At a Brussels Press Club event on 12 November entitled “EU-Russia Relations before the Summit,” Hermitage Capital CEO Bill Browder treated a select audience of journalists and human rights activists to a variety show which included the launch of a book he has financed, Why Europe Needs a Magnitsky Law. The ultimate objective of his campaign, which now hits the road to the USA, is regime change in Russia. Read on…
Bill Browder, Master of Bait and Switch
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
“Despite the fact that we are still using his name, for many people this has become the Magnitsky list case, the adoption case, the information service case, the Obama administration partisan case, the case of the trial of Bill Browder or his business, or the Butyrka case. And it is not. It is the Magnitsky case. And these are the facts that we need to grasp if we don’t want to be sucked into a confusion strategy that is only in the interests of certain parties.” Ignacio Sanchez Amor, deputy in Spanish Congress of Deputies, Why Europe needs a Magnitsky Law, p. 248
In what follows, I offer the reader some critical insights into a remarkable event held at the Brussels Press Club on 12 November 2013 entitled “EU-Russia Relations before the Summit” and into a newly issued book promoted at that event entitled Why Europe needs a Magnitsky Law: Should the EU follow the US? The link connecting the event and the book is Mr. Bill Browder, who was the sponsor of both. The event and the book have the same strengths and limitations, which I intend to explore here. These follow from Browder’s mastery of the business art of ‘bait and switch,’ meaning concretely spreading not merely among his audience but also among the ‘stage hands’ or ‘exhibits’ of his road shows and publication projects confusion over his actual objectives, to which many might object if they understood his political project correctly.
The event in Brussels is being repeated at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University, New York City this week, where it is billed as a book launch. We may assume that the road show will move on to other academic and non-academic centers in the USA and further afield where there is an interest in Russian affairs. It is all part of Mr. Browder’s campaign to discredit and overthrow the Putin regime. In this activity, Browder is taking up the cause and some of the methods of the late Boris Berezovsky, and that separate issue of likenesses and differences will constitute the final section of this essay.
1. The event
On 12 November, Hermitage Capital CEO Bill Browder treated a select audience of journalists and human rights activists based in Brussels to a variety show which included inter alia the launch of a book he has financed, Why Europe Needs a Magnitsky Law. However, the invitations to the gathering bore a rather different focus: “EU-Russia Relations before the Summit, Brussels.” That reference is to the upcoming semi-annual bilateral summit in Brussels planned for January. Browder’s last public event in Brussels was held in the European Parliament building at the time of the EU-Russia Summit in June 2013. The apparent intent of these exercises, at a minimum, is to ensure that there is no rapprochement, no détente between the parties around the negotiating table. The maximum objective is regime change in Russia.
Browder engaged as moderator of the panel Fraser Cameron, the (ex)-director of the high-sounding “EU-Russia Centre,” a boutique think tank which worked closely with a variety of freedom-fighting peer organizations and personalities to name and shame Russia until it fell on hard times and lost funding following the crash of 2008. Never mind that Cameron’s Linked-in career resume says that he left the Russia Centre in September 2012 and that his name appears on the website of the EU-Asian Centre as its new director. The same website proudly lists the People’s Republic of China as a key sponsor. We may assume that Cameron is more circumspect about promoting human rights issues on the agenda in China than when wearing his Russian hat. Be that as it may, resting on the laurels of his service with the Russia-focused think tank, Fraser Cameron lent a sought-after gravitas to the panel. His words from the podium struck a chord of fair play and scholarly objectivity.
The program sent in advance to the Press Club membership clearly indicated where Browder intends to direct the thoughts of Members of the European Parliament before the January EU-Russia Summit. Back in June, he highlighted Magnitsky Act issues of visa sanctions so as to prevent a possible agreement on liberalization of the visa regime with Russia which was then expected from the Summit. The panel he brought to the Parliament building in June addressed the highly emotive theme of political prisoners in Russia. Moving with the times and considering that the EU’s negotiations with Ukraine are approaching their climax, Browder now seeks to highlight Russia’s alleged bullying of its neighbors, former Soviet republics, to prevent their signing trade and accession agreements with the EU.
In this context, we were treated to the presence on the panel of Vincent Degert, who is current Head of the Russia Division in the European External Action Service, and so is very much involved in Eastern Partnership questions. Degert was surely expected to condemn the Russians for their strong-arm tactics with Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia to prevent their escape from its orbit into the welcoming embrace of the EU.
