More Questions than Answers in Case of Open Dialogue Foundation

For a number of years now, claims and counterclaims have been swirling around the motivations and finances of the Polish Human Rights NGO, the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF). At the centre of this affair, supporters and detractors regularly offer vehement denials and accuse the other side of propagating ‘fake news’ driven by politically motivated agendas. Given the opaque nature of this global story, the truth can feel hard to come by, writes Stephen M. Bland.

 From convicted fraudsters to an alleged murderer, at the heart of the allegations against the ODF lies the list of people they have lobbied on behalf of, usually arguing that cases against these characters are ‘politically motivated.’ It is largely based on these campaigns that accusations of financial chicanery by the NGO have arisen. So who are the ODF, who have they campaigned on behalf of, and who stands behind and against them?

Who are the ODF?

 Whilst the Open Dialogue Foundation website states that the NGO was established in Poland in 2009 by its current president, Lyudmyla Kozlovska, other sources claim that it was originally founded by Ivan Szerstiuk, who is reportedly currently serving an eighteen-year sentence in Ukraine for ordering a murder. On its website, the ODF states that it ‘pursues its goals through the organisation of observation missions, monitoring especially individual human rights’ violation cases.’ As seen in the case of Bartosz Kramek - head of the ODF’s Management Board and husband of its current president – calling for the overthrow of the Polish Government, however, the organisation has often gone far beyond the remit of that associated with a regular NGO. 

Lyudmyla Kozlovska

Born in Sevastopol, Crimea to a family of means, Lyudmyla Kozlovska, pictured left, graduated from the State Technical University before studying at the University of Wales in Bangor. Kozlovska’s biography and that of the ODF in general goes on to claim that she was an active participant in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests. According to a widely circulated report in the Polish weekly, Sieci published in August 2018, however, Kozlovska and Kramek simply ‘made themselves appear to be the main source of support for Ukraine’s opposition during Euromaidan demonstrations.’ Quoting the CEO of a Belorussian language TV broadcaster, the article goes on to assert that the foundation is ‘exceptionally brazen’ in its self-promotion.

Who and What Do the ODF Lobby on Behalf Of?

According to the ODF, in its work against ‘politically motivated extraditions,’ the NGO pays ‘special attention to the need to reform Interpol and unify the standards of protection of political refugees.’ One figure the ODF have lobbied on behalf of and succeeded in having the Interpol Red Notice removed from is Kazakh oligarch, Mukhtar Ablyazov. A fugitive from his homeland, in addition to massive embezzlement from BTA Bank - at the time the largest retail bank in Kazakhstan - in November 2018 Ablyazov was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for ordering the murder of a former business partner.    

Ablyazov 321

Ablyazov, pictured left, is also the subject of ongoing court cases in Kazakhstan, Russia, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. In the U.S., Ablyazov stands accused of co-mingling funds with his in-laws, former Mayor of Almaty, Viktor Khrapunov and his family to launder money through Trump Organization projects, most famously Trump SoHo condos.  In another case, on May 28th 2019 the District Court of Fairfax, Virginia found that Ablyazov’s sister, G. Kusainova was guilty of handling over $6 million of assets stolen by her brother from BTA, which was used for purchasing luxury real estate and other personal purposes.

   In the U.K., meanwhile, in the biggest case of its type in the country’s history, having been found by the High Court to have committed ‘fraud on an epic scale,’ judgements against Ablyazov currently stand at in excess of $4.7 billion. Found by Justice Teare to have ‘acted in contempt of court,’ with ‘cynicism, opportunism and deviousness,’ in 2012 Ablyazov fled the country on a fake passport in order to avoid three concurrent 22-month prison sentences.

   As the founder of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, an opposition movement against then President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, supporters of Mr Ablyazov and the ODF campaign on his behalf such as British MEP, Julie Ward have argued that the cases against him are ‘politically motivated.’ A signatory to the letter to Interpol asking that the Red Notice on him be removed, in a statement, a parliamentary assistant to the MEP said that ‘Ablyazov refused to disclose his assets to the London court citing the risk of his associates’ persecution by the Nazarbayev regime. He was therefore charged with ‘contempt of court’ and, as a result, he was sentenced to 22-months incarceration. After being warned of risks of kidnapping or assassination several times by various sources, including the British police, he was forced to leave the U.K.’ 

   According to Justice Teare, however, the judgement of contempt of court related to ‘lies’ told in a ‘sham’ designed to deceive the court. Whilst Ablyazov did receive a so-called Osman warning from the Metropolitan Police notifying him of an assassination and kidnapping threat, over a year would pass before he fled the country on the eve of his sentencing.

   Despite the fact that Ablyazov is a wanted man in numerous countries, in July 2017 the ODF succeeded in having the Interpol Red Notice upon him withdrawn. In December 2016, the Conseil d’Etat in France – where Ablyazov had languished in jail for over three years – overturned all previous verdicts regarding an extradition request from Russia on the grounds that it had been made for political reasons. Days before the ruling, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer argued that ‘France must refrain from extraditing an individual to a country where there are serious grounds for believing that he or she would be in danger of being subjected to torture.’

