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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Private Paramilitary Force Raids Soros Institute

APCamouflage-clad men hired by Sektor-1 standing guard outside the offices of George Soros' Open Society Institute on Friday.
Camouflage-clad men raided the Moscow offices of U.S. billionaire George Soros' Open Society Institute late Thursday and then barred employees from the building and hauled away equipment and documents by the truckload, a lawyer for the foundation said.

In the latest move in a long-running real estate dispute, a paramilitary force of more than 50 men barged into the building, blocked several employees in their offices and began loading property into trucks, lawyer Pavel Kuzmin said. He said the raiders had kicked employees out, allowing them to take only personal property.

Some of the fund's financial and legal documents, its archive, grant letters, computers and private possessions of employees, including passports and employment books, "were taken away in an unknown direction," the institute said in a statement.

"I fear that we have lost the records of our 15 years of activity," Kuzmin said, adding that the confiscated property was worth more than $4 million.

Kuzmin said he believed the men were off-duty employees of Russian law enforcement and security agencies and that some were armed with stun guns. He said that police had ignored the organization's appeals for intervention and that the foundation was planning to ask prosecutors to investigate the raid.

The Open Society Institute, which was formed to bolster civil society and the rule of law, has been caught in a long-running feud over the riverside property at 8 Ozerkovskaya Naberezhnaya in central Moscow. It signed a lease in 1999 with an option to buy the building from a company called Sektor-1, which later sold the property to Nobel Technologies. The camouflage-clad men said they were from Sektor-1, according to Ekho Moskvy radio.

Kantemir Karamzin, who heads both Nobel Technologies and Sektor-1, has been trying to overturn what he says are the "unfavorable" terms of the lease since 2001, arguing that since the building was sold the lease is no longer valid. Earlier this year, the Moscow Arbitration Court upheld the institute's right to lease the building until 2009 under the terms it agreed to in 1999.

"The foundation believes that it should be renting the building for 10 years at $10,500 per month, but we believe that the rental fee should be significantly higher, and are calling for common sense," Ekho Moskvy radio quoted Karamzin as saying.

"I would suggest to the Soros Foundation that it stop these lightweight, petty arguments -- in the end it's not really big money. We will put all their folders back and even wipe the dust off, and we will stay away from here, if they agree to pay the rent on time," he told NTV television Friday.

Karamzin was also quoted in the local media as saying that Open Society owes him about $4 million for back rent and overdue utility bills. The building itself is worth $7 million and therefore "fair" rent should be at least $100,000 a month, he said.

The institute denied that it owes Karamzin money and said that it had spent more than $2.5 million renovating the building.

Soros opened the Open Society Institute in Moscow in 1987 with the aim of helping the Soviet Union make the transition to democracy. Earlier this year he said that he was reducing his activities in Russia because it was up to the state to work in the areas his foundation has previously supported.

Some of the institute's funding programs have been taken over by jailed Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Foundation, but Stewart Paperin, executive vice president of the Open Society Institute, said the raid was not related to the ongoing legal assault on Khodorkovsky and Yukos.

"The only connection to the Yukos case is that every time property rights are abused, it creates a pervasive climate of lawlessness," he told Bloomberg.

The timing of the raid, however, raised some eyebrows, since it came the same day Soros told Bloomberg Television that Khodorkovsky's arrest was an "unmistakable signal" from the Kremlin that the oligarchs "must not step out of line."

In an interview the previous day with Khodorkovsky's newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, Soros said there is little doubt that the former Yukos CEO's interest in politics is why he is behind bars.

(MT, AP)