William Felix (Bill) Browder is a financier and co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, which was the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia up until 2013.
In 2007, Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a fraud worth $230 million, which he said was linked to the Russian government. In 2008, Magnitsky was detained on fraud charges. He died in prison nearly a year later, with subsequent investigations finding that he was denied medical treatment and subject to beatings.
Browder spearheaded a campaign in Magnitsky’s name and in 2012 President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, placing asset freezes and other sanctions on 44 Russian state agents linked to human rights abuses. Versions of the sanctions were later adopted by Moldova and, last month, Canada.
WT: Tell us about your early years in Russia and how you initially viewed Putin
Bill Browder: When Putin came in, in 1999, it was at the end of the Yeltsin era, which was a time of extreme economic injustice, where basically 22 individuals ended up with 40 percent of the country and everyone else was in dire poverty. Those 22 individuals then effectively privatised all the functions of the state for their own benefit, to become even wealthier. It was such a moment of chaos in Russia that I, and everyone else, wanted some order to be restored. [See Sources & References below this story for further reading on this period.]
When Putin first came in, he had promised to restore order and to take away the sort of chaotic oligarch capitalism. In his first few years, because he was still not a dictator, he didn’t control the levers of power, he was more acting in the national interest back then than he ever has since then. I was, wrongly, obviously now in retrospect, but I was sort of complimentary and optimistic about his presidency, based on my previous view of what was going on with Yeltsin. When he was starting to go after the oligarchs, I was very excited by that because that was the main problem. The problem was that when he was going after the oligarchs, he wasn’t going after the oligarchs to … bring social justice back to Russia. He went after the oligarchs to become the biggest oligarch himself, and he succeeded. He’s now become the biggest oligarch, the richest man in the world, and a total dictator. My initial impressions of him were completely wrong, and I’ve completely changed my opinion of him from when he first came to office.
How do you think his governing style has changed, and how has he been able to change over the past 15 to 20 years?
Well, there’s a famous expression that absolute power corrupts absolutely. As time has gone on, Putin has taken away all sources of challenge from him. There’s no longer any independent media. There’s no longer any functioning parliament. The democratic process has been completely hijacked so that they manipulate and cheat on the votes. The courts are not independent. All of the basic pillars of society that could challenge Putin for misbehaving or doing bad things don’t exist any more, and that’s given him more and more power. As he has more and more power, he then acts more and more aggressively, irresponsibly, and criminally, and so we’re now in a situation where it’s effectively Russia is quickly moving from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian regime. In the process, his crimes and his acting against his people’s interests have only increased.
What kind of Russia do you think he’s trying to build?
He’s working towards a full-on [Romanian communist dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu police state.
“There are…250 people in the Russian government…working full-time to try to destroy me.” – Bill Browder
What’s it like to go up against the Russian state?
Well, it requires a lot of energy and a lot of resources, because they fight back viciously. There are, in my estimation, 250 people in the Russian government in different branches of the Russian government working full-time to try to destroy me. The methods of destruction are murder, kidnapping, extradition, arrest, defamation, and any other thing they can come up with.
As a recent Buzzfeed investigation showed a spate of suspicious deaths, of people in London apparently linked to the Kremlin. How are you still alive?
I’m still alive only because they’ve made a decision that they’re going to try to get me back to Russia to kill me. They don’t want to be caught killing me. I’m a very high-profile figure. There would be an absolute political firestorm if they did, so they only want to kill me if they can get away with killing me. So far they haven’t come up with a methodology for doing it here in the West where they think they can succeed. They think there’s enough risk of getting caught that they don’t want to try that. As a secondary step, what they’d like to do is get me back to Russia. Once I’m in their custody, then they can do anything they want with me and nobody can then blame them.
For example, last week they put me on the Interpol arrest warrant list for the fifth time. They’ve sought my extradition from the British government probably a dozen times so far. They’re working on criminal cases with Cyprus right now, because Cyprus is cooperating with them. If they can find me and grab me and take me back, that would be a great thing from their perspective.
Other people have been allegedly killed by the FSB in London. Does the UK government do enough to stop that?
No. The UK government protects me legally, but as we’ve seen, there’s been a whole bunch of Russian murders here where they don’t even investigate them. I don’t have a lot of confidence that the UK government would do the right thing if something were to happen.
“If they could kill me in a way that was plausibly deniable, then they would do so.” – Bill Browder
But you still think that would be enough of a political fallout that it protects you here.
Well, I think that the main thing that protects me is that there would be a global political crisis if they murdered me, and it was known that they murdered me. If they could kill me in a way that was plausibly deniable, then they would do so.
In spite of that, you’ll keep working at it.
Yeah. They killed Sergei Magnitsky, and it’s my duty to him to get justice.
