Private Dinner with Russian Oligarchs at Atlantic Council

May 28, 2018
Mikhail Fridman (L) and Pyotr Aven (R)

Update: Recently, Atlantic Council held a private dinner with Russian oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, provoking some criticism among Russian exiles.

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Recently, word got out that the Atlantic Council was hosting a private dinner with the Russian oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, head of the powerful Russian Alfa Group. (Note: Atlantic Council was The Interpreter’s media partner in 2017).

Neither is under sanction, but Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller indicted Alex van der Zwaan, the son-in-law of German Khan, who is a member of Alfa Group.
Fridman was included on the much-discussed “oligarch’s list” released by the US last February but it’s not clear as he himself said if it had any impact. Inclusion on this list isn’t an outright sanction, but as we put it, a sort of indication not to put someone on your dinner party list.
Atlantic Council did, because in their view — as they later explained — you have to talk to everybody (and that’s what the best UN diplomats will tell you). It was not like a charity dinner, with an honoree, after all, but a private meeting.
The leaked information prompted a group of Russian intellectuals forced into exile due to their political or human rights activities to sign a letter of protest.
Interestingly, Atlantic Council published their letter, then put out their own statement. Yuliya Latynina — a journalist who had to flee Russia due to repeated attacks and threats — gave the dinner some snark, calling Washington an “obkom” (Soviet-era Communist Party committee), and the letter-signers “outraged laborers,” a Soviet cliche. 
Latynina scolds the letter-signers for “pretending they don’t know how think-tanks work.”

American think tanks take money from sponsors, that is quite official. This, by the way, is one of the ways of getting a job in a think tank, well known to many of the signers of the letter. A company comes to the think tank and says “hire so-and-so, we will sponsor you, and you take this money, minus your 35%, and pay it to him as salary, insurance, etc. That is, this goes on everywhere — it’s a Pulcinella [open] secret.

Latynina also tells the story of how Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev was also making the rounds in Washington recently, pressing the cause of his people, who have been savaged under Russian occupation (he himself was barred from the peninsula and lives in Kiev now). He ran into Aven who happened to be at the Atlantic Council. Aven was carrying a “thick book,” which turned out to be his own book, The Time of Berezovskky but he was unable to give Dzhemilev the copy, as he had to give it to someone else.

Latynina said she asked to get into the dinner, but was politely rebuffed, and told it was private, and only for Americans.
Not surprisingly, some of the people at the dinner talked about it, and the result was a Facebook post by journalist Karina Orlova reprinted on the independent Ekho Moskvy’s web site.

The following is a translation of Orlova’s piece by The Interpreter:

On Monday (May 21, 2018), the co-owners of Alfa Group, Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, visited Washington at the invitation of Atlantic Council expert Anders Åslund. Three months ago, Åslund wrote a report for the US Administration on the criteria to define oligarchs close to Putin. He invited two of these oligarchs to a private dinner to discuss nothing less than the economy of Russia under conditions of sanctions.
An official from the US Treasury Department, a member of the White House National Security Council and American lobbyists came to the dinner with Fridman and Aven. We wrote in more detail about the list of invitees here.

After speaking with people directly familiar with the content of the discussion at this private dinner, we learned that Fridman and Aven completely unambiguously criticized the Putin regime. In particular,  they stated that even the high prices of oil would not save the country, and voiced their extremely negative evaluations of the Russian economy.  The reason for this are irreversible structural changes, brain drain, and the extreme short-sightedness of Vladimir Putin. For example, in particular, there was the blocking of the messaging app Telegram, which they called a tragedy for Russia and the wrong signal on the part of the Russian government.
Fridman and Aven avoided a conversation about sanctions in every way, but when they were persistently asked, they acknowledged that everyone of course fears personal sanctions in Russia, and cited the horrible situation in which Viktor Vekselberg had found himself. [Note: The Russian government already helped Vekselberg, and in fact in such a way that Finance Minister Anton Siluanov preferred not to publicize the figures–KO].
Even so, regarding their assets, Fridman and Aven stated that all their money went through an audit and therefore is completely clean. The dinner guests were not impressed — this all looked exactly as if the Russian oligarchs were trying to convince those present that they didn’t belong under sanctions.
But obviously, criticism of the regime, and distancing of themselves from it, is exactly the appropriate method for this. To be sure, it doesn’t always work. Thus, for example, VTB bank head Andrei Kostin came to Washington on a private visit two years ago with a similar mission — to persuade officials to remove the sanctions from VTB. Ekho Moskvy accidentally found out about it then, from a US official who was outraged at Kostin’s actions. The VTB chief tried to persuad people at private meetings with congress people and Administration officials that the bank was independent of the Kremlin, that it conducts business in Ukraine, that it raised the economy of the country, and therefore sanctions should be removed. Kostin’s fables didn’t impress anyone, and as a result, this year, he himself fell under personal sanctions.
The Atlantic Council and Anders Åslund were publicly criticized for the dinner with Fridman and Aven due to a conflict of interest: the author of a report on Russian oligarchs invited two of these oligarchs, direct candidates for ending up under sanctions, to a private dinner with American officials.
Andrei Piontkovsky, one of Åslund’s co-authors of the report, signed the open letter with an objection to holding this dinner (two other co-authors of the report — Daniel Fried and Andrei Illarionov kept silent; to be sure, Fried was away in Europe). The objection was published on the Atlantic Council’s site.
Responding to criticism, Åslund reported the following: Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven were “his old friends,” “they are citizens of Israel,” “Aven also has Latvian citizenship” and in general “thiswas his (Åslund’s) little private dinner.” End quote. Period.
Russian journalist Yuliya Latynina, who is now in Washington, unexpectedly hurried to the rescue of Fridman and Aven. Here is what our colleague wrote in her Novaya Gazeta column:

“The speech by Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven was 

undoubtedly interesting for the experts on Russia. It was important for them to hear first-hand what potential victims of sanctions think about sanctions. It was useful to hear their arguments. This is indeed part of the process of decision-making in Washington.”

We are totally in agreement with the respected Yuliya Latynina: the opinion of the respected Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven is important to be heard first-hand. No less important, however, is not discrediting the audience, and in particular, Russians before Americans. Therefore, we decided that the opinion of the co-owners of Alfa Group about where the country Russia is headed  under the leadership of the short-sighted (and not only that) Vladimir Putin should be heard by Russians as well. After all, that is real patriotism — to tell your fellow citizens, and not some Americans over there, the truth. That is why we are publishing this article.

Best of all, of course, would be if Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman voiced their ideas and opinion somewhere like the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. That is a very suitable platform. But we suppose that will not happen, and that is why we are publishing the content of this dinner in Washington.
Realizing, so to say, the sacred right of the public to information.
By the way, in that letter where the respected Anders Åslund explains his many years of friendship with Aven and Fridman, he writes that he was very sorry that “you [opponents of the dinner] were not invited to the dinner.”
We hasten to report to the respected Anders Åslund that the food at the dinner was so-so, and we learned about what was said anyway. So no, we don’t regret that we didn’t eat a free bad meal.
Well, and those who have read to the end should get a prize. Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven decided to complain to the Americans about the ethnic question. Yes, yes. We, they said, first suffered because we are Jews, and now we are suffering because we are Russians.
A dead silence reigned in the hall. A five-carat tear rolled down the cheek of Anders Åslund. 
Well, alright, alright, that was a joke about the tear, respected Anders Åslund  staunchly endured the revelations of Aven and Fridman. He did not cry from laughter.
But everything else is described exactly as it happened.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick