A dictator meets an opponent he can’t co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow or coerce.
The Russian human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko once explained to me how Vladimir Putin’s machinery of repression works.
- “It isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail,” she said. “It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected.
- It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message.”
Her conclusion: “Nobody is untouchable.”
That was in 2007, when Putin still cultivated an image as a law-abiding, democratically elected leader. But that fiction vanished long ago.
Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition figure, was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015. His successor in that role, Alexei Navalny, has been in and out of prison on various trumped-up charges, as well as the victim of repeated attacks by “unknown chemicals.” Others, like the Putin critic and ex-Parliament member Denis Voronenkov, have been gunned down in broad daylight in foreign cities.
So it’s little less than awe-inspiring to read Andrew Higgins’s profile in The Times of opposition activist Lyubov Sobol.
Sobol, 31, is a Moscow lawyer and Navalny associate who has spent years pursuing a graft investigation of Putin intimate Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch indicted by the U.S. last year for sponsoring the troll factory that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Considering that journalists have been killed looking into Prigozhin’s other businesses, Sobol’s doggedness recalls Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone in “The Untouchables” — except, unlike Ness, she has no knife, no gun, no badge, no law, and no federal government to aid her.
Now she is at the forefront of protests that have rocked Russia this summer after the regime disqualified opposition candidates (including her) from running in Sunday’s municipal elections. Her husband has been poisoned. Assailants have smeared her with black goo. Police dragged her from her office. Only a law forbidding the imprisonment of women with young children has kept her out of jail.
“I am always asked whether I am afraid, and I know that I should say, ‘Yes, I am,’” she tells Higgins. But, she says, “I am a fanatical kind of personality and am not afraid. I have always been a fan of the idea of fairness and, since childhood, have hated to see the strong abuse the weak.”
When regimes like Putin’s realize they cannot co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow, or coerce their opponents, what usually comes next is a decision to kill them. The risk that this could happen to Sobol or Navalny is terrifyingly real, not least because Putin has so many underworld friends willing to do his presumptive bidding without asking for explicit orders.
But Putin also needs to beware. Dictatorships fall not only when they have implacable opponents but also exemplary victims: Steve Biko in South Africa, Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. Through their deaths, they awakened the living to the conviction that it was the regime that should die instead.
Today, Nemtsov continues to haunt the Kremlin. So do Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, to name just a few of the regime’s murdered adversaries. At some point, a growing list of victims will start to weigh heavily against Putin’s chances of staying in power. The death of a galvanizing opposition figure could be the tipping point.
Especially when the political-survival formula that has worked for Putin so far is coming unstuck. That formula —
- enrich your cronies,
- terrify your foes,
- placate the urban bourgeoisie with a decent standard of living, and
- propagandize everyone else with heavy doses of xenophobic nationalism
— no longer works so well in an era of
- Magnitsky sanctions,
- international ostracism,
- a persistently stagnant economy,
- middling oil prices,
- unpopular pension reforms, and
- dubious foreign adventures.
It works even less well when your domestic foes aren’t so easily terrified. As in Hong Kong, a striking feature of the Russian protests is the extent to which they are youth-driven — a vote of no-confidence in whatever the regime is supposed to offer. One recent survey found that the number of young Russians who “fully trust” Putin fell to 19 percent this year, from 30 percent last year. That’s not a good trend line for a man who aspires to die on his throne.
None of this guarantees that Putin can’t bounce back, not least if Donald Trump gives him the kinds of breaks, like readmission into the G7, he needs. And Robert Mugabe’s death this week at 95 is a reminder that tyrants can endure longer than anyone expects.
Still, for the first time in 20 years, the elements by which Putin falls are coming into place. Core among them is the courage of people like Sobol — a woman who, as Pericles said more than 2,400 years ago, “knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”Related‘I Am Always Asked if I Am Afraid’: Activist Lawyer Takes On Putin’s RussiaHe Played by the Rules of Putin’s Russia, Until He Didn’t: The Story of a Murder
For a time, this naming and shaming campaign worked remarkably well and led to less corruption and increased share prices in the companies we invested in. Why? Because President Vladimir Putin and I shared the same set of enemies. When Putin was first elected in 2000, he found that the oligarchs had misappropriated much of the president’s power as well. They stole power from him while stealing money from my investors. In Russia, your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and even though I’ve never met Putin, he would often step into my battles with the oligarchs and crack down on them.
