The UK sees itself at the forefront of fighting corruption. If that’s to remain the case then we need to be prepared to ask difficult questions about funding for NGOs, argues Comment Central.
In a welcome distraction from Brexit, Parliament last week hosted an event on democracy in Eastern Europe.
One of the speakers on the panel was Lyudmyla Kozlovska, President of the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF), an organisation whose stated aim is the protection of human rights and the rule of law in Eastern Europe. So much, so normal.
But while the ODF looks like a well-meaning organisation on the surface, dig a little deeper and the picture is a lot less clear.
While ODF claims its funding sources are transparent, dig down far enough and you will find unanswered questions. An allegation which has surfaced online over the past few years is that the foundation is a front for a convicted fraudster. Specifically that the foundation is funded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, someone the Evening Standard previously branded the “world’s richest runaway fraudster”.
While unconfirmed, allegations of such seriousness require proper investigation. In fact, the suggestions recently led to the vice-president of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs requesting an investigation into the funding of the Foundation. These supposed ties have created problems for ODF and Ms. Kozlovska in the past. She was recently flagged as a person for interest in Poland (her home for ten years) and labelled a threat to national security.
The result? She’s blacklisted from travel within Europe’s 26-member Schengen zone, the EU’s free movement area. Much to Poland’s irritation, her listing seems to be treated with little meaning by its neighbours. For example, Germany recently allowed Lyudmyla to take part in a debate at the Bundestag in Berlin.
The Polish government responded by summoning the German ambassador in protest.
The UK seems to have followed suit in allowing her to travel freely to the country, most recently to speak at the event on democracy in Eastern Europe last week, seated alongside Labour’s Alex Sobel MP.
The questions come down to a number of satellite organisations that fund ODF. The Polish media has previously flagged the fact that while ODF transparently reports its funding sources, how these organisations themselves are funded is not clear.
In particular, ODF received some of its funding from Silk Road Biuro Analiz i Informacji, which according to reports seemed to have, itself, received millions in funding from opaque organisations Stoppard Consulting and the Kariastira Project, both of which were named in reports on Moldovan and Russian money laundering scandals.
Of course, this may be all rumour and speculation, which is why Comment Central put the question to Ms. Kozlovska directly. Sadly, the response was less than clear.
Ms. Kozlovska’s answer was that Silk Road is a private family company and that various publicly available statements and reports had been made addressing these various allegations, which she dismissed as Polish, Kazakhstani, Moldovan and Russian propaganda.
The Polish authorities seem confident enough to up-the-ante further. The following day Poland’s Internal Security Agency declared it has opened an investigation into the Foundation, including Silk Road. In its statement it said the country’s National Revenue Administration has found major shortcomings with ODR’s donor records, adding that:
“According to the foundation’s documents, most of the funds channelled to it came from people who were members of the foundation’s authorities or from individuals and businesses linked to them.”
Findings by the National Revenue Administration “indicate that the Silk Road company owned by Bartosz Kramek, which pays funds into the Open Dialogue Foundation, received payments from businesses registered in virtual offices in Britain,” Żaryn said.
He added that such transfers totalled “USD 1.27 million and EUR 64,000.”
It claims that businesses transferring the funds were owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens such as the Seychelles, Belize and Panama and included companies listed in the context of the Panama Papers.
Given Silk Road is funding a Europe-wide NGO that has been subject to intense public criticism, you would hope that Ms. Kozlovska would want to clear up concerns about funding where she can. There is also, of course, the question about why Ms. Kozlovska would choose to fund her own foundation through another of her organisations.
But, regardless of whether the allegations hold water or not, the British government should do more than turn a blind eye when someone who on a Schengen blacklist visits the UK — let alone speaks in Parliament.
You would think that questions should be answered first.