WASHINGTON — Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the Russian Duma who voted against the annexation of Crimea, has a modest proposal: stop classifying Russia Today as a media outlet, and instead make it register as a lobbyist.
Ponomarev made the proposal in an interview with BuzzFeed News one day after he appeared on RT America during a visit to Washington. The leftist Ponomarev, a tech entrepreneur before serving in the Duma, is living in California after fleeing what he calls politically-motivated investigations in Russia and is collaborating with others in the US-based Russian diaspora.
"I feel that they're not a media," Ponomarev said in an interview last Tuesday. "It's a great mistake that the west is doing, that it's acknowledging it as a media tool. I think it's a lobbying tool and it should be regulated as a lobbyist rather than media."
Debates over the legal status of Kremlin-owned RT haven't quite reached the U.S., where its rights as a media outlet are protected under the First Amendment. But that's not the case for the United Kingdom, where RT has faced sanctions and investigations by Ofcom, the British media regulatory body. RT's coverage of the Ukraine crisis alone prompted three Ofcom investigations, the Guardian reported.
"They tried to break the United Kingdom," Ponomarev said, referring to RT's coverage of the Scottish independence referendum last year. "That's why Mr. Cameron is so angry about Russia right now, they realized that Russia was trying to break the United Kingdom."
Ponomarev argued that RT has effectively drawn loyal viewers in the west from the extreme left and right of the political spectrum, and that it is "extremely efficient and professional."
Going further than most RT critics, Ponomarev said, "Russia Today is way more dangerous than ISIS."
"Way more dangerous," he said. "Because ISIS may create physical danger with certain western individuals who are coming into direct contact with ISIS, but RT is very focused and committed in disputing the very core values of western society."
Last August, Ponomarev found out that he had been charged with illegally funneling money from a startup foundation he was involved with, charges he has said are "fabricated" and really meant as payback for his Crimea vote. Since then, Ponomarev has been living in San José.
Ponomarev has been forming a kind of Russian elite-in-exile by collaborating with expatriates in the U.S. who he hopes will return to Russia and shape the country's direction one day. He cited Google founder Sergey Brin and internet entrepreneurs Stepan Pachikov and Stanislav Shalunov as among the entrepreneurial, successful expats who he believed could come to Russia's aid in the future.
"Our job is to push the country in the right direction during the inevitable change," Ponomarev said, predicting that Vladimir Putin would be out of power in two or three years, expelled by a coup mounted by the Eastern Ukraine separatists that Putin has empowered and supplied.
His project differs from that of the dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia project works with activists inside Russia and is organizing campaigns for the parliamentary elections in 2016, in that Ponomarev is focused on organizing Russians outside of Russia.
"The best talent we need for this future Russian government is in the U.S.," he said. "We're trying to do many different things together," he said, saying that one plan involves a "technological platform" that would "facilitate on a crowdsourcing basis the future for the country and the way reforms are done." There are also discussions that he compared to "the circles in the 19th century organized by Bolsheviks that created the Soviet elite."
Ponomarev said he's certain he knows where Putin was during his unexplained disappearance earlier this month — his residence at Valdai, being closely guarded as a power struggle played out among members of his inner circle. Ponomarev's theory is that opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot near the Kremlin as a "show for Putin": in Russia, "there is a big boss and several clans under big boss who are competing for boss' attention. They live on their own agenda to try to steer the situation in their own benefit. They're extremely selfish so they can sacrifice some of boss's interest so he gives more attention to them." Investigators have focused on a group of Chechens with ties to the republic's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The murder of Nemtsov has struck terror in the hearts of Russia's already-beleaguered opposition, Ponomarev said.
"Before you could always be a target to go to jail," he said. "Now the message is like, you could be a target to be murdered."