Gas & gangsters

Energy is the key to Europe's new relationship with Russia - and supposedly Moscow's weapon of choic

Scoops and shocks are thin on the ground in Moscow these days. As events of 2 March should confirm, elections are hardly nail-biting affairs, and nobody expects journalists to publish revelations about Vladimir Putin or his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, dallying with a lobbyist. So when police grabbed 61-year-old Sergei Schneider on Moscow's fashionable Arbat Street and bundled him into an awaiting Black Maria on 24 January, they also shook newsrooms across the Russian capital out of their torpor.

They weren't the only ones to register their surprise - eyes popped in law enforcement and intelligence agencies throughout Europe and North America when they learned that "Schneider" was none other than Semyon Mogilevich, one of the FBI's most-wanted on charges of money-laundering and racketeering. In the past few years, Mogilevich is suspected of acting as a pivotal figure in Russia's gas industry.

Getting gas out of the ground in central Asia or Russia to the homes of central and western Europe is an expensive and complicated business. And as capitalism emerged in Russia during the 1990s, it needed people to grease the wheels of mineral commerce. The big industry players needed energetic and persuasive fixers in order to ensure that they were paid their cut away from the prying eyes of any tax authorities or their competitors. Two companies, ETG and RosUkrEnergo, were consecutively given exclusive rights to negotiate transit deals for Russian gas travelling through Ukraine. They were widely considered the most notorious vehicles for this lucrative sideline to Russian organised crime's impressively diverse portfolio.

Details started to emerge in 2005 after the Orange Revolution brought Yulia Tymoshenko to power as Ukraine's prime minister. She ordered her then security minister to open a criminal investigation into these companies and specifically into Mogilevich's involvement with them. Later, the same minister asserted that Moscow connived in the successful movement to bring down Tymoshenko's government in order to prevent details about ETG and Mogilevich from being made public. Tymoshenko herself was threatened with arrest in Moscow on corruption charges.

Three years later, things have changed. Four weeks after Mogilevich's arrest in January, Tymoshenko pitched up in Moscow (charges and arrest threat long since forgotten) and announced that Ukraine had overcome its long-standing problems with Gazprom, Russia's state-backed energy behemoth, and negotiated payment of its outstanding debt to the company. Two days later she was happy to comment on Mogilevich's arrest: "As far as gas transit from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other countries is concerned, we don't need any shadowy intermediaries," she said. "There will be transparency in our government and society. It also concerns energy policy."

Winner takes all

The ghostly presence of figures like Mogilevich around the gas industry has reinforced the impression that Gazprom and Putin are playing fast and loose with its energy resources. This has bolstered the thesis, which has become fashionable very quickly, that Russia and the west have returned to the days of a winner-takes-all ideological competition. Indeed, the past few months has seen publication of two books devoted to the subject, most recently The New Cold War, by the Economist correspondent Edward Lucas. The blame for this development is invariably placed firmly on Moscow's shoulders.

Perhaps after the uncertainties of the 1990s and the Twin Towers, there is a hankering to get back to the grand chess game between the White House and the Kremlin, with Europe as the battleground. Nevertheless, the warnings of those who subscribe to the thesis are stark: Putin's Russia is bent on stifling all domestic opposition and restoring the omnipotence of the KGB. But special attention is paid particularly to how Russia intends to use its gas supplies to western Europe as a weapon. A week ago, Matthew Bryza, the US deputy assistant secretary of state, spelled out western concerns, warning against the creation of monopolies in the energy industry. "We especially don't like them when they threaten at least the economic security of our most important allies," he said in an explicit attack on Gazprom, the energy company that symbolises the revival of Russian might.

The cold wind blowing in from Moscow is especially chilly by the time it hits London. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko, with its tit-for-tat expulsions, and the closure of British Council offices in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, suggest the Russians are revisiting the sinister romanticism of the Cold War.

