I’ve reported on gangsters in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. I’ve spent time mulling the human landscapes in Sicily and in the United States.
In those countries, if credible, outside investigators produce an exhaustive report alleging the theft of nearly $1 billion in government money and the murders of five people, the governments would respond in two ways.
One: Say, “Thank you very much” and find an honest prosecutor and give the political and financial backing to take the cases to trial.
Two: Say, “Thank you very much” and then quietly do nothing.
Russia is taking a radically new strategy.
Here’s what’s going on:
Over the course of the last two years, investigators with Hermitage Capital have compiled highly detailed reports on the alleged theft of $800 million in Russian tax money and the cover-up murders of five people, including Hermitage lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The most recent report drills down to the detail of showing receipts for vacations that alleged gang leaders and Russian government accomplices took together in Cyprus and Dubai.
Hermitage recently released a powerful 18-minute video that is now moving minds across the world. Posted on YouTube, it’s called: “The Magnitsky Files: Organized Crime Inside the Russian Government.”
At last count, about 20 parliaments, starting with the United States Congress and the British Parliament, are drawing up legislation to ban visas and freeze assets of suspects in the Magnitsky case.
Facing this international PR disaster, what is Russia doing?
It is painting the attack on about 44 suspected Russian criminals and corrupt government officials as an attack on Russia’s 144 million people.
It has assigned a deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, to attack the U.S. Congress full time on the issue. In almost daily comments to the press, he has expressed the Russian government’s “outrage” at the “Magnitsky Act” under consideration in the U.S. Congress and has promised “a symmetrical response” if legislation is approved. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee has told Interfax: “We will certainly react to this and the American Administration will feel the consequences.”
It sent a delegation that included Dmitry Klyuyev, alleged ring leader of the criminal gang, to a meeting two weeks ago in Monaco where legislators from 56 Western and Eurasian nations debated adopting visa bans and asset freezes on the Russian gang members and government accomplices.
It sent to the United States Senate a delegation led by a Russian senator, Vitaly Malkin. A billionaire, Malkin has been denied visas to Canada and was cited by the Canadian government in court proceedings as “a member of a group engaging in organized or transnational crime.”
Moscow apparently believes the best defense is a strong offense.
But in Europe and the United States, legislators are finding the Russian offensive, well, offensive.
At the end of the Monaco meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation, 90 percent of the 320 parliamentarians present voted to call “on national parliaments to take action to impose visa sanctions and freezes on persons responsible for the false arrest, torture denial of medical care and death of Sergei Magnitsky.”
In Washington, Russia’s Senator Malkin alleged that Magnitsky was a drunk, out of shape, who probably fatally injured himself in jail. In response, Natalia Magnitskaya, mother of the dead lawyer, wrote an open letter to Malkin: “I believe that an attempt to slander the good name of my son posthumously looks shameful and not deserving of the honorable title of people’s representative.”
On Wednesday, a U.S. Senate committee voted unanimously in favor of the ‘Magnitsky Act” – the third American congressional committee to do so in six weeks. Passage of the bill is expected in coming months.
Clearly, the Kremlin is losing big time in the international court of opinion.
But it may also be losing a more important audience.
Russia’s state-run television constantly hammers on the “anti-Russia” nature of the American bill. In a sign of the times, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Washington bureau chief for the last seven years for RTVi, a private Russian channel, was summarily fired for writing in support of the Magnitsky bill.
Kara-Murza wrote himself out of job by writing in Spotlight on Russia, his weekly blog: “Russia’s national interests have been defined in many ways, but the ability of crooks and murderers to vacation and keep their money abroad has, until now, never been one of them.”
In addition to painting visa bans for a few millionaire criminal suspects as an attack on all Russians, the Kremlin also frames the campaign as an American attack on Russia.
This ignores the fine point that the leader of the Magnitsky campaign, William Browder, is actually a British citizen. But, more importantly the Kremlin’s complaint overlooks the fact that dozens of other parliaments – from the Swedish Riksdag to Italian Parlamento to the French Assemblee Nationale – are preparing to pass similar legislation.
With flights from Moscow to New York running at full capacity this summer, some Russians seem aware of a different reality. According to the U.S. State Department, the 90 percent of American visa applications by Russians are now being granted. That is the second highest acceptance rate of the 12 former Soviet Republics outside the European Union. Only Kazakhstan has a higher acceptance rate – 92 percent.
The new, liberalized US-Russia visa law, which won final approval on Wednesday, will allow Russian tourists multiple entry visas, with the right to stay in the United States for up to six months for each visit.
Indeed, despite the anti-American barrage on state television, many Russians see what the real issue is in the Magnitsky case: impunity for corruption.
In an open, democratic system, elected leaders would not touch the Magnitsky case with a three meter pole.
The Levada Center, a respected independent polling group, surveyed Russians about the visa ban laws. About half, 46 percent, said they did not know about the case, or did not have a strong opinion.
Of those who would give their opinion to a total stranger, 18 percent said they opposed such laws.
The rest, 36 percent, said they supported foreign visa bans. That is, twice as many in favor as opposed.
It sounds like a lot of Russians are saying: the Emperor Has No Clothes.
So as many Russians see it, Magnitsky legislation is not an attack on 144 million Russians.
It is on attack on 44 Russians who should be put on trial.