.. After Khodorkovsky’s conviction, the other oligarchs went to Putin and asked him what they needed to do to avoid sitting in the same cage as Khodorkovsky. From what followed, it appeared that Putin’s answer was, “Fifty percent.” He wasn’t saying 50 percent for the Russian government or the presidential administration of Russia, but 50 percent for Vladimir Putin personally. From that moment on, Putin became the biggest oligarch in Russia and the richest man in the world, and my anti-corruption activities would no longer be tolerated... Sergei went out and investigated. He came back with the most astounding conclusion of corporate identity theft: The documents seized by the Interior Ministry were used to fraudulently re-register our Russian investment holding companies to a man named Viktor Markelov, a known criminal convicted of manslaughter. After more digging, Sergei discovered that the stolen companies were used by the perpetrators to misappropriate $230 million of taxes that our companies had paid to the Russian government in the previous year... I had always thought Putin was a nationalist. It seemed inconceivable that he would approve of his officials stealing $230 million from the Russian state. Sergei and I were sure that this was a rogue operation and if we just brought it to the attention of the Russian authorities, the “good guys” would get the “bad guys” and that would be the end of the story... However, instead of arresting the people who committed the crime, Sergei was arrested... Sergei’s captors immediately started putting pressure on him to withdraw his testimony. They put him in cells with 14 inmates and eight beds, leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They put him in cells with no heat and no windowpanes, and he nearly froze to death. They put him in cells with no toilet, just a hole in the floor and sewage bubbling up... A week before he was due to have surgery, he was moved to a maximum security prison called Butyrka, which is considered to be one of the harshest prisons in Russia. Most significantly for Sergei, there were no medical facilities there to treat his medical conditions... After more than three months of untreated pancreatitis and gallstones, Sergei Magnitsky went into critical condition. The Butyrka authorities did not want to have responsibility for him, so they put him in an ambulance and sent him to another prison that had medical facilities. But when he arrived there, instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation cell, chained him to a bed, and eight riot guards came in and beat him with rubber batons… In his 358 days in detention, Sergei wrote over 400 complaints detailing his abuse. In those complaints he described who did what to him, as well as where, how, when, and why. He was able to pass his hand-written complaints to his lawyers, who dutifully filed them with the Russian authorities. Although his complaints were either ignored or rejected, copies of them were retained. As a result, we have the most well-documented case of human rights abuse coming out of Russia in the last 35 years.
.. As I thought about it, the murder of Sergei Magnitsky was done to cover up the theft of $230 million from the Russian Treasury. I knew that the people who stole that money wouldn’t keep it in Russia. As easily as they stole the money, it could be stolen from them. These people keep their ill-gotten gains in the West, where property rights and rule of law exist. This led to the idea of freezing their assets and banning their visas here in the West.
.. American families came with big hearts and open arms, taking in children with HIV, Down syndrome, Spina Bifida and other serious ailments. They brought them to America, nursed them, cared for them and loved them. Since the Russian orphanage system did not have the resources to look after these children, many of those unlucky enough to remain in Russia would die before their 18th birthday. In practical terms, this meant that Vladimir Putin sentenced his own, most vulnerable and sick Russian orphans to death in order to protect corrupt officials in his regime.
.. Information from the Panama Papers also links some money from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky discovered and exposed to Sergei Roldugin. Based on the language of the Magnitsky Act, this would make Putin personally subject to Magnitsky sanctions.
.. This is particularly worrying for Putin, because he is one of the richest men in the world. I estimate that he has accumulated $200 billion of ill-gotten gains from these types of operations over his 17 years in power. He keeps his money in the West and all of his money in the West is potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation.
.. The second reason why Putin reacted so badly to the passage of the Magnitsky Act is that it destroys the promise of impunity he’s given to all of his corrupt officials.
.. Before the Magnitsky Act, Putin could guarantee them impunity and this system of illegal wealth accumulation worked smoothly. However, after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, Putin’s guarantee disappeared.
.. Boris testified in front of the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, the Canadian Parliament, and others to make the point that the Magnitsky Act was a “pro-Russian” piece of legislation because it narrowly targeted corrupt officials and not the Russian people. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov was murdered on the bridge in front of the Kremlin.
.. Boris Nemtsov’s protégé, Vladimir Kara-Murza, also traveled to law-making bodies around the world to make a similar case. After Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee, was added to the Magnitsky List in December of 2016, Vladimir was poisoned. He suffered multiple organ failure, went into a coma and barely survived.
The lawyer who represented Sergei Magnitsky’s mother, Nikolai Gorokhov, has spent the last six years fighting for justice. This spring, the night before he was due in court to testify about the state cover up of Sergei Magnitsky’s murder, he was thrown off the fourth floor of his apartment building. Thankfully he survived and has carried on in the fight for justice.
.. I’ve received many death threats from Russia. The most notable one came from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2013. When asked by a group of journalists about the death of Sergei Magnitsky, Medvedev replied, “It’s too bad that Sergei Magnitsky is dead and Bill Browder is still alive and free.
.. last year when a group of Russians went on a lobbying campaign in Washington to try to repeal the Magnitsky Act by changing the narrative of what had happened to Sergei. According to them, Sergei wasn’t murdered and he wasn’t a whistle-blower, and the Magnitsky Act was based on a false set of facts.
.. Who was this group of Russians acting on behalf of the Russian state? Two men named Pyotr and Denis Katsyv, a woman named Natalia Veselnitskaya, and a large group of American lobbyists, all of whom are described below... Veselnitskaya, through Baker Hostetler, hired Glenn Simpson of the firm Fusion GPS to conduct a smear campaign against me and Sergei Magnitsky in advance of congressional hearings on the Global Magnitsky Act.
.. As part of Veselnitskaya’s lobbying, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Chris Cooper of the Potomac Group, was hired to organize the Washington, D.C.-based premiere of a fake documentary about Sergei Magnitsky and myself. This was one the best examples of Putin’s propaganda.