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Contentious speaker

Roman Goncharenko / cmkMay 15, 2014

The US has included him on its sanctions list, yet Vladimir Yakunin is still welcome in Berlin. The head of Russian Railways, a critic of the West and close confidant to Putin, will speak on European-Russian relations.

Vladimir Yakunin Photo: Sergey Pyatakov/RIA Novosti
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Vladimir Yakunin faces a difficult task. Despite the crisis in Ukraine and cooling relations between Russia and the West, the head of Russian Railways will be speaking at a conference in Berlin on greater integration between Russia and Europe.

As Russian media and politicians criticize Europe, Yakunin hopes to lead experts from various countries in a discussion on a "greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok" and the fact that after the Cold War, Europe is "in search of an identity beyond old dividing lines."

The quotes are taken from the website of the non-governmental organization World Public Forum "Dialogue of Civilizations." Yakunin is the WPF's founding president, and organizer of the "Europe: Lost in Translation" conference, taking place in Berlin from May 14-16. The conference is also supported by the German-Russian Forum with its new chairman, the former Social Democratic Party leader Matthias Platzeck.

Putin's close confidant

The 65-year-old Yakunin is a member of Moscow's small circle of power, and a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin. The two men have known each other since the early 1990s, when they both were members of the same dacha association in St. Petersburg. Other members in this elite club also hold positions of power in Russia. Without citing sources or providing evidence for their claim, Russian media have reported that Yakunin, like Putin, was also once part of the Soviet KGB.

Vladimir Putin Photo: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Yakunin has been in Putin's inner circle for many yearsImage: Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

After Putin took office in 2000, Yakunin went from being deputy transportation minister to president of Russian Railways. The state-owned company employs more than a million people and has a turnover of billions of rubles - much of which stems from freight transport. In recent years, however, with Russian economy suffering, the company has been losing money.

The dilemma faced by this high-profile Russian guest during his visit to Berlin is that he will be speaking about a topic he does not believe in. Yakunin is co-author of books like "A Trap: New Technology in the Fight Against Russian Statehood," a 2009 publication that backs the belief that the West aims to weaken Russia.

In a report that Yakunin presented to the Russian Academy of Sciences in mid-March, he accused the West of pushing "foreign values" on Russia, namely growth-oriented economic development, which was causing Russia to lose its "intellectual and moral basis."

Addressing a group of students in St. Petersburg, Yakunin, who heads the board of trustees of an Orthodox Christian Foundation, said Moscow must turn away from Europe, both economically and politically. "For too long, we have been mesmerized by European success and neoliberal models," he said.

'Honored' by US sanctions

These remarks came after the European Union and the US imposed sanctions against Russian politicians and business leaders following Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March. Yakunin was, to some extent, affected by the sanctions: His US bank accounts have been frozen and he can no longer enter the United States.

Alexei Navalny Photo: Konstantin Chalabov/RIA Novosti
Opposition blogger Alexei Navalny has accused Yakunin of corruptionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/RIA Novosti

Yakunin reacted with surprise, saying that he had apparently been punished for his patriotic views. He said he felt "honored" by the sanctions and found himself in "good company."

Yakunin is not yet facing sanctions by the European Union, which some observers see as a result of the Russian rail company's business ties with the bloc. German engineering firm Siemens is heavily involved in the modernization of Russia's railways and has received orders worth millions.

Critics in Russia have accused Yakunin of hypocrisy for his denunciation of the West. Alexei Navalny, a staunch critic of the government, pointed out last autumn that Yakunin's two sons live in the UK and Switzerland. Navalny accused Yakunin, the man who sees himself as a Russian patriot, of creating a corrupt offshore empire and of allegedly owning an illegally built property in Moscow. Photos of the estate, which is said to have a separate room for fur coats, caused an uproar. Yakunin dismissed the accusations.

Why Berlin?

Siemens train in Russia Photo ITAR-TASS/ Stanislav Krasilnikov
Siemens is heavily involved in the modernization of Russia's railwaysImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In light of the allegations in Russia, many have questioned Yakunin's reasons for organizing the Berlin conference.

Yakunin offered a possible answer at a conference in late March, saying that "an information war is being waged and anti-Russian sentiments are being stoked." He added that it was vital to fight back.

"Western civil society must shake off the hypnosis of their propaganda," Yakunin recently wrote on his blog.