On August 16, the president of the Warsaw-based Open Dialog Foundation (ODF), Ukrainian Lyudmyla Kozlovska, announced on social media that officials at Brussels Airport denied her entrance to Belgium. The reason: Poland had added her name in the Schengen Information System (SIS), which means she cannot enter in any of the SIS countries.

The news triggered reactions from media outlets and politicians. The most vociferous was the chair of the European Parliament’s ALDE Group Guy Verhofstadt.

Kozlovska posted several tweets herself, claiming she is the victim of persecution by Warsaw. She has said that she and her husband are involved in the protest movement against Poland’s government.

While there is no official comment from Warsaw, ODF’s activities, including the activities of Kozlovska and her husband, seem to have concerned Warsaw for at least a couple of years. In 2018 alone, three MEPs from the ruling party PiS tabled a formal question to the European Commission concerning ODF and Kozlovska’s activities.

In particular, Kosma Złotowski (ECR) on March 28 expressed his concern on possible connections between ODF and Moscow. He wrote: “Although the ODF officially supports democracy and human rights, Lyudmila Kozlovska was granted a Russian passport in 2014, i.e. after the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, the Foundation and its sponsors are suspected of having connections with Russia, including with entities connected with the Russian Navy”.

Two other Questions followed – one by ECR’s co-chair, Ryszard Antoni Legutko, on March 28 and the other by Ryszard Czarnecki (ECR) on May 3. Both expressed the same worries.

The turn of events is serious since the persecution of any person for their political ideas and actions is unacceptable in an EU member state. On the other hand, however, it seems that it is not so easy to put the name of an unwilling person on the SIS list. The SIS function is related to the protection of EU citizens and institutions.

For this reason, leading politicians in Brussels, instead of using the case of Kozlovska in their feud with the government of Warsaw must ask for details and must request a full explanation about the reasons that led the Polish government to such an action.

Activism or lobbying?

What is more, there are additional considerations about the case. According to its status, ODF is an NGO and Kozlovska ‘pretends’ to be a human rights activist. Under this identity, she is registered in the Transparency Register. However, the ODF’s website defends the case of the Kazakh businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov. Ablyazov allegedly embezzled $6bn from the Kazakh BTA Bank while serving as its chairman. In November 2012, a UK court ordered Mukhtar Ablyazov to pay £1.02bn. Between 2013 and 2016, Ablyazov was detained by French authorities. He declares to be a political dissident enemy of the authoritarian regime of Astana. But Latvian MEP Iveta Grigule-Pēterse warned EU NGOs and advocacy groups on May 2018 citing Ablyazov’s use of allegedly embezzled BTA Bank funds to underwrite PR campaigns aiming to present him as a fighter for democracy.

Searching the internet, there emerges a constant interest of Kozlovska and ODF for Ablyazov’s associates in trouble in European states. The president of the ODF travelled often to assist those associates. She assisted Tatiana Paraskevich, who was wanted in both Ukraine and Russia on charges of colluding with Ablyazov to embezzle millions of dollars from the BTA Bank in 2013 in Czech Republic, as well as Ablyazov’s security chief Aleksandr Pavlov and politician Muratbek Ketebaev in Spain.

According to the Romanian and Moldovan media, ODF embraced the case of a Moldovan businessman Veaceslav Platon who was sentenced to 18 years of prison for money laundering in 2017.

The way Ablyazov’s case was presented and defended by Kozlovska, in Brussels and Strasbourg, is a typical case of lobbying. Ablyazov, who according to the Polish media, is one of the sponsors of ODF, was treated as a client.

It is no secret that oligarchs and criminals from authoritarian states – when they arrive in Europe and ask for asylum – declare that they are politically persecuted by their own governments.

In many cases, they succeeded and enjoyed the sympathy of human right activists and media. But Ablyazov despite ODF’s efforts failed to do so.

A real investigation is needed

Kozlovska’s case presents an opportunity to discuss the necessity to distinguish between lobbyist companies and NGOs. The disguise of a lobbying activity in NGO harms both the image and business of lobbying and the work of activists.

It is also necessary to underline that not everyone who escapes a country with an authoritarian or dictatorial regime should or can be considered a political activist. Of course, anyone has the right to a defence and the services of lobbyists are always useful. But it is one thing to defend an accused for a penal crime and another thing to defend those persecuted for activities related to human rights.

It presents an opportunity to repeat that an accurate investigation is needed concerning the funds of such activities.

But such an investigation must be independent of any political disputes and feuds. It is not a question of PiS neither of the opposition Civic Platform. It is not a parcel in the EU-Poland confrontation.