'Impeccable reputations'? Latvian Radio probes the Petr Aven fund in Latvia

Latvian Radio's investigative journalism strand 'Atvertie Faili' (Open Files) on February 1 published its latest probe, this time into the charitable donations of one of Latvia's most controversial citizens – sanctioned Russian oligarch Petr Aven.

Aven has been a Latvian citizen since 2016, having apparently completed necessary citizenship procedures incuding a language test. As previously reported by LSM, the manner in which Aven obtained his Latvian passport has been a long-running controversy. He was also in the headlines fairly recently in connection with a controversial exhibition in Ogre of his porcelain collection, which was backed by the local mayor.

Aven is on both the EU's sanctions list and the U.S. sanctions list. Though Latvian security service the Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB) last year signalled that the process of seeking revocation of his citizenship is under way, the fact remains that Aven is still a Latvian citizen – in addition to being a citizen of Russia and Luxembourg.

But until Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wealthy Aven was frequently depicted as one of the more moderate voices in Moscow and was praised for his largesse when it came to charitable donations. This was even recognized at the highest level of the Latvia state when in May 2012 he was handed the Order of the Three Stars – the highest state award Latvia can bestow – "for significant contribution to the promotion and strengthening of political and economic relations between Latvia and Russia, and for charitable work in Latvia". The state award was revoked in March 2022.

Let there be music

Latvian Radio went to Dobele Music School. A reconstruction carried out a few years ago has made it one of the most modern buildings in the city. An annex was built containing a concert hall with seats for 200 listeners.

School director Karīna Zandersone is proud that many famous artists and collectives have performed in the new concert hall, including the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra. Both the restoration of the school and the construction of the concert hall were paid for by the 'Paaudze" ("Generation") charity foundation owned by Aven.

The concert hall is the pride of the school and has been given the name "Zinta". This is the name of the mother of Aven's friend Alexei Kudrin, a former Russian Finance Minister under Putin.

"In 2014, someone started talking about the fact that the Kudrins had been there and said that the toilets would be renovated. Everyone laughed at the fact that there will be new toilets in the music school," said Nadežda Čerpaka, head of the Cultural Administration of the Dobele region.

Kudrin lives and works in Russia, but he has relatives in Dobele and also family graves, which he visits from time to time. That's how he ended up associted with the renovtion of the Dobele Music School

"The Peter Aven Foundation was the one that signed the contracts and ensured all the obligations, because the municipality had handed over the building to the foundation. The foundation had undertaken to implement this project, and then the municipality took this school back into its ownership," said Čerpaka.

The concert hall and the renovated school were opened in June 2019. Aleksei Kudrin himself attended the opening event.

Latvin Radio spoke to the owner of the building - the municipality of Dobele county. Instead of an interview, reporters received a written comment by e-mail from the executive director of the municipality, Agris Vilks. In it, he said that the reconstruction works and the school extension or concert hall were implemented in 2018 and 2019.

"The work was started on the initiative of Alexei Kudrin, a former Dobelian living in Russia, and with his participation, following the progress of the project and cooperating with the Petr Aven charity fund "Paaudze" to attract the necessary investments for the implementation of the project." Vilks wrote that the reconstruction of the music school cost 2.5 million euros – and these costs were fully covered by the Aven Foundation.

Latvin Radio also asked if the local government knew where the Aven Fund got the money to implement such a large-scale project and who were the fund's donors? "In communication with the donor or donors of the municipal fund, Mr. Kudrin was represented alone, who was probably also the only donor," said Vilks.

Latvian Radio studied the list of donors of the Aven charity fund "Paaudze". Interestingly, Kudrin's name does not appear in it at all. The biggest donor to the fund is Aven himself, who has contributed 5.5 million euros to the fund since its establishment. He is followed by a company registered in Cyprus with another five million.

The municipality does not have information about the fact that millions of euros flowed into the Aven fund over several years from an offshore registered company. 

On the other hand, the executive director of the municipality, Vilks, described Aleksei Kudrin as follows: "Aleksei Kudrin was born in Dobele, studied at the 2nd secondary school in Dobele. His relatives still live here. Respecting the important gift of Aleksei Kudrin, the concert hall of the music school was thus given the name of his Latvian mother, Zinta."

However, Kudrin is more than a Russian citizen who happened to be born in Dobele. For more than 10 years, he was a close ally of Putin and held the position of the Minister of Finance of Russia. It was between 2000 and 2011, when Putin alternately sat in the chair of both the president and prime minister of Russia.

In 2018, when the renovation works of Dobele Music School took place, Putin approved Kudrin as the chairman of the Audit Chamber of Russia. He left it at the end of 2022. Now Kudrin works as a consultant at the Russian technology company Yandex and on the suggestively-titled Council for Countering Corruption of the Russian Federation. Last year, the United States put Kudrin on its sanctions list along with his friend Aven.

Medical machinery

For several years, the aforementioned Aven charity foundation "Paaudze" has also supported the Children's Clinical University Hospital.

"Latvian society is widely involved in donations, or in general donations as such. Especially if money is needed for specific cases, for a specific patient or for some of his devices, then we can really join hands and help." said Valts Ābols, chairman of the hospital's board.

"And that's the background, so we really appreciate every donor who supports. But especially from the hospital's point of view, it's good if that support is somewhat predictable, that it goes from year to year," said Ābols.

Cooperation of the Children's Hospital with the Avena Foundation began in 2010.

"The foundation has supported the purchase of several pieces of equipment and, if I understand correctly, the construction of the hemato-oncology department, as well as supporting the provision of individual patients' needs," revealed the head of the hospital.

During this cooperation, the Children's Hospital did not receive money to spend itself, but the specific equipment, the purchase of which was paid for by the Aven Foundation.

"It happened that when the foundation actually already defined that every year you can count on our support for one important initiative, approximately, let's say, worth plus or minus 100 thousand euros. And it is then the hospital's choice to decide what is most necessary and will make the greatest contribution to patients," Abols explained.

In 2010, the Aven Foundation provided the hospital with an eight-color flow cytometer device.

"It's actually [...] a breakthrough in diagnostics that allowed us to significantly strengthen the hospital's diagnostic capacity, especially for cancer patients, because it was actually 10 times more sensitive in identifying cancer cells than all previous equipment. It could detect one malignant cell out of 10 000 cells, so a huge, huge step in diagnostic capacity," the chairman of the hospital's board said.

Ābols has no information on donations for the next five years but since 2016, the hospital has received from the foundation equipment including an endoscopy apparatus and a surgical laser, both of which have undoubtedly proven to be of immense clinical importance. 

"We, the hospital, received a ready-to-use device, so we did not participate in the purchase process, neither in the identification and agreement of the price there, nor in the payment. So the hospital expressed its need from a patient perspective and then received a ready-to-use device from the supplier together with training," said Ābols.

Has the hospital estimated how much total donations it received from the Aven Foundation? The chairman of the board of the Children's Clinical University Hospital suggested that it averaged around 100,000 euros per year from 2016 to 2021, or around 600,000 euros.

However, the amount donated to the hospital, shown by the Aven Foundation in its annual reports, is three times larger and reaches 1.7 million euros.

Reputational risks

However, this is not the only time that the amount of donations shown in the Aven Fund reports is drastically different from the amount shown on the recipient side, Latvian Radio discovered. For example, the annual reports indicate that between 2017 and 2019, it donated one and a half million euros for the organization of concerts to another of its foundations, "Baltic Musical Seasons". However, this does not appear in the donor's reports. Likewise, significant differences can also be seen in the foundation's donations to the "Dobele Music Support Society" and other projects.

The hospital relies on the fact that donations are made in good faith and the fact that Aven was the recipient of an extremely prestigious state award handed to him by the President himself would only serve to enhance his reputation.

