Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is an anti-corruption campaigner and strong critic of President Vladimir Putin. Shortly before the “Panama Papers” leaks, he told swissinfo.ch that one cannot ignore Switzerland’s interest in “dirty money”.
swissinfo.ch: You have committed yourself to fighting corruption. What is the situation in Russia concerning corruption?
Alexei Navalny: It’s the guiding principle for the Putin system. People even try to invent a kind of philosophical legitimacy for corruption. But I am convinced – corruption is Russia’s number one public enemy. Why are investors avoiding Russia and why have no normal business structures been established? Because of corruption.
What’s more: to distract the people from the issue of corruption – this was the main reason people demonstrated back in 2010 and 2011 – Putin launched a war with Ukraine.
Leading Russian opposition activist and nationalist politician Alexei Navalny (39) founded his Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011. Its aim is to document and publicise state corruption in Russia.
In July 2013 he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison in a controversial court case. In October of the same year the sentence was suspended. In 2014 there followed what observers have called another politically motivated court case, in which Navalny was sentenced to another suspended prison term and his brother to an actual prison sentence.
swissinfo.ch: Worldwide there is a fight against corruption and money laundering, and you have also gained a lot of experience in exposing “safe havens”. How does Switzerland rate here?
A.N.: Switzerland is unfortunately the first choice for corrupt Russians. These people feel very comfortable and safe here. Remember Gennady Timchenko, a real symbol of Russian corruption. He became rich because Putin forced Russian oil firms to sell their raw material exclusively through Timchenko’s Swiss registered company.
Another example is Artyom Chaika, the son of the Russian Attorney General Yuri Chaika. Chaika junior was linked to a criminal gang that carried out many murders in the south of Russia. But he still received a Swiss residency permit, was able to invest CHF3 million ($3.1 million) in properties and now has a legal company with a Swiss citizen. He feels completely free and apparently enjoys the goodwill of the Swiss authorities, including the Swiss Office of the Attorney General.
swissinfo.ch: Rich Russians easily gain residency in Switzerland. Are the Swiss authorities just a bit too naive?
A.N.: It has nothing to do with being naive. These people are well known in Russia – and in Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: Is it easier to find information in Switzerland compared with other countries?
A.N.: Yes it is. Swiss commercial registers are accessible to the public. It’s harder when you want to find out about certain properties. But in most cantons, we generally manage to find out what we want. We get some help from volunteers on the ground.
Artyom Chaika case
The son of Russian Attorney General Yuri Chaika, Artyom Chaika is alleged to have illegally incorporated a state company. There is also evidence of mafia links, says Navalny in a video produced by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is available on social media.
Navaly says in his film that the moneys invested by Chaika in Switzerland are of illegal origin. This is why he went to the Swiss Office of the Attorney General and the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority.
Yuri Chaika rejects the accusations as baseless and false and the Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the film “uninteresting”.
swissinfo.ch: The Hebdo news magazine wrote about a “Galaxie Suisse de Poutine”. Is it true that there’s a galaxy of Putin supporters in Switzerland?
A.N.: There are certainly lobby groups that campaign along Kremlin lines. You cannot ignore the interest in dirty money, either. A huge infrastructure for this has sprung up, which involves both low and higher-level bank employees. Just look around in the Geneva banking quarter.
swissinfo.ch: The tradition of direct democracy is very strong in Switzerland. What does direct democracy mean to you?
A.N.: Direct democracy is a very important element on our political agenda. Our Progress Party is the only political force in Russia based on the principles of direct democracy. So we use it, for example, when filling party committee positions, but also to solve fundamental questions.
Within the Russian opposition movement, we are strongly committed to making transparent primaries part of political life. So in this context, we refer to how things are done in Switzerland when trying to change the view that decisions made in referendums are always misguided. People are not stupid.
swissinfo.ch: What have you achieved so far with your work?
A.N.: We have, for example, found properties that had not been properly declared by Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Pekhtin. This caused a huge scandal and he had to resign from all his posts.
For some time, though, the Russian authorities have been refusing to acknowledge us and therefore don’t take any action that could be construed in public as being a reaction to our work.
We have also been following the case of Russian railways chief Vladimir Yakunin. He was finally fired but only after two years. They put this off to avoid giving the impression that it was a logical consequence of our investigation. We expect the same thing to happen in the Chaika case.
Translated by Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch