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Seen As Turncoats By Moscow, Exiled Duma Pair Blasts Kremlin From Kyiv

Denis Voronenkov (left) and his wife, Maria Maksakova, who is also a former Russian lawmaker, left Russia for Ukraine in October 2016. (file photo)
Denis Voronenkov (left) and his wife, Maria Maksakova, who is also a former Russian lawmaker, left Russia for Ukraine in October 2016. (file photo)

KYIV -- Denis Voronenkov, the former Russian lawmaker who fled in October and has since taken Ukrainian citizenship, has come ready to chastise President Vladimir Putin, who he once supported, and his native Russia.

When I arrive at this Georgian restaurant down the street from the Ukrainian parliament building, Voronenkov and his wife, Maria Maksakova, a renowned opera singer who is also a former Russian lawmaker, have already started in on beer, eggplant wraps, and a vegetable salad dressed with walnut paste.

In his first interview with a foreign journalist since fleeing to Ukraine, Voronenkov fires off talking points while tearing through a fluffy, racket-shaped piece of bread. Dressed in a sportcoat and turtleneck sweater with a luxury watch on his wrist, he compares present-day Russia with "Nazi Germany," says its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region was "a mistake" and "illegal," claims Russian security services "hounded" him out of the country, and calls charges brought against him back home "fake" and "political."

A former Communist Party legislator elected in the 2011 Russian vote viewed by many as rigged, Voronenkov is perhaps best known for co-authoring the 2014 bill in the State Duma that banned the foreign ownership of Russian media, a move Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky called "perhaps the single worst thing that happened to press freedom as an institution in Putin's Russia."

Now, though, Voronenkov appears to have flipped, becoming a fiery critic of most everything he once supported in Russia and a citizen of Ukraine, to boot.

The way Maksakova tells it, she and Voronenkov left Moscow and most of their possessions behind and flew to Kyiv in October with no clear agenda but to escape pressure from the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's successor agency to the KGB.

'Schizophrenic' Russian Elite

Voronenkov says he is not interested in entering Ukrainian politics and is not currently working, adding that his only immediate ambition is to help raise the couple's 10-month-old son.

But he does seem to have access to funds. Last year, his name surfaced in the so-called Panama Papers leak as a shareholder of a British Virgin Islands company. Subsequent reports have emerged in Russia of his purported ownership of at least five expensive Russian apartments and a fleet of luxury cars.

Maksakova says the two of them had also become fed up with an increasingly "schizophrenic" Russian elite.

"In Russia, there is a system of total fear," says the former legislator for the ruling United Russia party. "Like in George Orwell's book [1984], right now these are times of total lies, when speaking truth is [labeled] extremism."

Russia, Voronenkov chimes in, "has gone crazy. People are behaving in a pseudo-patriotic frenzy."

He adds, quoting Maksakova on Russia's elite: "The void left by the lack of professionalism has been replaced by loyalty to power."

A major source of "frenzy," both say, is the status of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, occupied then annexed by Russia in 2014.

While Voronenkov is registered as having voted -- along with all but one legislator -- in favor of Russia's annexation of Crimea, he denies that he cast his vote himself. He says he wasn't present in parliament that day and that another legislator used his voting card.

Maksakova hastens to say that while she was pressured by fellow lawmakers to vote in favor of the annexation, she was out of the country during the Crimea vote.

Whatever the case, today both describe Russia's seizure of the Black Sea peninsula as "illegal." They claim that many among Russia's elite, including inside the Kremlin, such as Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov, warned against the move.

"It was the will of a single person," Maksakova says, "Putin."

Crimea remains a "huge problem" for Russia, Voronenkov says, not only politically but economically. "It is taking money away from other Russian regions," he says.

Kremlin 'Sore Spot'

Voronenkov made similar remarks in an interview published by the Ukrainian news site on February 14, provoking an outpouring of anger in Russia that was highlighted in independent and state-media reports.

Those reports, Voronenkov believes, led Russia's Investigative Committee to charge him with large-scale fraud, reportedly on February 15.