However, as the only member of the panel with a job to lose, Degert decided that discretion is the greater part of valor and, while acknowledging that relations with Russia have not been easy, remained diplomatically silent, not sharing any personal thoughts he may harbor with respect to Putin’s Russia. Indeed, Degert used his time before the microphone to scuttle any notion that the EU is going to take up a Magnitsky Act given the need for unanimity within its Council that is not there today; and he questioned the logic of the whole venture to get an EU wide law sanctioning the Russians given that any one of the Schengen country members can presently, by its decision to deny a visa to a Russian applicant, effectively ensure that such a person is barred from traveling on the Continent. Degert even pooh-poohed the idea of withholding visa-free travel to the holders of service passports, a near-term Browder objective, saying that as an EU official he highly valued his ability to travel to Russia at will and so could not support counter-measures.
If Degert was a write-off for Browder, in a rare case where the patron misjudged his pawn, this was more than compensated for by another panelist, the splendidly English-speaking Russian Opposition propagandist Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza got his start in television journalism under the Yeltsin period oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of the NTV channel. After losing his NTV nest when Gusinsky was forced into exile by a resurgent Kremlin, Kara-Murza recovered his footing professionally in the 2000s, joining the anti-Kremlin Ekho Moskvy media complex, where our other panelist of the evening Elena Servettaz, also works part-time in addition to her post with Radio France International. As a political activist, Kara-Murza is a comrade-in-arms of Boris Nemtsov, the eternal presidential hopeful of one of Russia’s neoliberal parties. They have a wide following in Washington, D.C. but their voters are thin on the ground in Russia
Kara-Murza used the Magnitsky case as his point of departure for a sweeping condemnation of Putin’s Russia. In his view, the powers that be remain in place thanks to corruption, fraudulent elections and constant violation of the rule of law. Hence Russia’s rulers are illegitimate, constituting a regime, not a government. Kara-Murza painted a grim canvas of state monopoly of the media, Soviet-style show trials, forced psychiatric treatment of political prisoners, assault on NGOs. He called for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics unless there is a release of political prisoners. And, of course, he called upon Europe to adopt a Magnitsky law, as the United States has done, to punish the regime for its human rights abuses.
Compared to the lies and distortions of Kara-Murza’s presentation, which included very selective use of public opinion poll results, Browder’s little speech was a model of restraint. He delivered his now long familiar tearful recitation of his relationship with Sergei Magnitsky, who, in his view, died only because he refused to succumb to the urgings of his tormentors in prison that he denounce Browder and save his own skin. Now Browder claimed he was merely doing the right thing, seeking posthumous justice for Magnitsky by exposing those responsible for his death, those violators of human rights, to the sanctions of the civilized world, meaning denying them visas and freezing their assets abroad.
The presentation by the final panelist, Elena Servettaz, editor of the book on why Europe should follow the US by promulgating a Magnitsky law, was brief. She was enjoying her moment of celebrity on the dais and awaited her special reward of officiating at a book signing ceremony during the cocktail reception after the panel. Each participant who came up to claim a free copy received her autograph.
So far, so good. However, the evening also included a question and answer period during which one incident of signal importance took place. For a moment, Browder dropped his mask of reasonableness and remarked while responding to a question from the audience that the kind of torture and premeditated murder that happened to Magnitsky in pre-trial detention is happening to thousands of people in Russia today. And he went on to say that the Magnitsky Act sanctions should be applied not merely to the 18 persons on the list of the US administration (from among 60 persons implicated in the death of Magnitsky) but to the one million ‘murderers and thieves’ among the Russian elite who are living off the people. With that rabble-rousing claim, Browder showed that he is utterly irresponsible.
2. The book
My first thought upon taking Why Europe needs a Magnitsky Law in hand was to see who published this and where. However, I found no copyright page, no indication of publisher. Later on I learned that the book does not appear among the millions of books in print listed in internet search. Quite possibly its ISBN number on the back page is a dummy. This is not very promising for what is called the ‘publication of a new high profile book’ by the moderator of the forthcoming book presentation at Columbia University, Professor Alexander Cooley, when he justified to me their rolling out the red carpet to its backer, William Browder, this week.
