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Putin Book Alleging Mob Ties Shelved Over British Libel Fears

The book deals with alleged criminal activities Vladimir Putin was implicated in the 1990s, when he served as a senior official under St. Petersburg's mayor.
The book deals with alleged criminal activities Vladimir Putin was implicated in the 1990s, when he served as a senior official under St. Petersburg's mayor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long intimidated media in his own country. And now he seems to have spooked the world's oldest publishing house.

Cambridge University Press, the venerable British publisher, has declined to accept a U.S. academic's book examining Russian President Vladimir Putin's alleged ties to organized crime, citing fears of potential libel suits in British courts.

The publisher informed Karen Dawisha, a Russia expert and professor at the Miami University in Ohio, that allegations in her book implicating Putin and his associates in illegal financial dealings would leave it vulnerable to costly litigation in Britain, where libel laws are more favorable to plaintiffs than in U.S. courts.

"Obviously I will submit it somewhere in the United States," Dawisha, who has written or edited seven books published by Cambridge University Press, told RFE/RL on April 3.

Dawisha describes the book as an assiduously researched volume that uses publicly available information to show how Putin and a small coterie of his fellow former KGB officers and St. Petersburg officials allegedly exploited their government connections to enrich themselves as their power and influence steadily rose in the 1990s.

She says she got the go-ahead from Cambridge University Press to work on the project in the fall of 2011 and submitted the 500-page manuscript in November 2013, so that lawyers could scrutinize the volume for libel risks.

Libel Concerns

Dawisha waited several months for a response, and two weeks ago Cambridge informed her that while it had no reason to doubt the veracity of her research, individuals implicated in the book "would be motivated to sue and could afford to do so."

"Moreover, given the controversial subject matter of the book, and its basic premise that Putin's power is founded on his links to organized crime, we are not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort," John Haslam, Cambridge's executive publisher for political science and sociology, wrote to Dawisha in a March 20 e-mail.

The contents of Haslam's e-mail, as well as Dawisha's April 2 response, were published on April 3 on the website of "The Economist," which first reported the publisher's decision not to proceed with the project.

A Cambridge University Press spokesman told "The Economist" that the correspondence "was internal, based on confidential legal advice, and was never meant to be a public statement by the Press on this book or libel law in general."

Dawisha says it's ironic that she received Halsam's e-mail the same week that the United States and its European allies levied sanctions on officials and wealthy businessmen seen as close to Putin following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory. Many of these individuals play key roles in her book, she says.

"It's a kind of unfortunate confluence of the admission on the part of the U.S. and the EU and Britain, that they know what this group has done, and the unwillingness of one of the most prestigious publishers to allow the public to see what is so clearly there," Dawisha says.

St. Petersburg Allegations

Russian officials have dismissed as baseless the U.S. allegations against the sanctioned individuals, whom the Obama administration calls Putin's "cronies."

The Cambridge University Press spokesman told "The Economist" in a statement that the publisher had never had a publication agreement with Dawisha and that the decision not to go forward with the book "afforded her the opportunity to publish with any other publishing house."

The spokesman noted, however, that the publisher had contacted Dawisha after reading her e-mail this week "to see whether we might be able to find a compromise." Dawisha says that the publisher said its counsel would be in touch regarding a possible compromise but that she has not yet been contacted.

Dawisha says her book takes readers through alleged criminal activities Putin was implicated in the 1990s, when he served as a senior official under St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. These include an alleged scheme to skim money off of a program to send World War II veterans on vacation to Spain.

She says her book also examines documents collected by Marina Salye, who as a St. Petersburg lawmaker in the 1990s accused Putin, then deputy mayor, of involvement in multimillion-dollar kickback deals.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said after Salye's death in 2012 that her documents purporting to show Putin's involvement in financial machinations were "pretty old and have been repeatedly refuted."

Dawisha says she does not begrudge Cambridge for declining to proceed with the book but that she felt compelled to speak out about the circumstances surrounding the project.

"No one is saying that they should go down with the ship. But at the same time I did think that...academic writers, journalists, and publishers in a democratic society have a rather unique obligation to stand up and note when something goes awry," she says.
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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