Of course, Russia has a very different perspective on this. It suddenly has very powerful American radar systems being placed close to its border (and also hosted by Britain) under Washington's missile defence system; and it awaits in vain the extradition of Boris Berezovsky. Moscow first requested the extradition of this Russian billionaire and prominent Putin opponent on charges of corruption, money-laundering and racketeering in 2003. At first the Home Office refused Berezovsky's application for asylum but several months later Whitehall changed its mind. The only reason that a number of senior sources in Washington and London can give for this turnabout is that Berezovsky has enjoyed a close relationship with British intelligence. That angers the Russians, and goes a long way to explaining why Andrei Lugovoi, Scotland Yard's number-one suspect in the Litvinenko murder, continues to enjoy the full protection of the Russian state. However, the arrest of Mogilevich in order to smooth the path of the Ukrainian gas deal suggests a pragmatism on Russia's part that is often overlooked in Britain. In important respects, the fate of Mogilevich is much more significant than Lugovoi's.

Co-operation, not confrontation

Elsewhere in the European Union, a different picture is emerging where the emphasis in relations with Moscow is placed on co-operation, not confrontation. Germany's economic links with Russia are expanding with the explicit backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nicolas Sarkozy started his presidency by securing a huge deal for Total to develop the Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea in a deal with Gazprom that Putin personally approved.

Energy is the key to the new relationship with Russia and supposedly Moscow's weapon of choice in its plan for European domination. Yet this assumption ignores a more fundamental reality: the European Union currently consumes 480 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year and that is set to rise to about 600bcm by 2020; Russia can provide most of that need either with its own gas or by transporting Turkmen and Kazakh gas. There is no better customer for Russia than the European Union. Gazprom is also developing its markets in Japan and China but the EU remains by far the most lucrative and reliable consumer. Why would the Russians seek to promote a conflict with its best revenue stream? The converse is true - given that the alternative supplies to the EU come from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East, there is no better supplier for the EU than Russia.

Such is the fear of Russia's dominance of the EU gas market that, for several years, a European consortium has been attempting to diversify its gas suppliers. To lessen the dependency on Russian gas, and with American support, the EU came up with Nabucco, a gas pipeline that would bring supplies from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran across Turkey and into the Balkans. But last summer President Putin managed to scupper this by persuading the Kazakhs and Turkmens, without difficulty, to sell their gas to Gaz prom instead, knocking the stuffing out of the Nabucco plan overnight. American sanctions on Iran did the rest.

Already signed up

More recently, Bulgaria and Serbia have signed up to Gaz prom's alternative to Nabucco called South Stream which will bring 30bcm of gas from Russia under the Black Sea. But before the new cold warriors raise the alarm, it is worth remembering that this is not a Russian monopoly - ENI, the Italian energy giant, owns 50 per cent of South Stream while Austria's OMV and Hungary's MOL have recently signed deals with Gazprom despite their involvement in Nabucco.

Ironically, Nabucco looks as though it might be saved by the intervention of Gazprom. The Russian firm has said it will consider diverting some of its gas away from South Stream and into Nabucco - after all it all makes money.

To the north, Germany and its former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, are enthusiastic participants in the Nord Stream project that will bring gas to Germany direct from Russia across the Baltic Sea. Schröder, who actually chairs the consortium building the pipeline, dismissed the objections of Poland and Ukraine who detected a Russo-German plot (familiar from their histories) to squeeze the two countries out of the lucrative transit market. Brussels is trying desperately to fashion a coherent pan-EU policy on gas supply to head off disputes within the Union over access to Russian gas. But so far the needs of individual countries, whether large like Germany and Italy or small like Bulgaria and Hungary, have been decisive in determining the course of pipeline politics.

The new Russia knows how to exploit internal European squabbles to its advantage. In the old days, the Soviet Union was run by a gerontocracy clinging to the ideology of communist state power. These days the young energy advisers around Putin have Harvard MBAs and perfect English - they are not driven by ideology, but by money and market share.