   Serious doubts about Ablyazov’s relationship with the ODF remain. At a public hearing of the European Parliament’s committee on financial crimes, tax evasion and tax avoidance in Brussels on the 29th January of 2019, French MEP Nicolas Bay stated that Ablyazov had ‘launched a foundation called Open Dialogue… There are now very real questions about the funding of the activities of that Foundation,’ he continued. ‘All too often, perpetrators of white-collar crimes are able to pass themselves off as victims.’


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Dirty Deals in Kazakhstan: Mukhtar Ablyazov Implicated In Wrong Doings With Fake NGO


   Other characters the ODF have lobbied on behalf of include Nail Malyutin. Currently serving six-years in Russia for stealing $4 million, Malyutin has ties to Aslan “Djako” Gagiyev, a mafioso figure whose gang stands accused of orchestrating more than sixty murders. In Moldova, the ODF have campaigned on behalf of Vyacheslav Platon, a businessman named in the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) investigation into the Russian Laundromat. Platon is currently serving eighteen-years for his part in what became known as the ‘theft of the century,’ in which 12.5% of the nation’s GDP went missing from three banks.

   Coming full circle, another family the ODF have lobbied on behalf of are the Khrapunovs. Residing in Switzerland, where they were named in an article as one of the richest families in the country, the former Mayor of Almaty, his TV-anchorwoman wife and their son are wanted in Kazakhstan for schemes which defrauded the city of Almaty of at least $300 million. In August 2018, the British High Court fined Ilyas Khrapunov $500 million for breaching freezing orders on his father-in-law, Mukhtar Ablyazov’s assets. In August 2018, the Polish weekly, Sieci claimed to have uncovered a payment of $20,000 made to the ODF by Leila Khrapunova. In a written statement, spokesperson for the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva, Henri Della Casa confirmed that ‘proceedings against the Khrapunovs by the Prosecutor’s Office in Geneva on suspicion of money laundering are still ongoing.’

Who Finances the ODF?

The finances of the ODF are opaque to say the least, leading to numerous claims and counterclaims as regards to the NGO’s sources of funding. In an interview with Poland’s Newsweek, Kozlovska stated that ‘in the beginning, in 2013-2014, [my brother, Petro Kozlovsky] was the main sponsor, but then we grew strong and found many other donors. We announced public collections.’ She went onto state that both she and her husband supported the foundation through ‘my family’s business and resources,’ adding that ‘we're doing projects with my brother. In addition, we advise those who do business in the East. We operate in the IT sector. We recruit employees from Ukraine. I do not want to dwell on this particularly. I am afraid… to harm our interests.’

   In April 2019, an article in the U.K.’s Sunday Times alleged that between 2014-2016, $1.35 million was funnelled through two shell companies in Scotland - Kariastra Project and Stoppard Consulting - to Kramek’s business, Silk Road – which shares its offices with the ODF. A cork-trading company with no website or phone number, Stoppard Consulting was at the time affiliated with Vyacheslav Platon-owned entities registered at the same address in Scotland, the U.S., Panama, Seychelles and Belize, some of which were named in the Panama Papers. Refuting the allegations, the ODF claim that the article was based on a ‘so-called’ report by the Moldovan Parliament and that the journalists behind the piece were the ‘owner of a PR agency and a former employee of pro-Brexit portals.’ Taking a different tack, Polish MEP, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski stated that the ‘financing sources [behind the ODF] are not only Moldovan-Kazakhstani, but already earlier there was talk of the foundation being financed by oligarchs linked to the Kremlin. Now, this information is being confirmed by the British media.’ In a statement on the ODF website, Bartosz Kramek wrote that the organisation does not ‘speculate on surnames, careers or professional connections, or the countries and places of origin of individual donors [as] it’s impossible to identify donors who put their money in charity boxes.’

Who is For and Against the ODF?

With claims and counterclaims circling the NGO, two distinct sides have formed. Aside from the aforementioned Nicolas Bay, another figure calling for an investigation is Romanian MEP, Andi Cristea. 

(considering) the ODF’s efforts to defend one or more controversial characters, I believe that significant resources are needed to investigate in Brussels the transparency of the ODF’s funding and the correct recording of lobbying activities in the public register… The image-washing operation that the Foundation led for Ablyazov is not a secret to officials in Brussels.’

Andi Cristea MEP

  Former ODF ally, Polish MEP, Anna Fotyga has now severed all ties as it has ‘ceased to be a non-political NGO and is not a credible organisation.’

   Among its key backers, the ODF can count former Belgian Prime Minister, the MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who in a social media post dated September 2018 wrote that ‘Lyudmyla Kozlovska is a true fighter for an open, tolerant and just European society. Her case and work sheds light on the work we must pursue to promote the rule of law in the European Union.’

   Despite an attempt by Poland to ban Kozlovska from the Schengen Zone, following a campaign on her behalf by the likes of Verhofstadt, Julie Ward and former British MEP, Clare Moody, in March 2019 Kozlovska was granted a five-year residency permit in Belgium. She remains an accredited lobbyist at the European Parliament. Investigations into the ODF are ongoing in Poland, Ukraine and Moldova.

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Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist, award-winning author and researcher specialising in post-Soviet space. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including The Diplomat, Vice, Motherboard and EurasiaNet.

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