The motley crew that set up the Veselnitskaya meeting is a throwback to the days of the Wild East, where anyone with hustle and an agenda could become a player.
- By Amie Ferris-RotmanAmie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.
MOSCOW — The trio that staged the now infamous meeting with Donald Trump Jr. was a motley crew: a B-list Azerbaijani pop singer, a former British tabloid reporter, and a suburban lawyer. Until very recently, none of those involved looked like real players in Moscow, where power is determined by proximity to one man.
Of the three, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer best known outside of Russia for her efforts to reverse the U.S. sanctions known as the Magnitsky Act, probably comes closest to approximating a power broker. While her client base remains murky, she has said her clients include government figures.
Emin Agalarov — who prefers to go by his first name only — probably comes next. At least he has money: He is the son of Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijani immigrant and billionaire real estate tycoon known as the Donald Trump of Russia. Emin is the ex-husband of the Azerbaijani president’s daughter. And he had met Trump before, at the Miss Universe pageant that the American tycoon hosted on Moscow’s outskirts in 2013, in one of his father’s complexes. The 37-year-old Emin, who counts Elvis Presley as his inspiration, has not achieved the kind of success his Russian contemporaries enjoy, however, and is widely thought to have risen to semi-stardom on the coattails of his father. He is fond of making the same pointed-finger gesture as Trump and has hung out with American actor and now Russian citizen Steven Seagal.
But Rob Goldstone, a music publicist and self-proclaimed former journalist, cuts an odd figure indeed. A longtime Russophile, he arranged the meeting between Veselnitskaya and Trump Jr. On his social media accounts, which have been pored over by journalists ever since news broke of his role in brokering the meeting, the British expat appears disheveled and unshaven, wearing a slew of flamboyant hats and making abundant references to sex.
It’s not yet clear just how involved those at the highest levels of the Kremlin may have been in setting up such a meeting or what was said during the conversation. Opinions on the importance of the players themselves vary: The New York Times on Tuesday called Veselnitskaya a “fearsome Moscow insider”; that same day, Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky called her “low-level” and “no Kremlin power broker.” But that such an unlikely trio could wind up playing a role in bringing down an American president feels like an episode straight out of Russia’s turbulent and lawless 1990s — a time when, with a little bit of hustle and an agenda, unassuming players could come together in extraordinary circumstances to exert influence on important events.
Known as the Wild East, Russia in the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union in late 1991 was a chaotic and dangerous world, where women were ruthlessly objectified and contract killings were as common as quick money. There were vast fortunes to be made: The massive resources of the former Soviet Union were being carved up and divvied out, almost always at the expense of the general population. But trying to get a piece of the action was risky: Moscow was a gangsterland in the 1990s, and relationships and security were often slippery.
That environment attracted figures from the West like Goldstone, who often carved out a niche on the sidelines and waited, hoping to find a moment of opportunity: It’s estimated that thousands of foreign businessmen descended on Russia in the early and middle part of the decade. Some were welcomed for their hard currency; others ended up dead. The most famous of these businessmen is Paul Tatum, a hotelier from Oklahoma who was shot 11 times in the neck and head in 1996 near his office in central Moscow after he failed to pay protection money.
Women were treated abominably: The mafia was heavily involved in prostitution, often preying on the vulnerable and impoverished. Prostitutes regularly thronged Moscow’s main drag, Tverskaya; it became the norm for companies to advertise for female secretaries who were “bez kompleksov,” or without inhibitions, meaning they were ready game for whatever sexual advances their employers would subject them to. One 2001 guide by an American consulting firm on how to conduct business in Russia urged foreign businesswomen to “use their femininity to their advantage.” If this sounds like an environment where a certain U.S. president would feel right at home, well, this was, in fact, a Russia that Trump visited and was familiar with: The middle of the decade saw one of the more serious attempts by Trump to do business in Russia, when he tried but failed to build a luxury condo complex in Moscow. Even Trump Jr. was aware of the convoluted Russian business environment that was still in place a decade later, when he visited, saying after, “It is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who.… It really is a scary place.”
In the 1990s, the inept and sometimes drunk Boris Yeltsin was in charge — sort of. His weaknesses as a leader essentially meant that Russia’s budding class of oligarchs ruled the roost. Unlike today, where anyone with real power is connected to or endorsed by the Kremlin, the lack of a strong leader meant that the elite circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg were filled by interesting mélanges of people from all spheres of life: Illicit businessmen, top brass from the Soviet-Afghan war, and celebrity journalists all mixed and mingled. Unlike today — with perhaps the exception of Emin — pop stars were linked to the government and were regularly invited to perform at state events and encouraged to do the Kremlin’s bidding. Throughout the decade, the FSB, successor to the KGB, played a less dominant role than nowadays, largely incapable of international espionage until Vladimir Putin took it over in 1998.
That environment facilitated Putin’s own rise: He was still largely unknown to the Russian public when, in the late 1990s, he oversaw a series of foreign property deals for the government and developed an unlikely friendship with oligarch-turned-dissident Boris Berezovsky, who propelled him to power, taking over on New Year’s Eve in 1999.
A major part of Putin’s enduring appeal to ordinary Russians was his ability to move the country away from the dark days of poverty and chaos, which most of the population remembers as painful years. But the way in which the Trump Jr. meeting played out shows that while much about Russia has changed since the 1990s, much has remained the same. Russia lives by very different rules today, without the rampant crime and lawlessness of the 1990s. But the country’s wealth is still in the hands of a few oligarchs, all of them connected to Putin. Drive-by shootings and smuggled goods have been replaced by a strong police force and European-style living (at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg), but the wheeling and dealing of the 1990s are still very much in play; only now, it’s conducted by the powerful state structures.
That sort of brazen, blasé attitude of the 1990s was on display over the past few days by the orchestrators of the now ill-fated meeting. Clearly enjoying the publicity, the Switzerland-educated singer Emin posted a smiling picture of himself on his Instagram account Tuesday, writing, almost jeeringly, in Russian, “What’s the news?” The lawyer, Veselnitskaya, cheerfully exonerated herself and threw her would-be American partner under the bus, telling NBC News, eyebrows raised, with a look of innocent surprise on her face, that the Trump team wanted the Hillary Clinton information “so badly.” Goldstone, for his part, went dark and changed the settings on his Instagram account to private.
Photo credit: GERARD FOUET/AFP/Getty Images