The resurgent Russian state and its repressive mechanisms are distasteful and a matter of real concern. It is important to remember that while we in the west made hay in the 1990s, the Russians faced chaos and economic misery. Their introduction to capitalism, inspired by oligarchs like Berezovsky, was deeply unhappy, and it is essential to take this into account when assessing Putin's growing authoritarianism. This may not yet amount to the rule of law but for most Russians it is an improvement on the rule of gangsters that preceded it.

Clearly the deployment of missile defence and the recog nition of Kosovo confer a sense of Cold War panic on proceedings, but that should not obscure the fact that gas and oil are the substances underpinning Europe's relationship with Moscow. If this mutual dependency were handled properly (a big if), both sides should benefit in equal measure. The relationship between Russia and the west is driven not by the old Cold War ideologies but by the carving up of profits. If, however, we start guiding our policies by the new Cold War thesis, this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Present circumstances would look benign by comparison.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters

Mike Lombardo via @moreMiLo
Show Hide image

“I was almost brainwashed by him”: How male YouTubers get away with preying on young fans

A multitude of YouTube stars have been accused of taking advantage of young fans, but little is being done to tackle the problem.

In June, a 24-year-old YouTuber named Austin Jones was charged with two counts of producing images of child abuse. Court documents allege that the internet personality – who has more than half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel – solicited explicit videos from two of his young female fans. According to the criminal complaint, Jones asked one of the teenage girls – known only as Victim B – to dance for him, and said: “Bounce again and smile at the camera while you bounce. And while you bounce, say ‘I’m only 14’ 3 times throughout the video.” Jones has been released on bail and is awaiting trial. Jones’ attorney Gerardo Solon Gutierrez points out that the singer is “innocent until proven guilty”.

A few weeks later, a YouTuber known as Durte Dom was accused of filming a 15-year-old girl from behind while she danced at a party, without her consent. “He filmed my ass dancing,” the girl wrote anonymously on Twitter. Dom responded to the allegations via the social network, writing: “the party was 18+, the girl snuck in. don't fool yourself.” He says he will now “start having people sign release forms” before he films them.

These allegations are not isolated. In 2014, a Tumblr user called Olga accused the YouTuber Tom Milsom of coercing her into sexual activities when she was 15 and he was 21. Milsom did not comment publicly on the accusations and was never charged. Only a month earlier, a YouTube musician, Mike Lombardo, was jailed for five years on child pornography charges after soliciting explicit photographs and videos from 11 of his underage fans. 

These events set off a series of other allegations. Vlogger Alex Day admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” after 14 women and teenage girls accused him of manipulation and abuse. One anonymous 15-year-old wrote on Tumblr that Day had sex with her knowing she was underage and “didn’t listen to me when I asked to stop”. Day denied any sexual relations with underage girls, and none of his alleged victims pressed charges. Another YouTuber, Ed Blann, admitted in a now-deleted Tumblr post that he “manipulated” an of-age fan into sex even after he was “repeatedly told to stop”. Like Day, Blann never faced any charges, but, also like Day, he apologised for his actions.  

 In September 2014, a 19-year-old woman accused the YouTube prankster Sam Pepper of raping her, and another woman filed a police report accusing him of rape. Pepper denied the accusations, was never arrested and charges were never filed. He did, however, apologise for YouTube pranks that included pinching women’s behinds while wearing a fake hand.

A Tumblr post set up to track emotional and sexual abuse in the YouTube community to date features allegations against 43 YouTubers.

***

Social media revolutionised the concept of celebrity – and celebrity-fan interactions. YouTubers are both incredibly adored and incredibly accessible. Products they design sell out overnight and their live events fill arenas. At the same time, fans are often just a few clicks away from engaging in private, one-on-one conversations with their heroes.

“I feel like I was kind of blinded to the whole situation, like I was almost brainwashed by him,” says Ashley LaPrade, a 16-year-old who claims that when she was 15, Austin Jones coerced her into creating sexualised videos on the messaging app Kik. She posted screenshots of their conversations on social media after the news of Jones’s arrest broke.

