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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Russian dissident says UK's ‘knee jerk’ response to spy poisoning not enough

‘If the Russian state wants to hurt me, there is not that much I’d be able to do,’ says exiled Putin opponent

Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian exile in London, says: “I don’t want to live the life of a fugitive, hiding somewhere." Getty Images
Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian exile in London, says: “I don’t want to live the life of a fugitive, hiding somewhere." Getty Images

Sitting in the plush surroundings of the Dorchester Hotel, London, Vladimir Ashurkov recalls his final moments in Russia.

“I switched off my phone, I bought the plane ticket at the airport… my wife and child followed a few days later. It was quite unnerving."

There is a warm lull of jazz playing in the background of the lounge that is only disturbed by a party of loud Russians a few tables over. Just a few minutes’ walk away is the Millennium Hotel, where Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in 2006, but Mr Ashurkov is not perturbed. “Dissident, oppositionist, enemy of Putin, call me what you like," he quips.

In March 2014, police raided his home in Moscow, under the pretext that authorities were looking for a member of the landlord’s family. “He hadn’t been in Russia for a year prior to that,” says Mr Ashurkov.

Footage of the raid ended up on national television, and just a few months later Mr Ashurkov found himself at the Home Office in London applying for political asylum.

In the wake of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and the suspected murder of Nikolai Glushkov, is the British state fulfilling its responsibilities to keep Russian dissidents safe?

“I’m no different from any other resident of the UK, I don’t get any special protection or attention, I trust the British system," he says.

In an effort to protect themselves, those who can afford it employ huge security details – at one point Boris Berezovsky had a team of six bodyguards. Others try to keep a low-profile, and essentially disappear, but Mr Ashurkov is neither of those. “I have a fatalist approach. I’m confident the Russian security services can do things like they did to Skripal in any part of the world, if a decision is taken in Moscow.

“I don’t want to live the life of a fugitive, hiding somewhere. Everything I do is transparent and open. If the Russian state wants to hurt me, there is not that much I’d be able to do, but I don’t have any private enemies."

“I didn’t know Mr Skripal, but I hope his fight for his life is successful," he says, as he stirs his green tea.

Mr Ashurkov is a different type of dissident. He is not a mega-rich oligarch of the type that own vast swathes of property throughout central London, bought with questionable money. Nor is he a defected agent, as were Mr Litvinenko and Mr Skripal.

He is a western-educated technocrat. As the Soviet Union broke up, he developed an interest in finance and economics. He knows the oligarchs well though - he used to work for them.

Mr Ashurkov is a former executive at one of Russia’s largest investment holdings - Alfa Group, which he describes as “owned by several who you can describe as oligarchs”. One of them was Mikhail Fridman, who last year was labelled the seventh richest man in Russia.

Mr Fridman is also now a London resident – although the two men are present in the country under very different circumstances.

In 2009, Mr Ashurkov began working for Russia’s leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who is now in prison. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal described Mr Navalny as "the man Vladimir Putin fears most".

It was here that he fell foul of the Kremlin. As Mr Navalny rose to national and international prominence, the surveillance and pressures on Mr Ashurkov also increased. Now he continues his opposition activities from London.

But he is sceptical of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s response to the poisoning of Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia. “She [Theresa May] put herself in a tough spot by raising expectations very high with her harsh words, and by issuing the ultimatum. The measures that were announced on Wednesday are largely symbolic. There is nothing new in the expulsion of diplomats.

“I hope the British government follows up with something that can be effective. Not some knee-jerk reaction, but the consistent application of existing legislation, which is aimed at exposing and punishing corrupt money flows."

He adds that it’s not just the oligarchs the British government need to go after, but also the people around them. “There is a big lobby of enablers in the UK. People who facilitate the flow of dirty money into London - lawyers, bankers, property agents.

“There are mechanisms in Britain that, if there is political will, can be used to investigate the oligarchs and officials that seem to enjoy London.

“There is no silver bullet to avoid these attacks in the future. But she should keep Britain clean of this money that is linked to an aggressive Russia redrawing European borders.”

At the Russia presidential election on Sunday, Vladimir Putin was all but guaranteed another term, and despite being perhaps the most recognisable opposition figure in Russia, Mr Ashurkov’s good friend Mr Navalny will not be on the ballot - he was barred from standing in December.

“Like many things in Russia, the elections have turned into a façade. The only candidate with a chance is Mr Putin,” he says.