Every year, a group of statesmen, academics, and politicos gather on the sunny shores of Rhodes, Greece, to hobnob, discuss supposedly important topics, and call for greater unity between Russia and the West.
But the Rhodes Forum, which has run every year since 2002 and is scheduled for next month, isn’t just another empty-suit exercise. The event is bankrolled by the Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC), a group founded by Vladimir Yakunin—a sanctioned Russian billionaire and former KGB general who has served since the early 1990s as one of Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants.
Yakunin’s DOC has stood at the nexus of a number of groups and events that, as one German newspaper wrote, are intended to “make the Russian view of the world popular,” all while acting as an “instrument of Moscow’s hybrid warfare” against Western countries. And the Rhodes Forum is the most prominent gathering within that portfolio of events, with the DOC describing it as the group’s “flagship public event.”
According to the Free Russia Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to highlighting the Kremlin’s crimes, the two-day event is hardly an anodyne affair. Rather, it’s an event “nicknamed by Western intelligence professionals as a ‘KGB team-building’ exercise.” As POLITICO added a few years ago, the Rhodes Forum is a chance for the “Putin adoration society” and “Kremlin sympathizers” to gather and trade praise for Russia’s kleptocracy.
Every year, the event manages to attract a number of Western statesmen and academics willing to travel to Greece, who don’t seem to care that they’re helping whitewash the reputation of a sanctioned oligarch like Yakunin along the way. And this year, the Rhodes Forum appeared to land its biggest coup in years. Earlier this year, the DOC announced that the keynote speaker at this year’s forum would be James “Jamie” Rubin, a former State Department official during President Bill Clinton’s administration who now works at the Ballard Partners lobbying shop.
At the time, the DOC described Rubin, who served as the spokesperson for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as an “internationally renowned foreign affairs journalist, academic, and world-leading authority on U.S. diplomatic, national security and foreign policy.” More importantly, Rubin was an American. And landing him as a keynote speaker hinted at a potential for thaw between Moscow and Washington, with the eventual lifting of sanctions on Yakunin that much likelier as a result.
As of this month, though, Rubin announced that he’s pulling out of the conference entirely—both because he found out who Yakunin was, and because he didn’t want anything to do with appearing to give legitimacy to Putin and his allies.
“Although I intended to speak my mind at the Rhodes event, including strong criticism of Russia’s foreign policy steps that continue to undermine the international order, I certainly did not want to appear to give legitimacy to any of the individuals who have supported Russia’s pernicious policies around the world,” Rubin, who has been outspoken about the Kremlin’s anti-American policies in the past, told The Daily Beast.
Rubin’s decision is a massive black eye for an event that has struggled to maintain relevance over the past few years. That decline in importance is due directly to the fact that numerous Western governments, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia, have sanctioned Yakunin directly for his role in Russia’s kleptocracy. (The DOC did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions.)
The sanctions have been a continued blight on Yakunin’s supposed reputation, which he has gone to perhaps greater lengths than any other sanctioned oligarch to maintain in the West. Indeed, thanks to PR shops and things like the Rhodes Forum, Quartz described Yakunin as the poster child of “reputation laundering” among sanctioned Russian oligarchs.
And that “reputation laundering” does seem like it’s had an effect. Some of the American academics involved in the DOC told this reporter last year that they didn’t even know that Yakunin had been sanctioned by the U.S. Or as Rubin said when he was first told in July of Yakunin’s involvement in the Rhodes Forum, “Who the hell is Yakunin?”
That’s a good question. Yakunin positions himself as some kind of apolitical philanthropist, interested simply in good governance and global stability. His DOC profile describes him as a “Russian business leader and philanthropist.” But that biography doesn’t bother to mention anything about Yakunin’s KGB background, or the fact that he rose to become a KGB general— outranking Putin himself, who only attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the KGB—before the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Nor does his biography mention anything about his allegedly substantial wealth. The source of such wealth is unclear, but the former KGB general has, like all of those close to Putin since the early 1990s, been accused of rampant corruption.
Renowned anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has alleged that Yakunin accrued his wealth through ill-gotten means. As Navalny wrote in 2016, Yakunin’s family had “built a huge business empire” through “corruption and mismanagement,” accruing a network of wealth “worth billions of dollars.” (Yakunin has denied the allegations, and his spokesperson did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions.)
To wit, a Reuters investigation in 2014 found that Russian Railways, at the time overseen by Yakunin, appeared to be involved in potentially massive money laundering. With Yakunin as its head, Russian Railways had “paid billions of dollars to private contractors that disguise their ultimate owners and have little or no presence at their registered headquarters.” Little surprise, then, that Navalny also found that Yakunin’s personal mansion had things like a storage room specifically devoted to his wife’s fur coat collection—not something generally associated with philanthropy.
But Yakunin isn’t interested simply in laundering his image for Western audiences. The sanctioned oligarch has also been linked to some of the most vociferously anti-LGBTQ groups extant, including the notorious World Congress of Families (WCF), a joint Russian-American operation that has provided extensive links between sanctioned Russian oligarchs and America’s fundamentalist Christian community. Numerous stories, and even WCF promotional materials, identified Yakunin as a sponsor of the WCF, which has promulgated some of the most anti-progressive and bigoted legislation across the world over the past decade.
Despite the clear evidence, a representative for Yakunin previously denied to ThinkProgress that Yakunin has funded the WCF— even though his wife spoke at last year’s WCF conference in Moldova.
As it is, Rubin’s decision to pull out of the Rhodes Forum is the latest blow to Yakunin’s efforts to maintain his image for Western audiences. It’s also a sign that, despite his apparent efforts, the DOC’s money can only go so far. Rubin previously told this reporter that he’d been planning on charging the DOC a $15,000 fee for the speaking engagement. But that was before he found out who Yakunin was. “It was a close call,” Rubin said, “but it seemed wiser not to let my presence at such an open event be misunderstood or misused in any way.”