Leafing through the book on my way home from the panel, I understood that it is a collection of around 50 testimonials in favor of a European Magnitsky Law, several of them representing interviews conducted by the editor, Elena Servettaz, but the great majority in the form of essays ranging from three to eight pages each. And there are among them many of the ‘usual suspects’ in Russia-bashing exercises. Big names stand out particularly among the list of American testimonials in the volume: Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Jim McGovern, the authors of the Magnitsky Act which became law in the United States; Senator John McCain, who needs no introduction as a vocal, indeed provocative critic of the Kremlin; David Kramer, the director of Freedom House, the US-government financed pseudo-NGO which prides itself on the ‘color revolutions’ it helped foment in former Soviet republics; Ellen Bork, a regular contributor to the Foreign Policy Initiative, the latest incarnation of the Neocon lobby founded by the movement’s leading foreign policy strategists Robert Kagan and William Kristol. Among the Russian contributors, who account for one third of the volume, the borderline seditious ‘systemic’ Opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Gary Kasparov lead the pack, while today’s ‘non-systemic’ Opposition leader Alexander Navalny also stands out as second in the list. Then there are a number of relics from the Soviet dissident age whose names are iconic even if their current relevance to Russian political life is nil.
It occurred to me that with recognizable names like this, an Open Letter showing all the contributors as signatories published in a number of mainstream newspapers of record around Europe might have served Browder’s cause just as well, perhaps better than the book. This seemed all the more the case when I began reading the Russian entries and found that so many of them were almost formulaic repetitions of a very few points, using even the very same words. The essayists tell us that today’s Russia is characterized by the corrupt officials, the torturers and killers of Sergei Magnitsky who, unlike their Soviet vintage predecessors, are folks who spend vacation time in Western Europe, keep their bank accounts there, send their children to school there. The argument goes on to say that for this reason they are vulnerable to sanctions directed against them should Europe decide to act. Hence the promised benefit a European Magnitsky Act.
The more timid or unimaginative Russian testimonials stop there; the more fertile imaginations among them believe the sanctions will split the Kremlin elites, with those under sanction turning against Putin for his inability to protect them, ultimately bringing down the regime. The more timid speak of punishment for those implicated in Magnitsky’s death; the more febrile imaginations seek an open-ended extension of sanctions to all of Russia’s violators of human rights and to application of a notion of collective responsibility whereby not only the violators would be punished: their children would be refused entry in the EU to study and their parents would be refused entry for medical treatment.
At this point I interrupt the narrative to object to the fundamental implication running throughout the Russian testimonials that all Russian money is corrupt and all Russian visitors, bank depositors, home owners, parents of students enrolled in schools are criminals and parasites on the Russian body politic. The facts are that some 10 million Russians travel abroad each year and not only criminals earn healthy salaries and bonuses on their jobs which allow them to invest abroad. The idea of setting up bodies in Europe to hear allegations of corruption and/or human rights violations that Russians may raise against one another in the context of Magnitsky Act sanctions becomes an absurdity.
But before leaving the Russian testimonials, I think it is essential to provide a few ‘sound bites’ which show the violence of many authors’ language, their hyperbole and their seditious intent. Boris Nemtsov tells us that “Putin’s Russia makes heroes out of murderers and corrupt officials.” From Alexei Navalny we learn that “Putin’s Russia…resembles an organised crime syndicate more than a government…” In his rant, Vladimir V. Kara-Murza likens Putin’s repressive model to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus; he believes that the U.S. Magnitsky Act is ‘the most pro-Russian law ever to have been passed by a foreign parliament’’ and that ‘it strikes at the very heart of the Kremlin’s mafia-style system.’’ Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky tells us: “This is a terrorist regime which will not hesitate to kill. I noticed that since 2000, during Putin’s time in office, the number of political murders has increased, there are more of them than in the entire Soviet era.” Andrey Tolokonnikov, father of a Pussy Riot convict says “[Russia] is slowly evolving towards Stalinist courts or even inquisition tribunals” and ‘the country is seamlessly returning to the ‘Gulag Archipelago.’” Mark Feygin, lawyer for the Pussy Riot activists and for Bolotnaya Square defendants cheekily calls Vladimir Putin ‘a drab functionary’ who is the only beneficiary of the state system, a man who, together with his circle, ‘will hold onto power at any cost, and to the bitter end’’ so that the fate of North African despots in the Arab Spring awaits him. Lilia Shibanova, the Executive Director of Golos, the NGO shut down by authorities for violating the law on state registration as a foreign agent, says that ‘the regime has reached a stage already characteristic of Nazism” and “The situation in Russia today presents a real challenge to the entire civilized world.” Finally, with his unfailing gift for scare mongering, Gary Kasparov reminds us that “Putin’s current political modus operandi is on a par with Assad, only more terrifying: he can press the nuclear button!” In case we didn’t get the message, Kasparov concludes that “Stopping the maniac with the nuclear button is only possible through joint efforts.”
