Two days after the Washington DC screening of a controversial, propagandistic Russian documentary dealing with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, we spoke to William Browder, the co-founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital, and champion of the Magnitsky Act.
Karina Orlova for TAI: The Daily Beast reported that the Kremlin it trying to repeal the Magnitsky Act—or, at the very least, to withdraw Magnitsky’s name from the Global Magnitsky Act, in exchange for lifting its own ban on U.S. couples adopting Russian orphans. What do you know about this?
William Browder: What I know is that the Magnitsky Act is probably the single most upsetting thing to Vladimir Putin since he came back to power. Putin and his cronies have all stolen a massive amount of money from Russia and they keep their money in the West. And the idea that their money in the West could be put at risk, could be frozen or could be seized is so unnerving and terrifying for them that they are going to do everything possible to try to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, using whatever tools and means they can.
KO: So you do know for sure that this is what’s going on now?
WB: I am one hundred percent sure that this is what’s going on. This has been going on in lots of different formats. The first attempt at getting the U.S. to repeal the Magnitsky Act was imposing the adoption ban. Putin thought the Congress, or America, would relent. He basically took children hostage and thought that would change the situation. It didn’t. They then did the anti-Magnitsky Act, where they put together a list of American officials, thinking they would be upset by not being able to go to Russia. In fact, when I go around Congress, many congressmen are upset that they are not put on the anti-Magnitsky list. So that didn’t work. They then put me and Sergei Magnitsky on trial—the first ever posthumous trial in the history of Russia—thinking that it would discredit us. But in fact it just discredited Russia. And so as time has gone on, they have become more sophisticated. The most recent thing they have done was this anti-Magnitsky movie, directed by Andrei Nekrasov, which was accompanied by a very intensive lobbying campaign, for which they hired a number a very expensive American lobbyists and public relations professionals.
KO: Is this movie the core of this most recent effort to repeal the Magnitsky Act?
WB: The movie is definitely the core in the West of the recent efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act. You can tell that by the fact that everybody in the Russian government is now quoting from this movie. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been discussing the movie publicly in his statements recently. This week, you had Yuri Chaika, the General Prosecutor, refer to this movie as some type of proof that Magnitsky and I are bad. So it’s clear that this is a well-coordinated FSB operation, approved and endorsed at the highest level of the Russian government, to try withdraw the Magnitsky Act in America.
KO: There were people at the Newseum premiere—Americans—who insisted the efforts are not to repeal the Act itself but to withdraw Magnitsky’s name from the Global Magnitsky Act. What’s the point in this?
WB: Every time that the name is mentioned, it puts more firmly in place the Russian Magnitsky Act. So effectively what they are trying to do is if they could somehow ruin the Magnitsky legacy, the Magnitsky brand, then they think that opens the door to somehow repealing the Magnitsky Act. I’m not sure what their logic is, but we have proof that that’s what they’ve been trying to do. A number of lobbyists working for Russian interests are said to have been going around Capitol Hill with that specific task.
KO: Is Potomac Square Group one of them?
WB: What we know for sure is that Potomac was the organization that rented the room for Andrei Nekrasov’s event. And so it would appear that they are eagerly and actively involved in this effort.
KO: In an interview withRFE/RL, Rinat Akhmetshin, to whom Potomac referred questions to, said that the screening was being paid for by Nekrasov himself, and that Seymour Hersh agreed to host the discussion free of charge.
WB: Andrei Nekrasov doesn’t have two pennies to wrap together. He is a man in desperate financial difficulties. There is no way that he could have afforded that room.
KO: But wasn’t he paid well for his movie?
WB: Probably the people who paid him the money to make this movie from Russia are the same people who paid the Newseum event rental.
KO: You are interviewed extensively in the movie. Why did you agree to talk to Nekrasov? What did you know about him before agreeing to sit for the film?
WB: In 2010, at the EU Parliament, I met a lady named Heidi Hautala. Heidi Hautula was an MEP from Finland who was the head of the human rights subcommittee of the EU Parliament. She took on the Magnitsky case with brave vigor, and she was one of the first people in the world to officially propose Magnitsky sanctions in Europe. She was a brave and reliable collaborator with us in our efforts to get justice for Sergei Magnitsky.
And after the first success we had, which was a resolution in 2010 calling on Europe to impose Magnitsky sanctions, we had a social dinner in the Hague. She brought along a man to this dinner—Andrei Nekrasov, whom she introduced as her boyfriend. He was a filmmaker, and she suggested that maybe he could be the person to make a documentary about Sergei Magnitsky. And because he came recommended by somebody who was so credible, and I effectively saw him as part of our “family of fighters against Russian evil”, I opened myself up to him.