[Earlier we had discussed Magnitsky and the act named for him in more detail. See also Russia sanctions will survive Trump.]
WT: The Magnitsky Act [aimed at Russian citizens linked to human rights abuse] has been in place in the U.S. for five years now. What’s your take on how it’s been enforced and how effective it’s been?
BB: It’s highly effective. And the main reason we know it’s so effective is by the reaction of Vladimir Putin. It’s very difficult to get inside the psychology of your opponents but the one thing we’ve seen with Putin is that he’s had an almost apoplectic reaction to the passage of the Magnitsky Act and he’s been continuing to agitate for its repeal and try various different techniques and approaches to get it repealed, which haven’t worked. But his energy about the whole thing and his public statements about the whole thing, show that it really does hit them. It hits his achilles heel.
The implementation has been very difficult because the U.S. administration has been extremely reluctant to do anything to upset Russia, even after the law was passed, and so it took five years and many interventions from Congress to get 44 people added to the Magnitsky list. Of those 44 people, 35 of them are directly related to the Magnitsky case, and nine of them are from other human rights abuses. Of the 35, we’ve submitted 282 names where we have evidence that they fit within one of the four categories of the Magnitsky Act, and so far there’s many people who are clearly should be sanctioned that haven’t yet been sanctioned.
Is that what your main focus is at the moment, trying to add people to the list?
I have a number of focuses. Well, my main focus at the moment is to get other countries to adopt the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. adopted it in 2012. It then became a global Magnitsky Act in 2016. The Estonian government approved [OCCRP] Magnitsky Act in 2016, the British government in May of 2017 [The Guardian], and then the Canadian government [CTV] last week.
Are you looking at any other alternative methods of getting at human rights abusers?
My main thing is getting Magnitsky Acts rolled out in other countries. The second most important thing from that standpoint is getting people added to the Magnitsky list in those countries, and that’s what I call the sort of political justice part of our campaign. Then we have the criminal justice part of our campaign. We’ve spent the last eight years tracing where the money went, the $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky uncovered and exposed and was killed over – who got that money? We’ve traced that money to a number of different countries, and so we’re working with the law enforcement agencies of those different countries to freeze, seize, and prosecute the people who received the money. So far about $40 million has been frozen. There’s more than a dozen criminal investigations going on, and hopefully as time goes on, all that money will eventually be found and frozen and seized.
You talked about how the U.S. government was initially reluctant. Do you think the act is at risk under the current administration?
No, not at all. The Obama administration was reluctant to sanction Russia. We first approached the government itself to say, “Let’s sanction people,” and they wanted nothing to do with it, so then we went to Congress. It eventually became a law through Congress, and so in order for the Magnitsky Act to go away, it would require an Act of Congress to repeal it, which is not going to happen. . .
“Russia’s a criminal regime…[and] they want to create…chaos in the West” – Bill Browder
Talking about Trump, it seems unequivocal that Russia at least attempted to influence the U.S. election, and possibly the Brexit vote. In your experience of Russia, how does this fit with the Russian government’s worldview?
My view of the Russian government is it’s a criminal regime. It’s a criminal regime, which is basically focused on stealing as much money as possible from the Russian people, and then to be able to keep that money safely in the West. In order for them to do that these sanctions can’t exist. Secondly, they want to create as much chaos in the West so that we’re all fighting among ourselves and not focusing any time on trying to look our nose down on Russian crimes. For example, here in the UK, Brexit is now a full-fledged civil war, which is completely sucking out all the oxygen for every other issue that might exist. In the U.S. you now have effectively a culture war going on, so it’s very difficult for any of us to be spending time focusing on Russian corruption, which is a great win for Vladimir Putin.
What’s your view of the Trump administration, and how do you think the world views, for want of a better word, of Putin and Trump compare?
The Trump government is different from Trump. If you read Donald Trump’s statements, he’s been very complimentary towards Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t seem to care about human rights. He has more of an affinity to Putin than, for example, [Angela] Merkel or Theresa May. However, if you look at his administration, it’s completely different. His administration is staffed and headed by people who are all extremely robust towards Russia. The Defence Secretary [James] Mattis, Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, [Mike] Pompeo, the CIA director, are all extremely tough on Russia. If you look at the Trump administration’s policies, it hasn’t slipped an inch in terms of giving Russia any gifts. While his own statements are highly offensive, in my opinion, about Vladimir Putin, nothing has happened that makes me feel like Russia has gotten away with anything yet.
I think that actually it wouldn’t have mattered whether he was in the White House or out of the White House … because of this huge controversy in Washington about whether Russia colluded or didn’t collude with the Trump administration. Whether there’s any truth about collusion or not, he can’t add to the narrative by doing anything that would be seen to be giving anything away to Russia right now.