By Pam Linn


Crime makes Russians nostalgic for old days

Negotiations with Russia on nuclear arms reduction may have lulled some of us into thinking of that country as a budding democracy. President Obama, our pragmatist in chief, understands the value of talking and listening to world leaders regardless of their positions and ambitions.

And dialogue may be more fruitful than our former president’s policy of isolating those who disagreed with him. But while our current efforts to forge alliances may prove beneficial, we might do well to remember how cultural and historical differences affect our aims and the methods used to achieve them.

At a recent Great Discussions meeting, the topic was how the U.S. relates to Russia now as different from the Cold War era. A short, filmed discussion included clips from academics and former diplomats. The ensuing chat was interesting but not particularly enlightening. Toward the end, one woman mentioned that an alarming number of Russians are now expressing nostalgia for Stalin and asked how that could be. I ventured that many, mostly older people, feared the anarchy that followed the collapse of the USSR. Even a brutal dictator may be remembered for having kept criminals off the streets.

Citizens of countries that are occupied by foreign armies are often able to survive because they understand and follow the rules to avoid being jailed or shot. They may not have enough to eat, which gives rise to black markets, but they feel a certain safety by knowing how to stay out of trouble; hence the nostalgia for a ruler who kept the peace regardless of how vicious his methods.

Not having known occupation in this country, we are more concerned about preserving our individual freedoms and our rights.

Fareed Zakaria’s Sunday program shed light on just how deep the corruption is in Russia now. It began with the story of William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Investment Management, who set up his business in Russia in 1996 when the country was shifting from communism to capitalism. “There were no laws and no rules at the time and as a result there was corruption, malfeasance and other terrible things going on inside the companies that we invested in.” Browder said. “I became the largest foreign investor in Russia.”

Everything changed in 2003 when the head of the Yukos oil company, the richest man in Russia, was arrested when his private plane landed in Siberia. “They made an example of him, showing him sitting in a cage, to bring all the others in line,” Browder said. “One by one they went to the Kremlin and swore their allegiance to Putin.”

Returning from a business trip, Browder was detained at the airport, his passport taken and then he was deported. He said he was able to get all of his money and people out of the country and was ready to move on.

But, in June of 2007, officers from the Moscow Interior Ministry raided his offices and the office of his law firm and stole the seals and articles of association (proofs of ownership) of the companies in which he invested. Somehow these were transferred to a convicted murderer, a suit was brought and lawyers (unknown to Browder) showed up to defend him. Instead, they pled guilty, and billions of dollars in judgments were brought against him.

“We hired seven lawyers including Sergei Magnitsky who worked for an American firm. After 14 months investigation, he discovered the plot and how it was executed and named the police officers involved. Subsequently, he was arrested and tortured but refused to recant his testimony. In November 2009, Magnitsky died in prison at the age of 37.

“Even President Medvedev called for an investigation but six months later there hasn’t been a single person charged,” Browder said. “There’s criminality that permeates the government and the law enforcement agencies at the highest level.”

Following this story, Zakaria interviewed Georgian President Saakashvili, asking if he thought it possible for the U.S. to have a constructive working relationship with Russia on issues like Iran. He replied, “I congratulate President Obama with signing the nuclear arms reduction agreement. It’s a good sign that’s sent to international system that nuclear weapons will be cut.” He added that he sees no signs of compromising on the main principles that democratic leadership is supported. However, he said he thinks Putin would like to see a return to the Cold War, that he is very fond of some of the Soviet symbols and may try to reassert control over its former empire. “That’s why Georgia is so problematic.”

Bret Stevens, foreign affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and Stephen Cohen of New York University took up the discussion. “Putin’s foreign policy has been an effort to cobble back together, to reconstitute something like it (the Soviet Union),” Stevens said. “Unless you understand their way of seeing the world, and their ambitions for Russia, I think you will be consistently misreading . . . the administration’s ability to genuinely reset the button with Russia.”

Cohen disagreed. “Putin doesn’t make foreign policy. There’s the military, the oligarchs . . . Russians have a fundamentally different problem with Iran than we have. They live near Iran and Russia has 20 to 25 million Islamic citizens of its own. Then there’s the economic relationship. It does not want a nuclear-armed Iran, but it needs a friendly Iran.”

The debate goes on and if you agree or not with any of the experts, it’s worth reading the GPS transcript available online. Personally, I abhor the old Soviet-style muscle flexing and believe cleaning up government-sanctioned crime would help cool nostalgia for the old order. Whatever the outcome, Obama is right to keep the dialogue going with Putin and Medvedev.