Yulia Latynina: Bill Browder took the place left vacant by Boris Berezovsky
Why did the name of Bill Browder, the British citizen, come up during the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump? At first, it was a complete mystery to me. One might think that this name was simply a slip of the tongue. Because if the Kremlin’s people did their homework, I hope they know that Browder is a British, not American citizen. But if such things are too subtle for the Kremlin, I have two explanations of why it happened.
If you ever talked to criminals, bullies or criminalized businessmen, you’d know that they always need to create a situation. If they are reproached for something, they need to turn the tables in such a way that they could tell their interlocutor in response – your socks are red, you have snot hanging from your nose, you didn’t ask about my father’s health. The best thing they can do is to create for their interlocutor a sort of impossible, inherently offensive quest that in some way technically equates his behaviour with nasty things these criminals have done. In this particular instance, Putin does the same. They tell him: listen, you did bad things in Ukraine, you have annexed Crimea, you have polonium, downed airliner, meddling in U.S. elections on your hands. And he in response creates a situation, as if to say that they are no better. After all, they expanded NATO eastward, are about to build a missile defence system, and now there’s a problem with Browder. The point is to make some demands that are essentially absurd but formally allow one to bring some claims. Asking to interrogate Browder is an example of such a demand. It’s a trick.
My second explanation, not excluding the first but rather complementing it, is that Browder really hit those in power in Russia where it hurts. And it amazes me, considering that all this story related to Browder and people who emerged in the course of it and later appeared on «Magnitsky list» in my opinion have nothing to do with the leadership of the Russian Federation. I don’t think that those at the very top in Russia can’t find another way to get money other than stealing 750 million dollars from its own budget. I have to remind you how this story went: it began with Browder falling out with those in power in Russia. Before that, he’d been on very good terms with them and even berated Khodorkovsky and explained that it was right to imprison him. But Browder crossed the line, doing something very close to greenmail, i.e. the blackmail of various big joint-stock companies in relation to their non-transparent and quite shady accounting records.
Browder began to wonder who owns Surgutneftegas, was constantly asking about how things were going with Gazprom. He was banned from coming to Russia and apparently the green light was given for cracking down on him. And in the course of this cracking down some people who were simply subordinate flunkies seized documents of several Browder’s companies that had used to trade Gazprom’s stocks and hugely benefited from this trade – just imagine what Browder’s takings were if he paid 230 million dollars in taxes alone. Apparently, in the beginning, these people wanted to steal Gazprom’s stocks, but they had been already resold, and they decided to realize another scheme. On the basis of absolutely fake, backdated documents they obtained mind-blowing court rulings that these companies didn’t fulfil their commitments to provide Gazprom’s stocks to some other, bogus companies. It turned out that, having suffered losses, these companies were now owed 230 million dollars from the budget that had been previously paid by them in taxes. Everything was pretty obvious. Any person who has ever returned any type of taxes knows that this process can take months, years even. But in this case, thanks to heads of two tax inspectorates, 25th and 28th, whose relatives later bought properties in different parts of the world, the whole tax refund was obtained in the course of several working days.
Browder knew what was going on even before it happened and began to apply to the courts and sound all the alarms. He himself couldn’t possibly steal this money, and all these people later targeted by the Magnitsky Act – Dmitry Klyuev, officers Karpov and Kuznetsov – had been previously involved in similar «refunds». But when Browder made a big fuss, Russian Prosecutor’s Office couldn’t think of anything better to do than to accuse him, although it was obvious that, being prosecuted in Russia, he couldn’t possibly carry out such well-coordinated operations. On top of that, there’s a question about money – if Browder’s companies brought 230 million dollars, where do another 500 million come from? As far as I understand, the last theft happened when Magnitsky had already been arrested and imprisoned. Did he steal it from the prison before his death?
But one of the most mind-boggling things about this story is that I have tried many times to find out, including from Browder’s people, who was behind this scam. And they themselves didn’t name anybody higher than Dmitry Klyuev who is at least technically responsible for what happened.
They also named Andrey Pavlov, a lawyer who was involved in this story as well and now, if I’m not mistaken, works as a consultant to the Central Bank of Russia on the return of the assets to the banks that went bankrupt.
However, neither Klyuev, nor Pavlov don’t seem to have any highly important people behind them, the avatars of whom they are supposed to be. It’s an organized group that is undoubtedly well-connected and has good backers, but it apparently comes up with everything itself. But still for some reason, the Kremlin decided to fight for these people – and it just gets bigger and bigger. It resulted in the surreal situation in which, instead of putting behind bars people who stole millions from the Russian budget, those in power adopted Dima Yakovlev Law, tried to press criminal charges against Browder, sent Natalia Veselnitskaya to the famous firm Fusion GPS in the US where she started a campaign against Browder and the Magnitsky Act.
For me, it’s a psychological riddle. I can’t imagine that Putin got any of these 750 million dollars. Some people a couple of ranks below him maybe – but not him.
I think one of the main factors is that, from the Kremlin’s point of view, no one else can put people behind bars for embezzlement. It sees Browder as a bad guy who, by trying to say that money has been stolen from the Russian budget, interferes in the internal affairs of Russian Federation. In doing so, he encroaches upon Putin’s prerogative, his monopoly on power, his right to decide who should be imprisoned and who shouldn’t. Kadyrov doesn’t encroach on this monopoly, but Bill Browder does.
Kremlin thinks according to gang code of ethics. Some people must have come to Putin and told him: listen, there’s this guy Bill Browder, the grandson of the one-time leader of the American Communist party that in reality was basically one of the branches of NKVD, our right heel. This man, Bill Browder, came to Moscow and earned an awful lot of money. And now he’s bothering us all the time – asks about Gazprom, Rosneft. More than that, he has infringed the most sacred – enquired about the ownership of Surgutneftegas. But we won’t pay him. We’ll punch him in the mouth in order to teach him a lesson. That was a beginning. And it just turned into a habit to report to Putin what else Browder has said or done. It seems that Browder took the place left vacant by Boris Berezovsky. And considering polonium and Novichok, apparently, he should be mindful of his safety.