If the hospital had previously suspected the origin of this money, would it have considered not cooperating with the Aven Foundation? Abols reasoned: "Probably we would have consulted. [...] We would not allow ourselves to cross boundaries in any way that could affect our reputation in any way. Therefore, if there were indications of any unfair practices, then it is definitely a red line. But at that time, we were working with a person who was a Knight of the Order of the Three Stars as assessed by the Chapter of Orders, so we probably can't ignore that."

Further cooperation with the Aven Foundation at the hospital is no longer being considered. "The level of information determines the decisions, so, with the current information, the answer is absolutely clear that we could neither legally nor morally continue this cooperation," said Ābols.

He said that now it is especially important that the hospital has no connection with Russia's aggression.

"Currently, we closely cooperate with the Kyiv Children's Hospital, with which we are also part of the same organization of Children's Hospitals, we have a cooperation agreement [also] with the Odesa Children's Hospital. And it is clear that the position of the Children's Hospital should not create doubts or questions about our position on Russia's war," added the head of the hospital. 

According to Latvian Radio, "Paaudze" is only one of several funds related to Avena in Latvia. Others have sponsored church restorations, the Latvian University Foundation, and the Riga Jūrmala Music Festival, which organized an annual symphonic music festival. Among the founders of this fund is another shareholder of Aven's "Alfa Group" banking concern – Mihails Fridmans, another sanctioned oligarch.

Other now-sanctioned Russian oligarchs appear among the donors of Aven funds. For example Hermann Kahn. In the European Union sanctions list, he is called one of the most influential Russian businessmen, who is also close to Putin. Svetlana Nikolaeva also donated. A woman with that name is on the sanctions list because her family sponsors an ammunition supplier for the Russian army.

Lists of other fund donors reveal that Avena's charity in Latvia was also supported by oligarchs from other countries. For example, Kairat Boranbayev, a businessman from Kazakhstan who was recently convicted of corruption. Mysterious companies registered in the tax havens the British Virgin Islands and Seychelles have also donated, as well as a wide range of people whose names appear among the owners of other offshore companies.

Latvian Radio approached Petr Aven himself for an interview. However, his representative Igor Bass, who also works for all the various Aven funds, refused the interview and promised to prepare written answers to questions.

Shortly before the investigation ws due to air, Bass sent a short comment, stating that the "Paaudze" foundation has been granted the status of a public benefit organization since its foundation, which requires special control and an annual audit by the State Revenue Service. "We find attempts to accuse us of unfairness biased and inappropriate," Bass wrote.

However, he did not provide answers to the questions raised about discrepancies worth several million euros in the annual reports of the funds, nor did he identify the owners of the offshore companies that donated to the fund.

"When it comes to the relationship between donors and recipients of donations, I can confirm that the recipients of donations knew well who the donors were and the foundation did not follow the practice of anonymous donations. All institutions and organizations knew who the people are who have donated money to the fund for the relevant projects," wrote Bass.

In a short letter that Latvian Radio received from Petrr Aven himself, he stated that "I have invited my friends, businessmen and philanthropists, only with an impeccable reputation".

Money speaks louder than words

Elīna Vrobļevska, a researcher at the Institute of Foreign Policy of Latvia and a lecturer at Riga Stradins University, pointed out that Latvia is by no means alone in being a place where Russian oligarchs have tried to burnish their often questionable reputations. Vrobļevska said that it can also be observed in Austria, Hungary and Germany, for example.

"Aven already had a very good image in principle until, let's say, this whole unpleasant situation with Ukraine happened and much stricter sanctions were introduced, and we began to look much more categorically at Russian businessmen. Aven had a good enough image, until the events of the last couple of years... After all, if I'm not mistaken, he does have Latvian citizenship and an award."

She reminded Latvian Radio that Aven was one of the 37 businessmen who, on the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, meekly listened to Putin's speech in the Kremlin and thus demonstrated their loyalty to the Russian dictator, or at least their unwillingness to do anything t displease him.

"If Mr. Aven was in that room, then he was not there without a reason. Well, there was a reason, and that reason was definitely not criticism of the existing political elite," the researcher concluded.


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