"We didn't think it would be something like a bomb explosion," Maksakova says of the Russian reaction to the interview.

Now, he says as lamb kebabs and cheese-stuffed bread arrive at the table, he fears for his and his family's safety.

"We need to be careful. We are poking a sore spot of the Kremlin with our statements," he says.

Voronenkov says he feels relatively safe in Kyiv, which remains engaged in a conflict in eastern Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists, but he also asks that I avoid disclosing the name of the Georgian eatery where he is showing off his new, "very beautiful" Ukrainian ID card. He says he received that document along with his Ukrainian citizenship through the state immigration service on December 6, two days after his tenure as a Russian lawmaker expired.

Voronenkov claims he was able to get citizenship because of a grandmother who was born in Ukraine's southern Kherson region.

However, a high-level Ukrainian operative who asks to remain anonymous because he is not allowed to comment on the issue, tells me that a presidential decree allowed Voronenkov to become a Ukrainian citizen. Such decrees are usually published on President Petro Poroshenko's official website; but there is no decree on the site for Voronenkov. That is because it was conducted in secret, my source says.

Yarema Dukh, an administration spokesman, denies any secret decree and says that Voronenkov received citizenship from the immigration service.

Back at dinner, Voronenkov says he remains a Russian citizen. But he doesn't foresee a return to Russia in the near future, saying he believes authorities would arrest him the moment he steps foot on Russian soil.

Despite his past support for Putin -- or perhaps because of it -- Voronenkov's defection from Russia is seen by many as a public-relations victory for Ukraine.

Aside from his criticism of the Kremlin, he says he has helped Ukrainian prosecutors build their treason case against Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who fled to Russia during the Euromaidan unrest in February 2014 and is suspected of ordering the killings of more than 100 protesters in Kyiv, by telling them what he knows in an official testimony.

Yanukovych's 'Criminal Deeds'

Voronenkov declines to say specifically what he told them about Yanukovych, only that "I told them some details of what was going on. And I will give testimony in open court in the course of judicial inquiry held in Ukraine."

Voronenkov hints, though, that he has information regarding Yanukovych involvement in the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine that led to the war, which that has so far killed nearly 10,000 people, according to UN figures.

"I will talk about criminal deeds of the former president, which led to the ongoing bloodshed in Donetsk and Luhansk regions," he says, referring to the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine.

Despite repeated denials from Moscow, Voronenkov says he is certain that Russia supports with money and soldiers the separatist forces fighting Ukrainian government troops in the east.

"Indeed, Russia is present there, through military divisions, the regular army [members of which] constantly end up in captivity, and Ukraine knows and interrogates them," he says.

Separatist 'Black Holes'

Voronenkov says the war in Ukraine, like the annexation of Crimea, has also taken a massive financial toll on Russia. He argues that eastern areas of Ukraine that Moscow controls through separatist proxies have no future in their current form.

"All regions where Russia appears as a protectorate, such as Transdniester, [the breakaway Georgian regions of] Abkhazia [and South] Ossetia, become very corrupted, extremely poor, like black holes on the world map."

His comments on the conflict contrast sharply with his statements in 2014, subsequently deleted, when he tweeted: "On the world map, a new state has appeared -- New Russia. Let's welcome them!"

Today, Voronenkov says he opposes "Russia's war" against Ukraine and says it will end only after Putin leaves the scene. But that might take a while. He "100 percent" expects Putin to run for reelection in 2018 with no one in a position to stop him.

Asked about Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader who announced he will run for the presidency in 2018 but may be barred after an embezzlement conviction by a Russian court this month in a case seen by many as politically motivated, Voronenkov says he "stands no chance."

Just then, Maksakova breaks out in laughter. During dinner, their phones have dinged and buzzed with text and Facebook messages from friends and trolls -- mostly Russian -- responding to their recent public interviews. They show me messages accusing the pair of being "traitors."

Maksakova, a leg of lamb in front of her as she leans back into her seat, says of all the attention they have gotten in the past 48 hours: "God, it's so funny!"

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