Kremlin critic wants film to open West’s eyes about Putin’s Russia

FILE PHOTO: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who fell foul of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, is seen during an interview with Reuters at his office in central London, Britain, August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo

By Hanna Rantala

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) – Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky hopes a new documentary film about his life chronicling his journey from being Russia’s richest man to an exiled dissident will open the West’s eyes to the nature of modern Russia.

The film, “Citizen K”, was made by Oscar-winning U.S. filmmaker Alex Gibney and premiered at the Venice Film festival this weekend. It was based on more than 24 hours of interviews that Khodorkovsky, who is now based in Britain, gave over a period of months.

It tells the story of Khodorkovsky’s dramatic 2003 arrest on an icy Siberian runway by armed men and his fall from grace, punishment for what he and his supporters believe was his interest in Russian politics and fighting corruption.

The bespectacled tycoon, then head of the now defunct Yukos oil company, went on to serve a decade in jail on fraud charges he says were politically motivated before being freed in 2013 after President Vladimir Putin pardoned him.

“Today’s Kremlin regime has learned the art of window dressing very well, but it’s important to understand that behind these beautiful windows there is not just an ordinary authoritarian state but a real mafia, which has taken over this state,” Khodorkovsky, 56, told Reuters.

“If we look at how these methods are applied in relation to the West, we will see corruption, blackmail, compromising materials and even violence. While negotiating with the current Russian regime the West should understand it’s dealing with a criminal organization.”

Russia, which rejects his criticism as false, has issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, accusing him of ordering at least one successful contract killing in the 1990s, something Khodorkovsky denies.

Putin has said he regards the former businessman as a common thief, while Russian authorities have moved to curb the activities of Open Russia, a pro-democracy movement founded by Khodorkovsky.

“A VERY TALENTED KGB GUY”

In “Citizen K,” Khodorkovsky says he misread Putin when the former Soviet intelligence officer first came to power.

“It seemed to me ideologically that he was one of us. A person who gets it and wants to push Russia in the same direction that we want to. That is towards openness, towards democracy,” said Khodorkovsky.

“Boy was I mistaken. He’s a very talented KGB guy.”

Despite living in Britain, Khodorkovsky said he “lived for Russia” and that it occupied his thoughts for 12 out of every 16 waking hours a day, adding that he and his supporters were acutely aware of the risks they ran.

“If the Kremlin decides to kill somebody, it is very difficult for this person to avoid this fate,” he said, a reference to allegations that Moscow has assassinated some of its critics abroad, a charge the Kremlin flatly rejects.

“I tell all my colleagues that the only thing we can do for you is to help you not to be forgotten, as I was not forgotten during 10 years in prison. But it will be difficult, or even impossible, to save you if anything happens.”

(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Venice and Maria Stromova in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Britain knows more about mystery substance behind illness of Russian double agent

Police officers stand outside a pub near to where former Russian inteligence officer Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious after they had been exposed to an unknown substance, in Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Toby Melville

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) – Britain said on Wednesday that investigators now knew more about a mystery substance that struck down a former Russian double agent and his daughter in an English city, in a case that threatens to further damage already strained ties with Moscow.

Sergei Skripal, once a colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were found slumped unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the southern English city of Salisbury on Sunday afternoon.

Both remain critically ill in intensive care.

British politicians and media have speculated that Russia may have been behind the suspected poisoning of a man it regards as a traitor. Moscow has strongly rejected any involvement.

“We do know more about the substance and the police will be making a further statement this afternoon in order to share some of that,” interior minister Amber Rudd said after chairing the government’s emergency response committee.

“We need to keep a cool head and make sure that we collect all the evidence we can and we need to make sure that we respond not to rumor,” Rudd said. “Then we will need to decide what action to take.”

Counter-terrorism police are leading the investigation and Britain’s military research laboratory at Porton Down is trying to identify the substance which caused Skripal, 66, and his daughter to collapse.

The suspected poisoning prompted Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to say on Tuesday that if Moscow were behind the incident then Britain could look again at sanctions and take other measures to punish Russia, which he cast as a “malign and disruptive” state.

On Wednesday Russia reaffirmed its view that allegations of Russian involvement in the case were being cynically used to whip up an anti-Russian campaign in Britain.

“It’s very hard not to assess this (speculation) as provocative black PR designed to complicate relations between our two countries,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow.

