A Russian-backed foundation that spent over €12 million organising music events and tours in Malta and abroad built “strong links of influence” among Maltese officials, multiple sources have said.
Culture Minister José Herrera has demanded a due diligence report on the foundation’s funding after Times of Malta flagged how the opaque structure helped propel the government-run Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) onto the international stage.
The European Foundation for Support of Culture has splurged money on a myriad of events like the Malta International Piano Festival, the Malta International Music Festival, the International Folklore Festival and the International Ballet Malta, often working in conjunction with government agencies like the Malta Tourism Authority and V18 foundation.
Sources noted that many of the tickets for events organised by the foundation were often given out for free to dignitaries and officials, helping it build familiarity and influence with the movers and shakers on the island.
One source said the foundation’s president Konstantin Ishkhanov, of Armenian-Russian origins, has gained “considerable” influence over the MPO as more money was pumped into promoting the orchestra over the years, including tours in Europe, Russia and America.
He and his foundation were last year even given an honorary award by the Malta Arts Council for his role in cultural promotion.
Ishkhanov’s 12-year-old son Dmitry was the headline performer at the June 2017 season closing performance by the MPO.
A year before his headline performance, Ishkhanov’s son was chosen as Malta’s representative for the Eurovision Young Musicians contest.
His participation received gushing coverage by PBS, who said Ishkhanov Jnr is “considered as a genius.” The national broadcaster falls under the Culture Ministry’s remit.
The season closing performance of the MPO was snubbed by its artistic director and principal conductor Brian Schembri.
A young Armenian, Sergey Smbatyan, was flown in to conduct the performance instead of Schembri.
Smbatyan, whose father is a former ambassador of Armenia to Russia, has been linked to another Russia-connected foundation of murky provenance by Hetq, an online investigative journalism platform in Armenia.
The young Armenian is now the MPO’s principal conductor, a decision which another source says was effectively taken by Ishkhanov.
A trip to Russia
To promote the Malta International Music Festival in 2017, the foundation invited a group of officials from the MTA, Culture Ministry and MPO to Russia, where they stayed at the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the centre of Moscow.
One former MTA official said the entire trip was funded by the foundation.
Another former top official acknowledged the foundation spent money on organising “a lot of events”. The official said he “could not remember” who paid for the 2017 Moscow trip.
“If we were asked [by the foundation] to promote its events, we would. They were cultural events, not political. Personally, I never saw the foundation trying to influence us [at the MTA].
“Konstantin made it seem like he was doing this out of genuine interest to promote Malta. He had taken up residence here, brought down his family and bought property,” the former MTA official said.
Questions sent to the Tourism Ministry about the MTA’s links to the foundation remained unanswered.
The government tourism promotion agency is listed as a “partner” on the foundation’s website.
Many of the tickets for events organised by the foundation were often given out for free to dignitaries and officials
Apart from the European Foundation for Support of Culture, Ishkhanov heads another Maltese foundation called the Maltese-Russian friendship foundation, which among other activities publishes a monthly magazine in Russian and English called the Maltese Herald.
It also organises events in conjunction with the Russian Centre for Culture and Science, which is run by a Russian agency often accused of using such centres around the world as a front for intelligence operations, aimed at infiltrating societies and increasing Russian influence overseas.
‘Negotiations’ with the ambassador
Ishkhanov’s sphere of influence is not limited to Malta. His foundation is affiliated to a Russian entity called APKI, the Association for Support of Cultural and Commercial Initiatives.
APKI last year co-hosted the 5th international LNG conference with Electrogas in Malta.
According to promotional material, the conference was a closed-door congress that brought together gas giants and other operators to discuss LNG projects, pricing and operations.
Russia is one of the major suppliers of LNG in Europe.
Aleksandra Mitiureva, who heavily promotes APKI on social media, has dotted her Instragram account with pictures taken with Malta’s ambassador to Russia Pierre Clive Agius.
In one post where she poses with Agius at the conservatory lounge and bar in Moscow, Mitiureva heralded her “successful negotiations with the ambassador”.
“Together we will do great things together,” she said in the November 2018 post.
Contacted by Times of Malta, Agius said he could not recall the specific meeting with Mitiureva, which was “just weeks after my arrival in Moscow and it was still during my settling down period”.
He said it was “probably” a courtesy call by Mitiureva.
“There were absolutely no negotiations, but, in all probability, these talks, rather than negotiations, were about the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra Tour in Moscow and in Russia at the Tchaikovsky Music Academy in December 2018.
“The role of the embassy was truly peripheral and essentially to facilitate the Russian visa of the members of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. This task can only be performed by the embassy,” he said.
Questioned if Mitiureva or anyone associated with the foundation ever requested help in obtaining Schengen visas for Russian nationals, Agius pointed out that Mitiureva and Ishkhanov used to organise annual Russian music festivals in Malta.
“These artists applied for visas and if their documents were in order, they received it. There were instances, however, and I remember distinctly, when we did not issue visas because either the documentation was incomplete or else the required time delay was not respected.
“I point out that performing artists are part of the EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement and are therefore issued a free Schengen visa. The issue of a visa is a very transparent and straightforward process,” Agius said.