Advocacy, Europe, Human rights, New in Lobbying

Exiled Kremlin critic’s human rights group hires US lobbyist as Putin eyes term extension

The human rights organization founded by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has hired a former aide to Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny as a US lobbyist.

Virginia-based consulting firm VA Solutions was retained by London-based Human Rights Project Management to lobby on “human rights, democracy, and rule of law internationally.” The registration was effective May 1.

VA Solutions is run out of McLean by Anna Veduta, a former Navalny spokeswoman and former global outreach director for Latvia-based Russian-language news outlet Meduza. Veduta’s hiring comes just weeks before Russians prepare to go to the polls on July 1 to vote on constitutional changes that could extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule until 2036.

“In my new role the goal is informing the American public about the autocratic and corrupt Putin regime’s actions at home and abroad (including human rights violations),” Veduta told Foreign Lobby Report in an email on Thursday. “Efforts to share information in the U.S. that involve contact with state officials require registration — especially when any Russian-speaking person in Washington, D.C., is viewed as a potential spy. We do everything possible to be transparent and law-abiding.”

Last week, Khodorkovsky blasted the proposed changes in comments to Forbes. It is “no surprise,” he said, that Putin wants to “rush with the plebiscite vote to legitimize the constitutional amendments.” Putin’s approval ratings have tumbled over his lackluster handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Russia particularly hard.

Khodorkovsky has had a long and tumultuous history with Putin. A billionaire who ran the Yukos oil company before the Russian government broke it up in 2003 and charged him with fraud, he served almost a decade in prison until Putin pardoned him in 2013.

In 2015 Khodorkovsky left for London, where he founded Human Rights Project Management with the goal to “connect and unite Russian citizens who seek a state governed by the rule of law with a strong civil society, regular free elections and the promotion of European values,” according to its lobbying filing with the European Union’s Transparency Register. The group was originally called OR (Otkrytaya Rossia), or “Open Russia,” but changed its name in 2017.

Moscow declared the organization “undesirable” in April 2017 after it backed nationwide protests calling for the resignation of then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev over his alleged corruption. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both condemned the group’s blacklisting and the subsequent prosecution of its members in Russia.

While Khodorkovsky’s organization was not previously registered to lobby in Washington, it has been registered to lobby European officials in Brussels since 2015. Lobbying filings show that the group spends between €25,000 and €50,000 ($28,500 to $57,000) annually on EU lobbying. In 2015 agents for the organization met with Alice Richard, a member of the Cabinet of then-First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who was responsible for the rule of law and charter of fundamental rights portfolio.

Update: This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. on June 11 with comment from Anna Veduta.