“It was kind of casual at first and he asked me to model his merchandise for him... so I did. I took a couple pictures and I’m a gymnast so I was trying to like impress him and I did like splits and stuff,” she says. She alleges that Jones asked her to film herself from behind while bending down or dancing. “I didn't want to upset him and make him not like me,” she says.

LaPrade explains that as a young 15-year-old fan she “looked up” to Jones and was initially excited by his interest in her. After she began to feel uncomfortable with his requests, they stopped talking, but she continued to listen to his music and go to his concerts. She says that she only realised the severity of his actions after his arrest.

Many young fans like Ashley are initially unable to comprehend that anything wrong – legally or morally – has happened to them. Neesey Pathan is a 20-year-old student and YouTuber who claims she was sexually harassed by Sam Pepper when she was 15. In 2014, she posted a YouTube video of her allegations, showing screenshots of alleged conversations with Pepper in which he asks her to “do a naked a dance” and show him her cleavage.

“As a young naïve 15-year old girl, I just wanted to keep talking to him because I was a huge fan,” Neesey tells me. “When he started to get inappropriate with me, at the time that made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t understand how serious that was, because of how young I was.

“I wanted him to stop being inappropriate with me but I didn't want him to stop speaking to me.”

***

Since the concept of celebrity was invented, nefarious individuals have used their fame to manipulate and take sexual advantage of young fans. In the 1970s, Lori Mattix was a “baby groupie” to musicians – alleging in a Thrillist article that she lost her virginity to David Bowie aged just 14. When the guitarist Ted Nugent couldn’t legally marry 17-year-old Pele Massa, he became her guardian instead. Anna Garcia met Prince aged 15 and began a relationship with him aged 17. “I guess it’s kind of a dream to a young girl of 17,” she said in the Nineties. “You can be influenced very easily and stuff like that because he’s 12-13 years older than me.”

It now seems as though a slew of YouTubers have taken advantage of this imbalanced fan-creator relationship, and have deliberately exploited the naivety of their young fans. Ashley and Neesey both claim they were emotionally manipulated.

“I think I put him on this pedestal, which put him in a position to very easily manipulate me and get what he wanted,” says Neesey. “I was just so excited to get to speak to someone who I had looked up to for a long time.”

Ashley claims that when she wouldn’t film increasingly explicit videos for Jones, he treated her coldly. “He went on about how he was in a bad mood now and he didn’t want to talk any more,” she says. “If I did something wrong to him, like if I didn’t blow a kiss or something, then he would make me redo [the video].”

In 2015, Jones was first accused of asking his underage fans to film themselves twerking. In a video entitled “Setting The Record Straight”, he admitted to asking for the twerking videos and said he became suicidal after this news became public. “I’m a pretty insecure person... I began researching different suicide methods. I started planning my suicide. It’s something I was very, very serious about,” he says in the video. 

“A lot of times when we were talking he was talking about how he was going to therapy so I kind of felt bad for him and that’s why I didn't really say anything [to the authorities],” says Ashley.

The American National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines on its website that threatening suicide can be a form of emotional abuse. “If your partner regularly threatens suicide, particularly whenever you’re not doing something he or she wants you to do, or when you’re trying to leave the relationship... this is a form of emotional abuse.”

According to Neesey’s screenshots, Pepper flippantly mentioned he was “suicidal” when she refused to show him her breasts. In Olga’s blogpost about Tom Milsom, she alleges: “he’d like sob and cut himself in front of me he threatened weird suicidal shit a lot”.

“Obviously, if someone is saying to you that they're suicidal, you want to help them, because obviously they don't mean it but as a young person you think they do,” explains Neesey. “And you don't want to be held responsible for them hurting themselves and you maybe care about this person because you’ve been watching them for so long. So you’re manipulated into carrying on contact with them because if you don’t, what will happen...” 

***

To date, Lombardo is the only YouTuber who has ever been jailed for sexually abusing his fans. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Some victims are too afraid to press charges, fearing backlash from a YouTuber’s fandom. Many victims are unable to see the severity of their abuse until they are older. More still are manipulated into silence. Parents can’t comprehend YouTube stardom, and fail to understand what is happening in their children’s lives. Some victims simply don’t know which authorities to turn to.

