In the wake of the long-awaited publication of the Russia report into interference in UK democracy, one of the most prominent Soviet-born donors to the Conservative Party has said he is no “friend of Putin” and called for greater scrutiny of British ex-politicians working for Russian state firms.
In an interview with the Guardian Alexander Temerko said he welcomed the publication of the intelligence and security committee’s (ISC) Russia report, which accused the government of turning a blind eye to Kremlin interference. “Better late than never. They finally published it,” he said.
The report stated that: “Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations.”
But Temerko, who has donated more than £1.3m to the Conservatives, distanced himself from association with Putin’s regime and said he was the victim of “false rumours” about his links with the Russian government. Born in Soviet Ukraine, he served as a junior defence minister in Boris Yeltsin’s cabinet and worked for the Russian oil and gas giant Yukos. After the state oil firm Rosneft seized Yukos’s assets Temerko moved to the UK. He has been a citizen of the UK since 2011.
Temerko refused to be drawn on whether Moscow had backed Brexit during the 2016 EU referendum. But he acknowledged the ISC was right to characterise Vladimir Putin’s regime as a serious threat, saying: “It wants to harm the UK.”
The report shines a light on the role played by Russian money in London. Much of it is “illicit”, it says. Oligarch cash has been invested in “building influence” across a wide sphere of the British establishment, the report adds. Beneficiaries include PR firms, charities, lawyers, and academic and cultural institutions, as well as former politicians and peers.
“I have never been a friend of Putin’s. I’m ready to say he’s an enemy of democracy. I have seen my friends jailed,” he said. Temerko acknowledged being close to Boris Johnson but said he had campaigned in 2016 for Remain. He added: “I’m a Tory activist. I’m a party member. My only passport is British. I want to live here and die here.”
The MPs who drew up the report described Russian influence in the UK as ‘the new normal’. They said there were “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin” who were “well integrated into the business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth”. It identified a network of “individuals and organisations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK”.
Temerko echoed calls from the ISC for greater attention to be paid to members of the House of Lords. Several peers and ex-peers sit on the boards of high-profile Moscow companies. They include Lord Barker, who is chairman of EN+, co-owned by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Meanwhile Lord Mandelson was a non-executive director of the Russian conglomerate Sistema, earning £200,000 a year. He still reportedly owns shares in the firm.
Other members of the upper chamber work for Russian businesses including the shipping firm Sovcomflot UK, the oil firm RNG joint stock company and the oil refining company Russneft. The ISC has recommended that peers should register payments above £100, similar to the register of interests in the house of commons.
Temerko pointed out that many British firms are heavily invested in Russia, including BP which has a 19.75% stake in Rosneft. Rosneft’s chief executive Igor Sechin is a close and longstanding ally of Putin’s. Other leading companies with branches in Russia include Barclays and Citibank, he said, adding: “It’s serious money. We need to talk about that.”
Lord Mandelson said on Wednesday he left Sistema after the company was taken over and its chairman placed under house arrest: “My [Russian] visa was suspended. I didn’t want to hurt the company whose own governance I greatly admired. But I had enough and haven’t returned to Russia since.”
According to the Labour peer Lord Wood of Anfield, Johnson refused to publish the Russia report last year because of the large sums pouring from Moscow-linked individuals into the Conservative party. “His reluctance is best explained as a desire to avoid scrutiny, on the eve of the last election, of his party’s financial reliance on donors with close links to both Russia and Putin,” Wood said.
Wood cited Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Putin’s former deputy economics minister, Vladimir. She has given over £1.7m to the Tories, including £200,000 so far this year. Chernukhin, a former banker, is one of the largest benefactors to the Tory party in history, Wood noted, and the biggest female donor ever in British politics.
Chernukhin was invited to comment about the Russia report via her lawyer but did not reply. As a British citizen her donations are legal. At a party fundraising auction in February Chernukhin paid £45,000 to play tennis with the prime minister, and the Tories’ co-chairman Ben Elliott.
In 2014 Chernukhin stumped up £160,000 to play tennis with Johnson, who was then London’s mayor, and the then prime minister, David Cameron. At the party’s winter ball she shared a table with the education secretary, Gavin Williamson. She has previously had dinner with him in the Churchill war rooms – another fundraising auction lot, which cost her £35,000.
Temerko said Moscow’s threat to the UK encompassed cyber-attacks and propaganda from Russian state media channels including RT and Sputnik. “They should be closed down,” he said. But he said he didn’t see evidence of Moscow influencing politics, saying that Russians didn’t sit in cabinet or have a stake in the BBC. “Where is influence?” he asked.
* Luke Harding’s latest book, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West (Guardian Faber) is available from the Guardian Bookshop.