I was invited by Heidi to a conference of Russian opposition members and human rights activists in Finland, and when I showed up there that was the time when he pulled me aside and asked me if we could do the first interview. I thought he was one of the good guys. That was six years ago, and I never really thought much more about it. I sort of assumed he was some kind of loser who never got projects finished, so I never gave it any further thought. And every once in while, he would show up again to film different small incidents in our campaign, but I never thought he would get a movie done at all because I didn’t have a very high opinion of him.
KO: So you agreed to talk to him because of Heidi?
WB: Yes, entirely because of Heidi.
KO: When did he contact you for the second time?
WB: When we won our libel case, he was standing outside the court and asking for comments. So that was the second time I remember. And then the third time he came to my book launch. And he kept on begging and begging for another interview and I was getting tired of him because I thought he was just a guy who was timewaster. At that point Heidi had drifted away from the European Parliament, she was in Finland doing domestic politics, so I didn’t feel any great need to work with him. But he kept on begging and begging for an interview and I agreed to give it to him. He showed up and started asking all this questions straight out of the FSB’s script. And after about the third question I realized there is something deeply wrong with this guy. And I said: What is this? The FSB?
KO: I do remember this moment in the movie.
WB: So the whole movie is a total deception. It’s a complete and absolute lie, from top to bottom. It’s a fraud. Andrei Nekrasov has created an entirely fraudulent account of Sergei Magnitsky. It’s malicious libel.
KO: When did you realize you were being played?
WB: It was only about after the second or third question during the third interview that I realized there was something deeply wrong there.
KO: Did you take any steps to stop him?
WB: We wrote to him. He also interviewed Sergei Magnitsky’s mother, and it became clear to us that he wasn’t going to use it for any good purposes. And so both of us wrote him and said that we don’t give you permission to use the footage.
KO: Was it Nekrasov’s initial intension to make the movie he did? Or he really realize in the middle of the process that there is some other “truth”?
WB: I think he probably ran out of money in 2014, and was in deep financial difficulties. His previous backer was Boris Berezovsky, who died in 2013, and he no longer had any source of funds. So I believe that he got desperate for money and that’s when he started selling himself to Russian interests. I don’t think Nekrasov has any ideology whatsoever. I think he is a totally mercenary character who will sell his services to anybody who wants to buy them. And he had to find a new financial backer and he found it in the form of Prevezon or FSB or some combination of the two.
KO: When did you see the full movie for the first time? What was your reaction?
WB: It was about two months ago. I was pretty bored. I thought it was really a boring sloppy movie. You know, even though it was about me, I had to stop several times just to do other things because it was not engaging in any way. I thought it was just a badly made movie. I wasn’t particularly shocked but more bored by that.
KO: I agree that it was a boring and sloppy movie. But why then did you try to block the screening around Europe in the first place? Didn’t you realize that blocking attempt would just draw attention to you as someone who tries to suppress freedom of speech?
WB: Basically when Sergei Magnitsky was killed in 2009, I made a vow to his family that I was going to get justice for him, and it’s hardly getting justice for him when somebody is showing a movie trying to defile his name. So I have a duty, which goes beyond anything about myself. If it was just about me, I would let it go. But this is about Sergei Magnitsky and I don’t want anyone to say anything bad about him and his death.
KO: But you still got some bad reaction from a number of media outlets.
WB: In reality, the net result was that everybody in the EU Parliament, who had more or less forgotten about me and Sergei Magnitsky, because there have been so many other atrocities, all woke up and remembered that we still need to get sanctions done in Europe. So we ended up with a very strong positive reaction, across most parties, in the EU Parliament. We got all the party leaders to write a letter asking “Where are we on Magnitsky sanctions?” which is actually quite difficult to get done under normal circumstances.
And I think the same thing is true here in Washington. I mean, we are getting meetings with all the top senators and members of the House to talk about Russia and to talk about Magnitsky because Andrei Nekrasov reopened the door for me.
KO: As part of the Kremlin attempt to repeal the Magnitsky Act, is this movie actually moving the needle in Congress? In the State Department?
WB: Not one centimeter.
KO: What do you think is the main point of the movie? What’s the message one is supposed to take away from this?
WB: The message is that I’ve made up the whole Magnitsky story, that I’m such a hypnotist that I can convince everybody in the world to accept my version of events without any research from their part at all.
KO: Don’t you think that Nekrasov is actually slandering the U.S. government, and the officials who designed and enacted the Magnitsky Act?
WB: They are saying that the U.S. government is not professional, that the Council of Europe is not professional, that the whole European Commission is not professional, and all other governments are not professional. The only person who seems to be professional, according to this movie, is Andrei Nekrasov, this sort of half-successful filmmaker who seems to go in and out of financial difficulties all the time.
