There is a very funny phenomenon in post-Soviet Russian history. It seems that various oligarchs and businessmen who were once either supportive of, connected to, or at least content with the Putin regime suddenly turn into warriors for human rights and democracy once he kicked them off the gravy train. The late gangster and oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a man who literally shares responsibility for Putin’s rise to power, is probably the best example. During Russia’s greatest human suffering in the 1990’s, after the brutal suppression of the Russian parliament via tanks and snipers in October 1993, and throughout the first and even second Chechen wars, these businessmen were quite happy with the status quo. They enriched themselves with untold millions, if not billions, of wealth which had been produced by others, while those others themselves got to experience the wonders of police brutality, rampant crime of all sorts, the humiliation of women trafficking and sex slavery, ethnic violence and hatred, and of course, corruption. One by one, some of these men fell foul of Putin’s administration, and as some of them were forced to flee the country they suddenly reinvented themselves as the most vocal critics of the regime. In recent times, one such man is William Browder, the billionaire behind the famous Magnitsky Act.
In a typically ass-kissing and rather softball Wall Street Journal piece, Browder is described as a “guerrilla warrior for human rights.” Interestingly enough, however, this warrior only seems to be fighting for “human rights” in the country in which he once had a strong personal financial interest. The article naturally tiptoes around the convenient change of heart Browder had after his business started to suffer at the hands of the Russian government, using the word irony rather than the more appropriate hypocrisy.
Browder manages to get in some rather ridiculous quotes which go unchallenged, such as this gem:
Over breakfast in New York this week, Mr. Browder turns uncharacteristically frank about his past support for the Russian regime. “Everybody always looks at others and sees what they want to see,” he says. Mr. Putin, little known before Boris Yeltsin tapped him as his successor, seemed “a reforming kind of president who is bringing some order back to a crazy disordered place” dominated by oligarchs, Mr. Browder says. Now he says he realizes that the Russian leader was creating “this more lopsided oligarchy.”
I can appreciate “frank” admissions about being wrong in the past. Hell, I was wrong about Putin before I moved to this country. But there is a difference between having an idealistic vision of Putin as a leader who was restoring dignity for the Russian people, and being a capitalist who makes money off of investments in Russia’s natural resource enterprises and then suddenly sees the light when he finds himself muscled away from the trough. My illusions were shattered by looking at the conditions people lived in and being outraged to see that many cultural and moral ills of the Yeltsin era were still quite alive and well. I saw with my own eyes the contrast between immeasurable opulence and oppressive poverty and urban decay. Browder can posture all he wants as a humanitarian, but it’s clear that he’s just mad because he got kicked out of the club. The timing of his change of heart and the circumstances described in the article make this painfully clear.
Is Mr. Browder close to winning the justice he says he’s seeking for Sergei Magnitsky? “Justice, no,” he says. “I believe we’ve pricked the bubble of impunity. Meaning that people didn’t get away with it. But justice, the way I’d like to see justice, is prosecution for torture and murder. We’re not going to get that while Putin is in power. But my hope—and I think we’ve succeeded in this—is that when they have the tribunals of crimes of the previous regime in Russia, the first tribunals will be the Magnitsky tribunals.”
Torture and murder? I can think of another country where torturers and murderers have gone unpunished since 2001. Though his actions say differently, Browder claims that he is a full-time campaigner for human rights, not just in Russia. Given his obvious influence in America’s legislative branch, one would think that he could finally accomplish what the Obama administration apparently doesn’t care to do, i.e. the prosecution of US government officials responsible for torture and other unethical practices in the war on terror. You can call it whataboutism is you must, but at the very least we know that he is far more influential in the American government than that of Russia. But I’ll let this slide for now because there is a bigger issue here.
He speaks of a Russia without Putin in power, yet everything the US has lobbed at Russia since 2012 has done nothing but make Putin more popular with the masses, many of whom must have been members or even current supporters of the opposition. Righteous cause or not, results matter. Another revealing aspect of his quote is that he clearly doesn’t understand Russian politics or the Russian people, the latter misunderstanding largely due to the fact that he clearly doesn’t give a shit about them. If he understood anything about Russia, he would know how ingrained mistrust is in the political arena. One who spends enough time talking to Russians all across the broad spectrum of opposition may notice a curious thread running from one end to the other. Many people express sincere doubt in the idea that Putin’s potential replacement, even if they are a candidate or leader they personally support, will end Russia’s problems with corruption. Just as those who used to be on the gravy train turned into outspoken critics of the regime and corruption only after they were kicked off, there is a fear that someone might turn to the same kind of corruption should they get on. Cynical it is indeed, but it is entirely realistic.
Browder also tips his hand a little more when he speaks of a tribunal of the regime’s crimes, which he thinks should start with Magnitsky for some bizarre reason. I take that back, the reason isn’t so bizarre at all; it’s entirely logical. While Magnitsky did expose a scam which entailed stealing from state owned enterprises and thus the Russian people themselves, it’s clear that the motive for this investigation was connected to the interests of Hermitage Capital, Browder’s company. What happened to Magnitsky was indeed an example of horrendous injustice, but do a little digging and you will find thousands of Magnitsky’s in dozens of countries. In fact, there are many people who get screwed over by the Russian government and have absolutely no hope of getting justice simply because they don’t have a billionaire with political clout in the US to take up their cause. Browder’s insane theory, that punishing officials with the Magnitsky Act will actually improve human rights in general in Russia is laughable. If it teaches officials anything, it’s that they should avoid mistreating people with powerful international connections. The idea that a police official in Ufa or Saratov will think twice about mistreating an ordinary citizen over a fear of sanctions of visa restrictions is simply idiotic, and of course such individuals have no foreign assets.
This is another reason why Browder’s misguided and hypocritical crusade will not lead to political change. The fact that Browder dates the regime’s “crimes” to Magnitsky’s death shows the extent of his concern for the Russian people, whose suffering pre-dates the Putin regime. No Russian with any memory of the 90’s will ever accept that there should be a tribunal over the death of Magnitsky while at the same time no indictments are to be handed down for the officials of the Yeltsin regime who participated in the brutal suppression of protesters in October 1993, or the bloody Chechen war started by the same administration. The history of the “regime” begins in 1991, not in 2000 with Putin. Russians do not miss when critics of the current regime totally gloss over nearly a decade of chaos, corruption, and suffering. Virtually every Russian citizen who lived through that era has their share of horror stories, therefore it is insulting and justifiably suspicious when Westerners or even Russian political figures totally ignore this suffering and even imply or explicitly say that the regime of Putin and Medvedev is such a dark era. And if this seems somewhat apologetic in favor of Putin, then at the very least I can base my arguments on results alone. Even if we accept that this attitude and these actions such as the Magnitsky Act are morally justified, the simple fact is that they have not only not worked, but they have had the opposite effect. When that happens, it’s time to change tactics. It’s also time to stop letting hypocritical billionaires dominate opposition politics in Russia.