Posts Tagged ‘khodorkovsky’
Recent attempts by the Kremlin to smear its political antagonists and critics mark a return to a pre-perestroika use of the judicial system. The Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky and Navalny court case decisions resemble the telefonnoye pravo or ‘telephone justice’ of the Soviet Union, an expression that references the custom of political leaders calling judges in order to instruct them on what rulings pleased them.
Though western critics tend to focus on the problems related to freedom of the press in Russia, the implications of rotten courts can be much more deep-rooted and harmful to Russian society as a whole. The legal system’s systemic disregard for the constitution in its entirety is an overreaching issue that deserves more attention.
Sadly, this alarming trend is not a recent development. In 2005 and 2010, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were found guilty of fraud, money laundering and embezzlement. Before his trial, in 2004, Khodorkovsky was the wealthiest man in Russia and Lebedev was his close associate. A strong advocate for more democracy and freedom of the press, Khodorkovsky could have been a potential political alternative to Putin had he chosen to run for the Russian presidency. After the trial, US State Department commented on the case, saying it “raised a number of concerns over the arbitrary use of the judicial system.” After the 2010 trial, in which Lebedev was convicted and Khodorkovsky’s prison sentence was extended, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that the case was symptomatic of the “rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.”
Another Russian court case displaying a flagrant lack of reason or justice is the posthumous conviction of Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer hired by the British and US-owned Hermitage capital group to research corruption in the Russian state and local government. He was accused of tax evasion in 2008, after his discovery of a $230 million tax scam implicating Russian police and government officials. Following his arrest and subsequent suspicious death in prison in 2009, the US Senate passed a bill named the Magnitsky Act. The act blocks the Russian officials deemed responsible for his death, though the officials were not convicted in Russia, from entering the US or using the US banking system. The Magnitsky Act is thought to be the reason for the Kremlin’s arbitrary decision to ban Americans from adopting in Russia earlier this summer. (more…)
Critics of the current Russian regime often call its actions “stupid” and detrimental to its own image. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, however, what looks like government “stupidity” is actually a well-thought out strategy.
It is nice to think of your adversary as an idiot. It makes you feel better about yourself and reassures you by trivializing the threat: what foolishness did he or she think of this time? The same holds true when the adversary is the government. We fume about the Russian government doing this or that. How can it be so stupid? Does it not realize that it is undermining its own position and the image of the country? What we fail to appreciate is that the government understands everything it does; we just don’t understand its real motives. We judge the regime’s objectives, logic, and morals by our standards, when its own standards are completely different. Many of our troubles come from this lack of understanding.
Many of the government’s initiatives damage Russia’s image and result in international scandals. Prison sentences for members of the punk band Pussy Riot mobilized protests by top figures in the European music industry. Laws directed against homosexual propaganda have elicited fierce criticism of the Russian government from all corners of the world. The government’s insistence on protecting the law enforcement mafia in the Magnitsky case drew the world’s attention to a new instrument of government influence that violates human rights.
And we continue to wonder: What does the government think it is doing? How can it fail to foresee the possible consequences of its actions? Unfortunately, we just don’t understand the government. It very likely weighs its actions in advance and expects consequences. As much as we would like to think otherwise, it is anything but stupid. It simply has different objectives. In the Pussy Riot case, the government wanted to demonstrate that Russia is a religious and fundamentalist country, rather than a secular one; that the sentence handed down in the farce trial was a reflection of the people’s will; and that individual freedom pales before the power of the inferior mob. (more…)
Relations between Russia and the U.S. have recently hit a rough patch.
In December, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which will create a black list of Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses. Hermitage Capital founder William Brouder had lobbied for years for the legislation, which is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Hermitage-lawyer who died in a Moscow jail after accusing officials of involvement in an enormous tax fraud.
Before the list could even be finalized, however, the Russian Duma hit back with its own legislation seeking to ban the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. Russian media had complained about high profile cases of abuse for years, but the timing and severity of the legislation made it clear this was retaliation.
