In June 2013, the passing of Russia’s new anti-gay law had attracted international opprobrium and Western leaders were smarting from President Vladimir Putin’s decision to continue supplying arms to the Syrian government.
In London though, a firm charged with burnishing Russia’s image abroad was about to score a major PR coup.
Two prominent Russians with connections to the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin’s wealthy judo partner, were photographed chatting to David Cameron at the Conservative summer party, held in the City at Old Billingsgate.
They had been invited to the event by New Century Media, a firm that according to Electoral Commission records has donated £91,000 to the Conservative party between 2009 and 2010.
The firm is headed by former Ulster-Unionist MP David Burnside, who sponsored a table at the party.
He had spent the previous two years working for a joint Corporation of London – Kremlin campaign to position Moscow as an international financial centre.
Seated with him at the Conservative Summer Party on June 24 last year was Vasily Shestakov. An MP in Russia’s Duma and an old friend of Putin, he is also head of FIAS, the international federation for sambo, a Soviet variation of judo.
Other guests included Andrei Kliamko, a billionaire and FIAS executive with business interests in Crimea and Lord Simon Reading, president of the Commonwealth Sambo Association.
A photo on the Sambo Federation’s website taken at the the event shows Cameron chatting to Mr Shestakov and Mr Kliamko, with Alex Nekrassov – a Russian-speaker who works for New Century Media – with Mr Burnside alongside.
‘Cameron knows David from his political days,’ Tim Lewin, a consultant to New Century Media who also sat at Mr Burnside’s table, explained to the Guardian.
‘Cameron was looking for people to meet and greet. David grabbed him and introduced him to Shestakov.’ He added: ‘If you want to impress people you have to introduce them to other big swingers. If you can have him [Shestakov] shake hands with the PM it makes the wheels go round.’
The encounter was reported in the Russian state media, which noted the country’s efforts to improve its image abroad.
The same month Lewin founded the Positive Russia Foundation, an organisation designed to improve Russia’s image in the UK. Lewin insists the Foundation was his idea. According to Russian press reports, however, Shestakov was closely involved in its conception.
The St Petersburg news website Fontanka.ru – which interviewed Shestakov – described Positive Russia ‘as a new variant of Russia Today, but under the patronage of English aristocrats’.
Until Russia’s annexation of Crimea this spring, which caused a sharp decline in Moscow’s relations with the West, the ‘soft-power’ push in London proved remarkably successful.
In May 2013 Shestakov was made an honorary freeman of the City of London. Days later Cameron held talks in Sochi with Putin. In June, shortly before the Tory fundraiser, Shestakov hosted a sambo event at Kensington Palace.
He read out a message from Russia’s president to guests including Prince Michael of Kent, Lord Reading and a Russian business delegation.
The Positive Russia Foundation planned to hold a major Sambo tournament in 2014 in the same Old Billingsgate venue.
‘Following conversations with Mr Shestakov’, New Century Media offered to arrange and promote the event – named the President’s Cup after Putin – which would launch the sport on the world stage and ‘set a benchmark’ for future UK-Russian relations. New Century Media’s pitch for the job envisaged Putin handing the cup to the winning sambo team as well as a ‘prestigious black tie evening reception’ afterwards.
The PR firm promised ‘high-level dignitaries’ from both countries would attend, including David Cameron, members of the royal family and Russian and British ministers. The pitch document mentions Old Billingsgate as: ‘Now one of Europe’s most prestigious event venues, it hosts a variety of events throughout the year, including the Conservative Party’s Summer Party, where Mr Shestakov was introduced to Prime Minister David Cameron this year by New Century Chairman David Burnside.’
The event would help rebuild Russian-UK ties, following ‘a slew of negative media coverage’. The proposed budget, including Burnside’s fee, was £1.5m.
Mr Lewin told the Guardian the contract ‘didn’t go anywhere’.
But Martin Clarke, president and founder of the British Sambo Federation, said the tournament was still going ahead – albeit without Putin’s involvement, and in Bluewater shopping mall in Kent, rather than in Old Billingsgate.
‘Positive Russia was about generating more trade and friendship between England and Russia,’ he told the Bureau. ‘There were going to be lots of functions in the City – that’s why they wanted us to have our event in Old Billingsgate. The venue was very nice but far from ideal.’
He added: ‘Most of the Positive Russia business has now folded, but Mr Shestakov has a lot of influence and said he didn’t want to let [the tournament go] even if the rest of it went. And that’s what happened.’
Mr Lewin told the Guardian the Positive Russia Foundation was still going. And although Cameron has condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine, Downing Street has so far not imposed visa bans on top Kremlin officials and oligarchs, many of whom have properties in London.
Burnside declined to comment.
John Whittingdale MP, who sat with Mr Shestakov on Burnside’s table, said he believed that engaging with the Kremlin was the best strategy.
Mr Whittingdale, the chair of the British-Ukraine parliamentary group, said that he had a ‘robust exchange of views’ last month with Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko. Mr Lewin expressed similar sentiments.
‘I think isolating any authoritarian regime only makes it more authoritarian. If they [two opposing sides] don’t speak to each other they end up throwing rocks over the fence.’ Shestakov also declined to comment.
As well as advising the Russian government, New Century Media also acts for wealthy Russian individuals.
The firm hit the headlines in 2013 after it sued an oligarch for unpaid fees and won.
Vladimir Makhlay, a businessman who fled to the UK in 2005, had agreed to pay New Century Media £75,000 a month for strategic advice – ‘including support for Mr Makhlay’s application for a British passport’. Makhlay was allowed into Britain on an investor visa because he had ‘at least £1m’ in British assets, the High Court was told.
Mr Makhlay ‘was concerned about media coverage of his affairs here and in Russia and engaged New Century Media to provide him with high level strategic advice, covering all areas of media relations and public affairs activities,’ the Court judgment reveals.
He also wanted full British citizenship.
Under his contract, Mr Burnside, Mr Nekrassov and two other New Century Media executives committed to providing services including ‘reputation management’ and ‘personal introductions to individuals within international business, finance, media and politics’. Mr Makhlay, however, stopped paying after four months. New Century Media then sued, arguing successfully that the Russian had breached the year-long deal.
Header image: Old Billingsgate Fish Market in London, where the 2013 Tory summer party took place