A source close to the British investigation said that Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning was just one of the versions being looked at by counter-terrorism investigators with assistance from the MI5 domestic intelligence agency.

Police said new cordons had been added near Solstice Park, a business park, in the town of Amesbury near to Salisbury. They have sealed off the area of Salisbury where Skripal was found as well as the Zizzi pizza restaurant where they dined and the Bishop’s Mill pub where they had a drink.

Some emergency workers were treated after the incident and one remains in hospital.

“NEED TO DETER RUSSIA”

The British capital has been dubbed “Londongrad” due to the large amounts of Russian wealth which have flowed westwards since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. It is the Western city of choice for many oligarchs from the former Soviet Union.

Britain has specifically drawn parallels with the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko who was killed with radioactive polonium-210 in London.

A previous British inquiry said Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved the murder of Litvinenko, who died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London’s Millennium Hotel.

It took three weeks for British doctors to ascertain that Litvinenko had been poisoned by polonium-210 by which time he was at death’s door.

Russia denied involvement in the death of Litvinenko, which the British inquiry said had been hatched by the Federal Security Service (FSB), main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

Former British defense minister Michael Fallon called for a stronger response if Russia was involved in the Skripal affair.

“We’ve got to respond more effectively than we did last time over Litvinenko. Our response then clearly wasn’t strong enough,” Fallon told Reuters. “We need to deter Russia from believing they can get away with attacks like this on our streets if it’s proved.”

Litvinenko’s murder sent Britain’s ties with Russia to what was then a post-Cold War low. Relations suffered further from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The suspected poisoning of Skripal has come shortly before Russia’s presidential election on March 18, which Putin is expected to win comfortably, extending his rule by a further six years. The former KGB officer has been president since 2000.

Russia’s FSB arrested Skripal in 2004 on suspicion of betraying dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006 after a secret trial.

In 2010 Skripal was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies caught in the West as part of a Cold War-style spy swap at Vienna airport.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Palestinian leader Abbas KGB spy in 1980’s according to documents

Gideon Remez, one of the Israeli researchers who said on Thursday that Soviet-era documents showed that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas worked in the 1980s for the KGB, speaks to Reuters during an interview in Jerusalem

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Soviet-era documents show that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas worked in the 1980s for the KGB, the now-defunct intelligence agency where Russian leader Vladimir Putin once served, Israeli researchers said on Thursday.

The Palestinian government denied that Abbas, who received a PhD in Moscow in 1982, had been a Soviet spy, and it accused Israel of “waging a smear campaign” aimed at derailing efforts to revive peace negotiations that collapsed in 2014.

The allegations, first reported by Israel’s Channel One television on Wednesday, surfaced as Russia pressed ahead with an offer by Putin, made last month, to host a meeting in Moscow between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both leaders have agreed in principle to a summit, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, but it gave no date.

Gideon Remez, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Institute, said an Abbas-KGB connection emerged from documents smuggled out of Russia by former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin in 1991.

Some of the material, now in the Churchill Archives of Britain’s Cambridge University, was released two years ago for public research, and the Truman Institute requested a file marked “the Middle East”, Remez told Reuters.

“There’s a group of summaries or excerpts there that all come under a headline of persons cultivated by the KGB in the year 1983,” he said.

“Now one of these items is all of two lines … it starts with the codename of the person, ‘Krotov’, which is derived from the Russian word for ‘mole’, and then ‘Abbas, Mahmoud, born 1935 in Palestine, member of the central committee of Fatah and the PLO, in Damascus ‘agent of the KGB’,” Remez said.

Abbas is a founding member of Fatah, the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the main Palestinian nationalist movement. He became Palestinian president in 2005.

The documents cited by Remez did not give any indication of what role Abbas may have played for the KGB or the duration of his purported service as an agent.

A Palestinian official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said that Abbas had served as an “official liaison with the Soviets, so he hardly needed to be a spy”, without elaborating.

The official said any suggestion that the president was a spy was “absolutely absurd”.

Adding to the intrigue, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, whom Putin has tasked with arranging the Moscow summit, served two stints in the Soviet embassy in Damascus between 1983 and 1994, covering the period in which Abbas was purportedly recruited.

Bogdanov was in the area this week for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Pravin Char)