The extensive list of European testimonials come from both mainstream elected parliamentarians at the national or EU level with a special interest in human rights and from professional NGO activists. They are all over the map in their views of Russia and what is to be done. Among them there are a number of sincere and responsible establishment figures who are disposed to Russia but dismayed by the signs of corruption and failure to respect rule of law, which are a genuine problem. In this category, perhaps the most persuasive argument for our paying attention to the Magnitsky tragedy is made by Pieter Omtzigt, Member of Parliament in The Netherlands and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Such contributors seek, as a matter of conscience, to punish the several dozen Russian officials directly implicated in the murder in detention of Magnitsky.
At the same time other testimonials by Europeans reveal visceral Russophobia, wildly misrepresenting the situation in modern Russia. Luke Harding, foreign correspondent of the Guardian denounces Putin’s fraudulent election in 2012 and proceeds to throw every anti-Kremlin stone in the book at the ruler of what he calls a Mafia State. Alan Mendoza, Executive Director of the think tank The Henry Jackson Society, tells us ‘hysteria is Putin’s weapon.’ Professor of Russian at the University of Rennes Cecile Vaissie tells us (wrongly) that in Russia the state is merely ‘an instrument of coercion’ where embezzlement is ubiquitous and where there is no protection of private property. Barbora Bukovska, a Czech human rights attorney opines that “In Putin’s Russia, dissent, even when expressed through art, can land one in prison. The Pussy Riot case is an example of just how far Russia is prepared to stifle free expression at the grass roots level.”
As one would expect from the foregoing, the range of proposed application of a Magnitsky Law found in the testimonials of the Europeans is still broader than among the Russian participants in this book. Here we even find that recommendations are mutually contradictory. Several contributors seek a universal law providing visa denial and asset freezes for human rights violators from all countries. One universalist undermines the fundamental logic of Browder’s campaign by insisting that ‘while the torture and state-sponsored death of defendants like Sergei Magnitsky is extreme, it is unfortunately not unique and is certainly not limited to Russia.” [Rebecca Schaefer, Fair Trials International].
The book’s structure and the inclusion of not just savvy political activists but also hapless souls like the daughter of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the widow of Sergei Magnitsky reflect the overall tactical approach of its patron, Browder: to try to cast his net as broadly as possible both in the West and within Russia, misrepresenting his real objective of regime change in order to bring on board all potential supporters notwithstanding the difference in their views on most everything else and notwithstanding their varying degrees of commitment to his final objective.
3. Browder and Berezovsky: similarities and differences
Earlier this year ring-leader and financier of many dirty tricks campaigns against the Kremlin Boris Berezovsky died at one of his homes in the U.K. However, nature abhors a vacuum and there was no chance that following his demise Mr. Putin would be given a respite by his overseas enemies.
In light of Bill Browder’s ongoing campaign of regime change in Russia, it is fair to ask where these two sworn foes of the Kremlin are similar and where they differ.
Some of the likenesses are striking. Both amassed fortunes doing business in the murky milieu around the Kremlin. Both were eventually spit out by the system, sent into exile and deprived of some of their assets.
Both carried their grudge against their nemesis, Vladimir Putin, to extreme lengths, well beyond the normal behavior patterns of senior businessmen. Both misrepresented their activities of de-legitimizing and denigrating the regime in Moscow by posing as values-driven democrats and would-be liberators.
Both frequently work through ‘damaged goods,’ persons who are otherwise discredited and have lost the public trust.
At the same time, there are still noteworthy differences between Boris Berezovsky and Bill Browder. The former was by choice a ‘gray eminence’ lurking in the background while his paid thugs did his bidding under cover, whereas Browder is out in front, taking charge of his minions in the public eye while he lobbies parliaments. Berezovsky was widely suspected of working hand in glove with British and possibly other security services, and he retained a large and visible private security detail; Browder appears to be confident of his personal safety and dispenses with showy body-guards.
The balance between similarities and differences of these two larger than life anti-Kremlin actors remains fluid and is worth monitoring in future.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.