“I'm kind of steaming about this whole issue,” says Michelle LaPrade, Ashley’s mother. “I can’t even look at a picture of the guy. It makes me want to punch him.”

At the time, Ashley never told her mother about Jones’s behaviour, but Michelle overheard conversations about it between her daughter and her friends. “I feel like a bad mother. I never even really investigated it. Because I know girls and their drama and you know, [they] overreact sometimes.”

After Jones’s arrest, Michelle wanted to report his interactions with Ashley to the authorities, but she found her local police department unhelpful. “I don't know who to turn to,” she says.

Many more victims are unaware that a crime has even occurred. “When I was 15 I didn't see how problematic it was,” says Neesey. “I knew it was a bit strange, and I did feel uncomfortable, but I didn't realise that he was actually sort of committing a crime in terms of asking a minor, as an adult, to do these things...

“It wouldn't even have crossed my mind to go to the police.”

While the UK has the large-scale Operation Yewtree into sexual abuse by celebrities, there is no equivalent for YouTube. Despite the multitude of allegations spanning half a decade, there is no single helpline or dedicated investigation into YouTube abuse. When questioned on this, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“We cannot allow social media platforms to be looked upon as a safe space for predators to target our children and share indecent images. It is vital that communication service providers have easily identifiable reporting systems for people to flag inappropriate or illegal content – and that they are clear about what is and isn’t allowed on their sites.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “We have clear policies against harassment and we enforce these policies by removing both flagged content and comments that break our rules as well as terminating the accounts of repeat offenders.”

Sam Pepper is still on YouTube, where his channel has over two million subscribers. Alex Day returned to YouTube in December 2015, and now has over 80,000 subscribers. Austin Jones’s YouTube channel remains live, though he is not allowed to use social media before his trial.

***

“I feel like it is really hard to be taken seriously,” says Ashley. On social media, people are prone to victim-blaming Ashley and other alleged victims, saying that they should have stopped replying to the YouTubers harassing them. “Yeah, we did send stuff back but it was... we were being pressured into it and we didn't want to upset him or anything like that,” Ashley says. Her mother tells me she is glad Ashley “took the high ground” in not sending overtly sexual videos to Jones.

Unsure which authorities to speak to, many victims turn to social media to discuss their abuse. Accusations play out on Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube itself. Ashley tweeted screenshots of her interactions with Jones, while Neesey created two videos about her conversations with Pepper. Although this is an effective, and unprecedented, way for victims to get their voices heard, many online are distrustful of complaints that didn’t go through the authorities. Many more leave misogynistic and hateful comments.

“People will just be absolutely horrible to you and call you demeaning things... I got called a flirt, I got told it was all my fault because I continued speaking to him...” says Neesey, of the reaction to her videos. “I think that's a lot of the reason why people sometimes don’t come forward, because they don't want to go through all that stress again. They’ve already dealt with the situation; why would they want to deal with the stress of people being horrible to them about it?”

Some commenters criticise Neesey and other victims who have made YouTube videos and claim they were doing so for attention. “No one in their right mind would do it for attention because the attention you get is negative,” Neesey says. “I honestly don’t believe that someone would sit down and accuse someone of doing something if they didn’t mean it. So I really think it should be taken seriously.”

Whether it makes sense to those outside of the community or not, many victims' first recourse is social media, not the police or authorities. The accusations about Durte Dom – the YouTuber who allegedly filmed a 15-year-old dancing – were publicised by another YouTuber, Elijah Daniel, on his Twitter page.

Damon Fizzy is a YouTuber who called out Austin Jones after the initial accusations in 2015, and continues to do so on Twitter now. Although he agreed to speak with me, he was unable to find time to do so over a series of weeks.