Given that just a few years ago we were talking about a U.S.-Russia “reset” in relations, the whole thing seems like a remarkable step backwards for the two countries. Add to that an ongoing clampdown on dissent in the country — most notably in the case of the anti-Putin feminist group Pussy Riot — and strict new legislation on homosexuality, the situation in Russia looks dark.
For insight on the matter, we talked to Pavel Khodorkovsky, the head of the Institute of Modern Russia and the son of a bitter enemy of President Vladimir Putin. Pavel’s father, Mikhail, was once Russia’s richest man, head of the enormous Yukos oil company with a personal fortune of $15 billion. A public spat with President Vladimir Putin, however, left him as one of Russia’s most famous prison inmates — and one of Putin’s most outspoken critics.
Pavel hasn’t been back to Russia since his father’s arrest, but keeps in close correspondence with Mikhail, monitoring events in Russia. He explained how the adoption ban seemed to be a bargaining chip for Russia, and one that Russian orphans would lose out from. He admitted that his family’s hope for the Russian opposition had initially been high, but that the Kremlin’s clampdown means “criteria by which we judge the progress will have to change.” Finally, he explained why the Magnitsky Act was so important, not just in the Hermitage Capital case, but also for other jailed dissidents, such as his father.
The transcript of our conversation with Pavel, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
The first thing to talk about is the U.S. adoption ban in Russia. Were you surprised at how quickly that went through and with so little opposition?
I think the legislators in Russia have quickly realized that they’re really not going to achieve anything with the original piece of legislation [a Russian black list for U.S. officials] because not many state officials travel to Russia. I don’t think that McCain is going skiing in the Ural Mountains anytime soon. It’s just a futile effort at retaliation. And I think there was this idea — I actually don’t believe that it was coming from the Kremlin — to create an additional lever. Basically create a negotiating avenue, something that people would care about in the U.S., and that became the adoption ban.
You know the statistics — 60,000 kids were adopted over the course of the last 10 years. Nineteen cases, yes, tragedies. But compare that to 1,500 kids who are dying in orphanages every year in Russia, and those are just the official statistics, taken straight out of the website of the general prosecution office. It certainly looks like they have a much better chance of getting proper medical care, and frankly surviving, here in the U.S. (more…)
A FORMER KGB colonel like Vladimir Putin was never expected to be a champion of human rights, but the Russian President has failed to live up to even those reduced expectations. The five-year prison sentence imposed on his most prominent opponent and anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, is an indication of the extent to which his clampdown is escalating and of the need for the West to reassess its response ahead of the G20 summit in St Petersburg in September.
Even members of the Kremlin’s so-called human rights council have described the trumped-up embezzlement charges brought against Mr Navalny as “punishment for his political activities”. The relentless campaign aimed at silencing opposition is the harshest crackdown on dissent since the collapse of communism. Days before the conviction of Mr Navalny (who has been released on bail pending appeal), Mr Putin’s determination to wreak vengeance through a servile court system was also evident when Sergei Magnitsky, an eminent human rights lawyer, was posthumously convicted of tax fraud to besmirch his name. Magnitsky had exposed a $US230 million embezzlement scheme benefiting regime officials. He died in jail after being beaten and suffering untreated pancreatitis. Punk band Pussy Riot was imprisoned for staging an anti-Putin stunt, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and who fell out with Mr Putin, has spent 10 years in jail on charges his critics agree were a travesty of justice.
The Kremlin is using the corrupt court system to provide a veneer of due process and legality for brutal repression as dozens of other activists await sentencing. Mr Putin’s disregard for human rights extends to the supply of weapons to the Syrian regime, which have been used to slaughter tens of thousands of its own people. The fugitive American security contractor Edward Snowden says Russia and Latin American countries that have offered him asylum have his “gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless”. Mr Putin’s Russia is no such thing.
Current abuses recall the dark days of Soviet repression and the West must leave the Russian leader in no doubt about its abhorrence. After decades of communist repression, Russians deserve better than blatant corruption, intolerance and authoritarianism.
Last week was a busy one for Russian authorities, who arrested the only nationally known opposition mayor for bribery, sought six years in prison for crusading blogger Alexei Navalny and asked a court to declare a long-dead lawyer guilty of tax evasion.