KO: I was at the House Foreign Committee hearings, where Michael McFaul testified and after the hearings a journalist asked him about Nekrasov’s movie. And Mcfaul said that when he was serving as Ambassador to Moscow, he carefully studied Magnitsky’s case and he is very confident in his own work. So do people in Congress and the State Department realize that this movie is actually an attempt of the Kremlin to slam them?
WB: I think that most in the State Department don’t spend a lot of time thinking of Andrei Nekrasov’s movie.
KO: Let’s talk about your business success history in Russia. In your book, you sound like at first, in the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, you were content with the situation in Russia.
WB: No, I was very angry about the situation in Russia because of all the corruption in the companies we invested in.
KO: But here is your quote: “You may wonder why Vladimir Putin allowed me to do these things in the first place. The answer is that for a while our interests coincided.”
WB: What was Vladimir Putin allowing me to do? He was allowing me to expose massive corruption in Gazprom, in Sberbank, etc. So if your question is “Did I think Putin was good?” I was initially fooled by Putin thinking that he was a good guy during the first 3 and a half years of his presidency.
KO: Even after Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been arrested?
WB: This led up from 2000 until 2004. I was actually supporting his arrest of Khodorkovsky because I said: one oligarch down, 21 to go. And when I realized he wasn’t going after the oligarchs, he was just trying to become the biggest oligarch himself, that’s when I changed my mind on Putin.
KO: In connection to the Panama Papers, which revealed that Putin’s close cellist friend had received deposits into his offshore accounts equal to the amount discovered stolen from the federal budget by Magnitsky, you said: “We’ve always wondered why Putin would be ready to ruin his relations with the West to support and protect the criminals in the Magnitsky case. This new information explains a lot.” How did you think this whole corrupt system works? Where did you think all this money would go?
WB: I always thought that Russia was a corrupt place, but I never could have imagined that the President of the country himself was going to steal billions of dollars.
KO: When did you realize that Putin was the one who would support and protect the criminals in a case like the Magnitsky one?
WB: During the Magnitsky case, we found that $230 million had been stolen. We thought for sure that this was a rogue operation. Putin was a nationalist. Why would he allow $230 million to be stolen from his own country? And when they arrested Magnitsky instead of arresting the people who the $230 million, that’s when I realized that Putin was basically running a criminal state.
KO: Why do you think the siloviki decided to go after your business? Why you?
WB: I think that for a while, when I was going after corruption in Gazprom, Surgutneftegaz, another companies, it coincided with Putin’s interests, before he had direct interests in these companies. But after he arrested Khodorkovsky, all the oligarchs came to him and said, “What do we have to do make sure we are not arrested?” And Putin said: 50 percent. And so Putin becomes the richest guy in Russia and perhaps the richest guy in the world. And all of my activities then no longer were going against his enemies, but going against his personal economic interest. And that’s when everything fell apart.
KO: Did you have krisha—protection—among the siloviki at that time?
WB: I didn’t.
KO: Neither with the FSB nor with the Interior Ministry?
WB: Nothing. Maybe that’s the moral of the story.
KO: But how so? Were you ever offered krisha?
WB: Nobody knew who I was. My only interaction with Russia was doing research. I barely even spoke Russian.
KO: Do you think that the attack on you was provoked by some fight over business control inside the siloviki forces in Russia?
WB: I think the basic reason why they turned on me was that we paid so much money in taxes. If they could steal our companies, they could refund those taxes, they thought. We paid more taxes than Aeroflot, Gazprombank, and Avtovaz in 2006, and I became a prime target mainly because I was such a good taxpayer.
KO: What do you think are the prospects for doing business in Russia now, and in the near future?
WB: There are no prospects for doing business in Russia. It’s a criminal state. And there is no possibility that one can go there, and do business, and expect not to be extorted, arrested, threatened or even killed.
KO: There is a famous Russian saying: “Why is it impossible to share everything with everyone? Because there are too many of everyone and there is too little of everything.” Given what happened to you, and what we see is continuing to happen in Russia today (the shakedown of Kameshnik over his stake in Domodedovo, for example), do you think this saying accurately describes Putin’s Russia?
WB: I think there are a lot of people there, but there are also a lot of resources and assets there. I disagree with that saying. I think that Russia is a place where everybody who has power abuses it to the maximum possible extent that they can. And the people in power now are basically taking everything for themselves at the expense of everybody in the country.
KO: But who is in power now? Is it business or the siloviki?
WB: No, business is not in power in Russia. Putin is in power. [Yuri] Chaika [the Prosecutor General] is in power, [Alexander] Basrtrykin [the head of the Investigative Committee] is in power, [Sergei] Shoigu [the Defense Minister] is in power. Lavrov, Medvedev are in power.
KO: And do billions of dollars provide any power in Russia?
WB: The power goes to the people who have the power to arrest other people.