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Looking away from Russian corruption led to Ukraine war, says one of Putin’s leading adversaries

by Neha Wadekar December 19, 2022

This Q&A was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on December 19, 2022. Subscribe here.

December 9th was International Anti-Corruption Day. Fuller Project contributor Neha Wadekar attended the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC), a gathering in Washington, D.C., that brought together heads of state, civil society, business leaders and investigative journalists.

The conference drew some of the world’s most prominent anti-corruption voices. Among them was Maria Pevchikh, Chief Investigator at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a non-governmental organization founded by Alexei Navalny, the leading political rival of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Navalny became ill and went into a coma after being poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union. Pevchikh was on the Medivac plane that took him from Omsk to Berlin for treatment. The European Union, the United Kingdom and an investigative team spearheaded by Bellingcat and the Anti-Corruption Foundation pointed the finger at covert Russian agents, an allegation Moscow has denied. Today, Navalny is in prison for what Amnesty International says are politically motivated charges of fraud and contempt. 

Pevchikh, a high-profile female activist fighting against an authoritarian regime known for its misogyny and paternalism, is accustomed to operating under treacherous circumstances. She’s currently promoting a CNN/HBO documentary she executive produced, chronicling Navalny’s near-death experience, long recovery, and fight to expose the people who poisoned him. We talked to her about how she copes with the pressure while building an investigative journalism machine to fight against the most powerful men in the country.

Read our interview with Maria Pevchikh below. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What motivated you to get into this work? How did you get started? 

I was looking for a way to cause the Putin regime maximum pain in the shortest possible period of time.

I [didn’t] know how one person, one very young girl at that point, [could] oppose a regime run by a KGB machine and a bunch of corrupt oligarchs. So I looked around, and I decided to join the force I thought was strong enough to deliver me to this desired destination. And that was Alexei Navalny. 

I applied for a job when he advertised one. And he was looking for a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer, so I didn’t get the job. But we became friends straightaway. And we shared very similar views on what’s happening. So initially, I just wanted to be helpful in any respect that I can be helpful. From translating something into English to researching something. And then later on, it grew into this investigative journalism machine that we built. 

How do you go about doing that? What does your day to day look like?

Our day to day life at the Anti-Corruption Foundation is actually a lot less glamorous than people think. Our work as investigators is very similar to just sitting in a dark room working through piles and piles of documents trying to make sense of the thing. So that’s corrupt politicians, corrupt government officials. 

We study the networks of firms, offshores. We try to prove that assets have been acquired illegally. We are doing very, very meticulous journalistic work. 

And then we don’t stop at that. 

Our lawyers go through our investigations and try to find every way, every reason, that these people can be prosecuted. After our investigations, we also [file] legal complaints everywhere we can, in every jurisdiction, so we can eventually bring those people to justice, get those assets frozen or confiscated. Or, at the very least, get these corrupt [Russian] government officials sanctions at the E.U. level, or by the U.S., U.K., etc.

What are the biggest obstacles that you face when you have gone from the investigative level to trying to actually get sanctions, accountability, justice? 

There have been a number of obstacles that we have been, sadly, facing when dealing with investigating Russian dirty money abroad. I’d say up until this year, up until the war started, there has been a clear lack of political will. 

During the first decade, or even maybe even longer, of Putin’s rule, there has been this compromise in the West that went around the lines of Russian internal problems being separate from Russia’s external problems. And that approach has led to an incredible [spilling over] of Russian corruption abroad. 

What seemed to everybody as an internal Russian problem, as the problem of the Russian people, Russian state, has all of a sudden ended up being the whole world’s problem. Russian corruption that has been neglected and looked away from, now has converted into Russia starting a war against Ukraine, killing tens of thousands of innocent people, destroying cities and lives of innocent people. 

So, I hope that this negligence that many government officials have admitted at this point, this oversight that has been definitely present there at the E.U. level, at an international level, will now be revisited, and a different approach will be assumed. 

It’s really a time for aggressive action, for very decisive political movements, for almost-radical action that is needed to stop such a huge and massive corrupt machine that Putin’s regime is.

What would you say to people who make the argument that keeping lines of communication open in some way is better than completely ostracizing that country? The people who hope that by having some kind of relationship, we might be able to sway these countries in the direction of democracy, inclusive human rights?

To those people, I would advise them to just revisit the last 20 years of relationship with Russia. So many compromises were made. So many reset buttons have been pressed publicly saying, “there is a new political cycle. I’m going to start everything from scratch. And I’m going to be the one who will make Putin listen to me.” 

Now, we can say that this doesn’t work. Didn’t work when Putin annexed Crimea, didn’t work when Putin started the war in eastern Ukraine initially in 2014. It didn’t work when the Russian army shot down Boeing MH17. 

And even at that point, there were still negotiations with Putin. There were still calls. There were still attempts to talk him into behaving better. And we now all know for sure that throughout this attempt, Putin has been laughing at the weakness of those people who were trying to do that. He was never treating them seriously.

And God knows how many lives could have been saved if a harsh and decisive action was taken against Putin straightway.

What’s important for people to know, and what are certain countries or jurisdictions or places where you feel like we might be making the same mistakes again?

The biggest lesson to learn is that a regime cannot be undemocratic internally in one place and democratic externally. Whatever you get for import and for export is actually always the same thing. 

And there are now a number of regimes, obviously, Saudi Arabia being the best example, where the international community, politicians here in the US and elsewhere, choose this, you know, selective vision where they would notice certain things and then they would ignore other things like human rights violations, electoral fraud, violations of any other rights, and lack of freedoms. 

We shouldn’t be facilitating and admitting these compromise solutions. When it comes to undemocratic regimes, authoritarian regimes, there is no role for compromise. 

What kind of impact has the Anti-Corruption Foundation had?

Millions and millions of people watch [our video] investigations. And there have been two generations of young people who have been politicized, thanks to watching our investigations. 

So at the very least, although we didn’t get those [corrupt] people behind the bars yet, we managed to groom an entire generation of politically active youth, of politically active people who are now our biggest support base and who will one day play a pivotal, crucial role in establishing a new Russia. A democratic Russia, a Russia after Putin, which I am 100% sure will be an absolutely different place, and, finally, a happy place that it deserves to be.

You come up against some very powerful people with a lot of ability to cause harm. How do you protect yourself? How do you stay safe? And what about the people around you?

If I know anything about the concept of safety and about how to live under these objectively dangerous circumstances, I know that there isn’t really a way to guarantee 100% safety. 

Regardless of what we do, what I do, my colleagues do, and regardless of the objective dangers, we are also living very interesting and very fun lives. We love to interact with those people who support us. Every time I have a Q&A or a speech or something, I have a hugging session after it. And if someone told me that I am not supposed to shake someone’s hand when that person says that he or she is our supporter, I would be just like, “no”.

Sometimes you just need to very consciously and very, like deliberately, you just need to suppress that fear. And control it. Try to keep every piece of normality that you have, because it’s a very, very, very long fight that we are in the middle of. 

Just because Vladimir Putin has threatened me, I’m not giving him this pleasure of turning my life into a nightmare of security measures. Sometimes you just need to be brave.

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