The trial of a dozen demonstrators accused of rioting and attacking police at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration ground on. Maria Alyokhina, a punk rocker sent to a labor camp for two years for a singing protest in Moscow’s main cathedral, lost an appeal. An appeal filed on behalf of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison for nearly 10 years, was rejected.
Leonid Razvozzhayev, an opposition organizer who was kidnapped and returned to Moscow after he sought asylum in Ukraine, was given permission to get married in jail — perhaps because he is not expected to get out soon. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted of planning riots.
And Putin signed not one, but two laws aimed at gays.
By week’s end, it was clear to anyone who held out hope to the contrary that the future here looks more and more repressive. The authorities appeared intent on using all their resources — police, courts, legislature and media — to pursue that end and silence dissent for years to come. (more…)
Obviously the government never learned any lessons from Khodorkovsky’s case, and it’s stubbornly looking for more adventures.
Act Three, Scene One: Timber Logging
Russia is getting drawn into the third landmark political trial of the decade. Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky, and now Navalny. What is common among the three trials is some historical logic, and as a consequence, they have many “overlaps”, even in appearance.
The setting for the first act of the Navalny drama is a forest. But, of course, that’s just the beginning. There will be roads – “Russian Postal Service” – and fools – “organizing public unrest”. So the fans of video production of the “political trash” type should get some popcorn, sit down, lay back and enjoy the TV show.
The Story Outline (Criminal-Political Fiction)
Navalny (the main character, a hero) arrives in the Vyatka region “to implement reforms in that particular region”. After becoming the governor’s advisor on a pro-bono basis (the governor himself pretty much stays behind the scenes) he decides to do a favor for one of his friends (who once happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time) and introduce him to the director of the local FGUP – a state enterprise that controls logging in the region (an “absolute villain”, who sells out timber and his moral principles).
The purpose of the whole scheme was apparently to put a company owned by Navalny on the very limited list of entities to which the FGUP is ready to sell timber directly, bypassing intermediaries. Those who ever have to deal with logging in Russia know that buying timber in this country is much more difficult than selling it. This is because the directors of all these logging enterprises would never sell timber to anyone but “their own”, and would never let anyone come near their forest. That’s why the forestry is decaying while those in charge are “getting fatter”. So, Navalny approached one of these “forest brothers” and “asked” him to open his “feed trough” of pines and spruces.
The director had no choice but to bite the bullet, “make some room”, and accept the company suggested by Navalny as one of his favored customers. It has to be noted, though, that the director didn’t get too generous and let Navalny’s protégé buy directly from him. 2% to 5% of his timber worth an estimated 14 million roubles. That is not surprising, since Navalny was not a local police chief, and the impression of his status of a “volunteer” advisor amounted to exactly the 2-5% that he received. If Navalny was a volunteer advisor for the local office of the FSB (formerly the KGB), he could well be entitled to much more, up to 50% … (more…)
When the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum opens next week, a traditional fixture of the event will be conspicuously absent: renowned economist Sergei Guriev.
During the forum, Russian officials will undoubtedly repeat the usual lines about the country’s untapped potential, its attractiveness as a gateway between Asia and Europe and its tremendous investment opportunities. But the other standard phrase used to pitch Russia at these forums — that the country has a “rich, educated human capital” — will sound particularly hollow amid Guriev’s forced exit from Russia.
Two weeks ago, Guriev announced from Paris, where his wife and two children live, that he would not return to Russia for fear of being named as a defendant in a possible third criminal case against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “There is no guarantee that I won’t lose my freedom [in Russia],” he told Ekho Moskvy on May 31. Guriev resigned as rector of the New Economic School, which he had turned into one of the country’s top graduate programs in economics, and from the boards of Sberbank and four other companies.
Guriev’s “crime” was co-authoring a 2011 report for then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s human rights council in which he explained why the second criminal case against Khodorkovsky was unfounded, a conclusion that had been clear even to the most casual observer. In addition, Guriev donated 10,000 rubles ($320) last year to the anti-corruption fund of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is currently facing criminal charges in an embezzlement trial that many consider to be politically driven.