For many YouTubers and their victims, social media is more important that the traditional media. Perhaps this makes sense – when the Mail Online covered the arrest of Lombardo, the YouTuber who solicited child abuse images from 11 underage fans, they added inverted commas around the word “star” in their headline. If the media and the authorities can’t take YouTube seriously, how seriously will they take accusations of YouTuber abuse?

***

In the past, YouTubers have often been good at self-policing. Hank and John Green are American brothers who run the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, which has over three million subscribers. They own a record label, DFTBA, and run the annual YouTube convention VidCon. Lombardo and Day were DFTBA artists, and were dropped from the label after the accusations emerged. The Green brothers also banned Pepper from VidCon.

After the storm of accusations in 2014, an enormous number of popular YouTubers made videos in response. Hank Green explained consent to his audience, while the comedy YouTuber TomSka created a guide to YouTube gatherings. The popular YouTube duo Jack and Dean even made a music video about consent. The community came together to exile those who weren’t being punished in other ways. The subscriber numbers on the accused’s channels dropped dramatically.

Yet within a few months, many disgraced YouTubers can return to the platform to harness a new generation of fans, many of whom might not be aware of the accusations.

“YouTube still allows them to create content and make money off it, and that to me is just communicating that the behaviour is just not that bad. It’s sort of equivalent to a slap on the wrist and it doesn't convey the extremity of the situation of what they’ve done,” says Neesey. “I think they should be completely ostracised from the community, and have their status stripped from them, and I think YouTube should support that. Because they’re criminals.”

On Twitter, YouTuber Damon Fizzy claims he received backlash from Jones’s fans when trying to speak out years ago. “It’s crazy the backlash I received versus now. I was literally treated worse than the person who uses his underage fans for sexual gain,” he wrote.

And it’s true that YouTubers’ leagues of adoring fans can make it difficult to speak out about abuse. It is hard for many adults to understand how consuming being a young fan can be, particularly when manipulation is involved. When I ask both Ashley and Neesey what they would say to young female fans who start talking to YouTubers, they both say this is fine. Neesey warns that when a youngster becomes uncomfortable, they should end communication, but both she and Ashley feel that safe, normal fan-creator interaction is fine, indeed desirable.  

Sapphire Putt is a 20-year-old who claims a YouTuber coerced her into filming videos of herself dancing when she was 16. When I ask if she thinks it would be OK for the YouTuber to return to YouTube, she says she would be “cautious” but “wouldn’t throw the possibility of maybe giving him a chance again”.

“If he actually shows that he’s learned, you know, I would give it a chance and if he would mess it up again then that’s it, you know.”

When I ask Ashley what she would say to people who remain fans of Austin Jones she says: “I’d say that I probably understand... but they also need to understand that what he’s doing isn’t right and no one should be treated the way he is treating people.”

***

The NSPCC is currently calling for an independent regulator to scrutinise internet companies and fine them if they fail to keep children safe.

“We want the government to draw up a list of minimum standards that internet companies must observe to protect children, and children should be automatically offered safer accounts that protect them from grooming and harmful content,” an NSPCC spokesperson says.

“We know from our Childline service that online sexual exploitation is increasing so it’s vital that more is done to protect young people from abusers who use social media to target and manipulate them.”

For now, Ashley is simply glad things didn’t go further. “It's scary not knowing what could've happened, knowing that I was brainwashed like to believe it was OK, and I'm just happy he's not able to message other girls at this point,” she says.

Neesey hopes that schools will get better at teaching consent. “As a young person, I knew I felt a bit uncomfortable but I just thought that I was being dramatic... so I think people need to be educated, for sure.”  She says education needs to be improved not just in schools, but in the media.

“Unfortunately, people are sort of used to it now, after quite a few YouTubers, so it’s sort of like, ‘Oh another one.' People aren’t talking about it as much – not that it’s old news, but it’s not as shocking. People aren’t giving it as much attention as it needs.”

The NSPCC advises that if a child is worried about an online situation they should talk to a trusted adult or contact Childline on 0800 1111. Parents can find out more about talking to their child about staying safe online by searching Share Aware or visiting www.nspcc.org.uk

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters