When Vladislav Surkov left the government last week, it triggered an avalanche of speculation about what the loss of “the grey cardinal” means for Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev in particular and his “liberal” political clan in general. The ouster followed a public fracas with the federal Investigative Committee, which recently opened an embezzlement case against managers of the state-sponsored Skolkovo innovation center, which is widely considered Surkov’s brainchild.
At the center of the feds' probe [ru] is Duma Deputy and anti-Putin protest movement leader Ilya Ponomarev, who earned a surprising $750,000 [ru] for his outreach (see below) and planning work for Skolkovo between 2010 and 2012.
In the last two months, Ponomarev’s Skolkovo income has attracted growing national media attention, but the issue has been percolating [ru] on the RuNet since last year. On September 23, 2012 (in response to a scandal involving registration fees for elections to the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition), Ponomarev first addressed the large sum of money he earned from Skolkovo, writing [ru] on LiveJournal:
Про доходы. Моя декларация есть в открытом доступе. Я никогда не жаловался на доходы. За последний год я получил как депутат около 2 млн. рублей, и еще около 7 млн. получил как гонорары за поддержку инновационных проектов по линии Фонда Сколково.
About my income. My declaration is accessible to all. [See here for Ponomarev's 2006-2012 records.] I’ve never wanted for earnings. In the last year, I made 2 million rubles as a Duma deputy, and I earned another 7 million rubles ($225,000) in honoraria for supporting the Skolkovo Foundation’s various innovation projects.
Many bloggers reacted to these figures with suspicion. Vadim Skvortsov, for instance, highlighted Ponomarev’s apparently unique advisor position under Skolkovo President Viktor Vekselberg, writing [ru]:
Что-то мне подсказывает, что такие денежки идут частенько прямиком на финансирование антипутинских акций “болотной” либерально-анархической оппозиции.
Something tells me that such money goes directly toward financing the anti-Putin demonstrations of the “Bolotnaya” liberal-anarchist opposition.
Earlier that year in March, a Lithuania-based blogger named skolkovo_eu also raised the idea [ru] that Vekselberg was financing the opposition through Skolkovo, linking to an article [ru] in the online tabloid wek.ru titled “Viktor Vekselberg Funds Ponomarev’s ‘Million Man March’?”
On April 19, 2013, a day after police raided the offices of Skolkovo’s management, the Investigative Committee opened [ru] a criminal case against the fund’s senior vice president, Alexey Beltiukov, for embezzling money through Skolkovo’s contracts with Ponomarev. Over the next twenty-four hours, the story developed in several directions online, focusing mainly on (1) continued suspicions about Ponomarev’s large honoraria, and (2) a debate about whether or not Skolkovo serves as a funnel for state sponsorship of the opposition. Much of the controversy surrounding the high income is that almost half ($300,000) was compensation for just ten lectures, meaning that Ponomarev earned roughly $10,000 for each talk, some of which lasted less than twenty minutes. Investigators even allege [ru] that he may not have attended one of these presentations in Tomsk in October 2011 (though there is photographic evidence to the contrary, and Ponomarev did “check-in” from the event’s location, using Foursquare).
Ponomarev & friends fight back
On April 20, writing on LiveJournal, Ponomarev responded [ru] to investigators’ accusations, defending the size of his contracts and arguing that the state saved money by hiring him instead of outsourcing the labor to private firms. While his Skolkovo deal formally concerned a lecture series, Ponomarev insists that far more was included in the work:
Мероприятий было гораздо больше, но меня Фонд изначально предупредил, что надо отчитываться небольшим количеством из них, которые проходили в открытом режиме, и каждое из которых смогут подтвердить свидетели в ходе неминуемых проверок.
There were far more events, but the Foundation from the start warned me that we needed to give an account of [only] a small number—the ones open to the public, so witnesses could confirm each of these events during inevitable [future] audits.
On April 19, another Duma deputy on LiveJournal, LDPR’s Igor Lebedev, posted scans [ru] supposedly containing excerpts of Ponomarev’s Skolkovo contracts. (Ponomarev says the scans are fake.) What Lebedev published accounts for about 80% of the $750,000 work, which Ponomarev allegedly described in a March 2011 letter to Beltiukov as “scientific research.” On the subject of qualifications, questions remain about Ponomarev’s academic credentials, given that he had not completed his higher education at the time of the contracted work. (He returned for a degree in 2011, after a 14-year hiatus.)
Because of Skolkovo’s mysterious recordkeeping, the public is free either to take on faith or reject Ponomarev’s claim that his work for the government was honest. Skolkovo’s puzzling approach to contracted labor seems to have stemmed from fears that a more straightforward, transparent approach would make it vulnerable to state inspectors. Ironically, it’s the absence of a clear paper trail that now incriminates the project.
Some bloggers have tried to piece together the various input costs that Ponomarev would have incurred in his travels inside Russia and abroad (he visited a dozen foreign countries in connection with Skolkovo work). On April 20, 2013, California-based software engineer Yuri Panchul (a self-confessed admirer [ru] of Ponomarev) estimated the likely costs of the Skolkovo-related business trips throughout the United States, concluding [ru] that any Silicon Valley executive would not have taken the contract for less than $1 million. Regarding probable travel and hospitality expenses (which Ponomarev claims to have paid using his honoraria), Panchul argues that costs were as high as $700,000, meaning that Ponomarev’s real salary was only about $50,000.
Clan warfare then & now
Others on the RuNet have been less inclined to believe that Ponomarev’s income was all lost to unreported expenses. On April 22, 2013, Kremlin-sympathetic blogger Nikolai Starikov tried to connect Ponomarev’s Skolkovo work to foreign political interference [ru], implying a plot [ru] between Westerners and certain government insiders:
Нас еще ждут отставки и весьма интересные повороты сюжета. Ведь наша «оппозиция», а вернее говоря, их западные друзья и кураторы были уверены, что им удастся не допустить прихода Путина на пост президента. А, значит, все эти «шалости» останутся покрытыми тайной и туманом. И тот факт, что государственные структуры оплатят протесты против государства, так никто и не узнает.
Но вот эту правду про истинное назначение денег Илья Пономарев никогда не скажет. И предпочтет выглядеть банальным жуликом и вором.
We can look forward to resignations and some quite interesting plot twists. Indeed, our “opposition”—or better said, our opposition’s Western friends and sponsors—were sure they’d succeed in stopping Putin’s return to the presidency. That means that all these “antics” will remain covered in secrets and mist. And nobody realizes the fact that state structures are paying for protests against the state.
But Ilya Ponomarev will never reveal this truth about the money’s real purpose. He’d rather look like a common thief.
In July 2010, when Russian politics was still caught in a feverish debate about whether Medvedev or Putin would run for president in 2012, LiveJournal user _iga taunted Ponomarev on his blog, arguing [ru] that the Skolkovo project amounted to a retirement plan for Medvedev, sealing his fate as a one-term president. Ponomarev disagreed, writing [ru]:
думаю, строго наоборот – этот проект является заявкой Медведева на второй срок
I think it’s exactly the opposite. This project [Skolkovo] is Medvedev’s bid for a second term.
Almost three years later, in the immediate aftermath of the Investigative Committee’s raids on Skolkovo, Ponomarev’s thoughts about the innovation center’s place in Russian politics have changed. Whereas Skolkovo was Medvedev’s executive calling card in July 2010, Ponomarev now sees politics as an intrusion on the project:
Я не склонен оценивать происходящее как борьбу Путина с Медведевым. Но думаю, мы являемся свидетелями борьбы консервативного клана (условного кооператива Озеро) с условными либералами в правительстве. Мне не нравятся они оба. Но второй клан хотя бы что-то делает, чтобы разорвать зависимость России от нефти и газа. Первый клан устраивает статус кво, и он сознательно рушит все начинания, которые могут его поколебать.
I’m not inclined to see events as a battle between Putin and Medvedev, but I do think that we’re witnessing a battle between the conservative clan (your Ozero co-op) and your various liberals in the government. I don’t like either of them, but the second clan is at least doing something to break Russia’s dependence on oil and gas. The former clan is satisfied with the status quo, and it consciously destroys all endeavors that might shake it.