the journalists who employ them are doing what journalists do best everywhere – investigating the reasons for who their organizations were targeted and by whom.

There is a name that comes up more and more frequently: Aleksandr Ionov.

The net of Russia’s “foreign agents” has widened considerably in recent years, with almost all major independent media in Russia being affected by the label which was first legalized in 2012.

Since then, it has expanded to include not only the media, but some of Russia’s most important non-governmental organizations, civil society groups, election observers, rights activists and individuals.

There are now dozens of entries on the official books of the Department of Justice.

This week’s additions include the Mediazona news site and OVD-Info, a nonprofit that monitors police arrests across the country.

Meduza, an independent news site based in Latvia, was affected by the designation in April.

Meduza said the label scared many of its advertisers, whose site depended on revenue, and was forced to launch a major crowdfunding campaign.

Meduza’s lawyers, meanwhile, found court documents listed Ionov as the initiator of the complaint that led to the organization’s trouble.

“One of our reports offended Ionov so much that he decided to write a complaint against Meduza to the Russian censorship agency, Roskomnadzor,” the outlet reported.

Who is Ionov?

Founder of an obscure Moscow-based think tank called the Russian Anti-Globalization Movement, Ionov has long been seen as an independent pro-Kremlin activist helping to advance a government-backed war of attrition against suspected enemies.

He’s hardly a stranger to the spotlight.

In March 2019, The Atlantic magazine described Ionov’s group as an NGO “partly funded, but not directly controlled, by the Kremlin,” and noted that Ionov had attempted to promote marginal separatist movements in the United States. United long before 2016.

In 2015, the organization organized a conference in Moscow called “Dialogue of Nations” which brought together separatist groups from the United States, Europe and Ukraine. News reports indicated that the conference was funded by the National Charity Fund, a charity established in the late 1990s that receives money from large state and public companies and oligarchs.

Ionov also raised around $ 30,000 in legal funds for Maria Butina, the Russian gun rights activist who raided conservative American politicians before being convicted in 2018 for acting as a foreign agent. not registered. She returned to Russia after her release in October 2019 and was recently elected to the State Duma.

A letter from Putin thanking Ionov for his “work to strengthen friendship between peoples” hangs on the wall inside the offices of the Russian Anti-Globalization Movement in Moscow, Vice reported.

Ionov, whose social media feed is replete with messages accusing Russian journalists, without clear evidence, of accepting Western grants for opaque political projects, said he had no “personal hostility” towards journalists.

“I respect all journalists and have no personal hostility” towards them, he told RFE / RL in a Facebook post.

“The journalists my colleagues and I have focused on have received targeted grants from abroad. It’s taxpayers’ money in the US and Britain, as well as other EU countries, ”he said.

When asked if he was coordinating his efforts with the Kremlin, he replied: “I think the Kremlin has better things to do than coordinate lists … with me.”

Foreign agents, unwanted organizations

Meduza then reported that Ionov was behind a complaint that led to the first “undesirable” designation of a university in Russia: Bard College, a liberal arts school in the northern state of Russia. New York with strong ties to a leading St. Petersburg university.

The legal designation “undesirable”, established under a separate law parallel to the law on “foreign agents”, is an equally punitive label that almost always results in the closure of designated organizations.

Bard was ultimately banned by Russian prosecutors, who called him a “threat to national security” and also placed anyone affiliated with his partner institution in St. Petersburg in legal danger.

In August, iStories, an investigative media that had looked at high-level corruption in Russia, was named a “foreign agent”. Meduza reported that Ionov was behind this as well.

But as the net widens further, Ionov’s public statements suggest the trend is likely to continue.

On September 29, state broadcaster RT reported that Ionov was appealing to prosecutors to declare prominent journalist Yelizaveta Osetinskaya, founder of commercial news agency The Bell, a “foreign agent”.

He had previously requested that the outlet itself receive the same label.

“The Osetinskaya company basically got money from US taxpayers,” Ionov told the outlet in an interview, without giving details.

Osetinskaya did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On the same day on his Facebook page, where he regularly posts what he says is proof of Russian journalists’ nefarious intentions, Ionov posted an image of himself sitting at a desk in front of a laptop, a big pipe in his mouth.

“The investigation is continuing,” he wrote.

RFE / RL Senior Correspondent Mike Eckel contributed to this story


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Estelle D. Eden

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