When an investigator from the Investigative Committee appeared in Guriev’s office in April for a third round of questioning, the official unexpectedly pulled out a warrant to seize Guriev’s computer hard drive and asked him if he had an alibi, presumably for a third Khodorkovsky trial.
After this, Guriev concluded that he had quickly gone from being a “witness” in the Khodorkovsky criminal case to effectively becoming a “defendant.”
Shortly thereafter, he fled to Paris. Guriev feared that if he remained in Moscow much longer, investigators would pay another surprise visit, but this time with a new warrant to seize his passport and place him under house arrest.
Guriev’s exit is a tremendous loss for Russia — at least for its progressive elements that want to pull the country in a new, modern direction. Guriev, an internationally recognized economist and former visiting professor at Princeton University, could have worked in any number of Western countries over the past 15 years, but he decided to stay in Russia and try to build a more modern, liberal and democratic Russia. In addition to developing the New Economic School, his other main modernization projects included participation in Open Government, Skolkovo and the president’s human rights council.
As rector and professor at the New Economic School, Guriev’s goal was to train young Russians to become innovative leaders, managers, economists and financial experts capable of modernizing Russia. And he was tremendously successful in this role, with roughly 80 percent of New Economic School graduates working in Russia in top-level positions at leading financial, consulting, real estate development and manufacturing companies. (more…)
On June 5, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament held a seminar on Russian political prisoners. The event took place on the eve of the “Bolotnaya Square” trial, widely viewed as politically motivated. The participants stressed the urgent need for the EU to take a firm stand with regard to human rights abuses in Russia.
The situation regarding political prisoners in Russia has been deteriorating since 2011, when unprecedented mass protests against fraudulent elections were held all over the country. A group of prominent political leaders, policy experts, and human rights activists gathered to discuss the situation at the European Parliament. They included Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management; Anna Karetnikova of the Council of the Human Rights Center “Memorial;” Mikhail Kasyanov, co-leader of the Republican Party of Russia—People’s Freedom Party and a former Russian prime minister; Vadim Klyuvgant, a lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Nikolai Kavkazsky; Vladimir Kara-Murza, IMR senior policy advisor and a member of the Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition; and Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the IMR. Leonidas Donskis, a member of European Parliament and the ALDE Group spokesman on human rights, moderated the seminar. The event was also dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s upcoming 50th birthday on June 26.
In his opening remarks, Donskis noted that “the human rights saga in Europe is an interesting combination of Russian, Ukrainian, East European courage and Western organization.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had high hopes for Russia, as the era of Boris Yeltsin was very promising in terms of democratic development and political freedom. But today Russia is sliding back to the “obese of Soviet legislation,” and Europe is finding itself at a crossroads: should it lower its standards for countries that play a crucial role in international trade, like China and Russia, or should it continue to apply universal standards of human rights and dignity? In Donskis’ opinion, if the standards are lowered, it will be a historic failure for Europe and a betrayal of great minds such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, who shaped the entire discourse of human rights. The EU legislator also stressed that Russian political prisoners exist, calling Mikhail Khodorkovsky a symbolic figure in this group, and suggesting that he stopped being just a Russian political prisoner and became a European political prisoner. “As long as corruption exists as an international phenomenon, every fighter against corruption or every fighter for human rights becomes an international figure… These people fight for Europe,” Donskis observed.
Mikhail Kasyanov said there are thousands of cases of human rights abuses in Russia, and about one-third of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights are coming from Russia. But the public is largely unaware of this situation, because “there is a taboo” on discussing it. Kasyanov reminded the audience that Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, and therefore needs to abide by its obligations; Russia has signed up the European Convention on Human Rights, but is not fulfilling its provisions. The former Russian prime minister added that in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovksy and Platon Lebedev, reputable Russian lawyers and independent international experts have been clear that the evidence was fabricated, and that these two people should therefore be released. Kasyanov also recalled the case of Sergei Magnitsky and the sanctions that were imposed by the U.S. against officials involved in his death, as well as against other human rights abusers. He called for similar measures to be undertaken by the EU, emphasizing that they do not target Russia, but rather deprive criminals and human rights abusers of privileges. (more…)