How Kremlin got diplomats to woo Tories

The Guardian

The Kremlin instructed its diplomats in London to deepen their “co-operation” with the Conservative party in an apparent attempt to mute criticism of Russia’s human rights record and to rebuild ties following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

Emails seen by the Guardian show the Russian embassy has played a key behind-the-scenes role in the gaffe-prone Conservative Friends of Russia. The group, which held its launch party in the garden of the Russian ambassador in August, is on the brink of collapse after the resignation last week of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, its honorary president. Two other Tory MPs, Nigel Evans and Robert Buckland, also quit after the group published a photo of a Labour MP, Chris Bryant, in his underpants. On Thursday, Prince Michael of Kent pulled out of its new year dinner. Hours later its website went offline.

The Guardian has also learned that the group’s diplomatic contact inside the Russian embassy, Sergey Nalobin, has family ties to Russia’s intelligence agencies. His father, Nikolai Nalobin, is a former KGB general. Nalobin Sr worked in a top role with the FSB, the successor to the KGB, which the government believes was involved in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko’s widow Marina said General Nalobin was her husband’s boss in the 1990s when Litvinenko was an FSB agent.

Sergey Nalobin’s brother also worked for the FSB, according to the Russian press. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, was head of the FSB before becoming Russian president in 2000.

Sources suggest it was Sergey Nalobin who invited Richard Royal, the chairman of Conservative Friends of Russia, and other members, to visit Moscow and St Petersburg in September on a 10-day trip paid for by the Russian government. The diplomat also set up meetings there with politicians from Putin’s United Russia and other Kremlin-approved parties. Nalobin also arranged the launch event in the ambassador’s Kensington garden and is pictured under the organisation’s banner.

Russian diplomats were “instructed by Moscow” to explore how the Conservatives and United Russia could co-operate in the Council of Europe. The two parties belong to the same faction in the council’s parliamentary assembly, with Tory members frequently voting with their Russian colleagues against motions condemning Moscow.

Sergei Cristo, a Russian-born Tory activist and fundraiser, said Nalobin approached him in December 2010, seeking introductions to top Conservative party figures. According to Cristo, Nalobin also offered to make donations to Conservative party funds via UK-registered, Russian-owned companies. No companies were named, however, and the offer never materialised.

In an April 2011 email, Nalobin wrote to Cristo: “We’ve received instructions from Moscow – to discuss the perspective of co-operation between British Conservatives and United Russia in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. With whom would it be best to discuss this question?”

Nalobin also inquired if there were young Tories who might be interested in travelling to Moscow to attend a Kremlin-sponsored youth forum. He was subsequently in contact with Royal, the group’s chairman, and with other activists who went on to form Conservative Friends of Russia. Royal and Nalobin met days before the group’s Moscow trip. Asked if he was aware of Nalobin’s ties to Russian intelligence, Royal declined to comment.

Russia has multiple reasons for seeking to influence the Conservatives. The increasingly Eurosceptic Tory party has shunned its traditional centre-right allies in Europe in favour of a pact with Putin’s party. The two are pillars of the European Democrat Group (EDG), which can only function if they cooperate. Russia has forged ad hoc alliances with the Tories and others to see off motions it regards as hostile – over its 2008 war with Georgia, for example. Moscow’s priority is to prevent the UK and other EU countries from introducing the Magnistky Act, named after the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death in prison in Russia in 2009.

The act was approved last week by the US House of Representatives. It envisages banning 60 senior Russian officials implicated in the alleged theft of $230m (£143m) in taxes paid by Hermitage Capital, an investment fund.

The government opposes a similar act in the UK, despite widespread cross-party support. If implented it would prevent Russian officials accused of serious abuses from visiting London, a favourite destination for Kremlin bureaucrats and affluent Russians.

Surrey police are still investigating the mysterious death of Alexander Perepilichnyy, a Russian businessman, who collapsed and died on 10 November outside his mansion in Weybridge, Surrey. He had supplied bank documents to Swiss investigators probing money allegedly stolen in the Magnitsky scam.

The Nalobin email

From: Sergey Nalobin

To: Sergei Cristo

Subject: PR

Date: 25 April 2011

Dear Sergei, Thanks for the link. Will think about this. Two points:

1. We’ve received instructions from Moscow – to discuss the perspective of co-operation between British Conservatives and United Russia in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. With whom would it be best to discuss this question?

2. http://youthforum.ru/ Have a look, please, perhaps this is of interest to young Tory leaders?

Best wishes,

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