The Son Of Putin's Worst Enemy Explains What's Going Wrong With Russia

Business Insider

Relations between Russia and the U.S. have recently hit a rough patch.

In December, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which will create a black list of Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses. Hermitage Capital founder William Brouder had lobbied for years for the legislation, which is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Hermitage-lawyer who died in a Moscow jail after accusing officials of involvement in an enormous tax fraud.

Before the list could even be finalized, however, the Russian Duma hit back with its own legislation seeking to ban the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. Russian media had complained about high profile cases of abuse for years, but the timing and severity of the legislation made it clear this was retaliation.

Given that just a few years ago we were talking about a U.S.-Russia "reset" in relations, the whole thing seems like a remarkable step backwards for the two countries. Add to that an ongoing clampdown on dissent in the country — most notably in the case of the anti-Putin feminist group Pussy Riot — and strict new legislation on homosexuality, the situation in Russia looks dark.

For insight on the matter, we talked to Pavel Khodorkovsky, the head of the Institute of Modern Russia and the son of a bitter enemy of President Vladimir Putin. Pavel's father, Mikhail, was once Russia's richest man, head of the enormous Yukos oil company with a personal fortune of $15 billion. A public spat with President Vladimir Putin, however, left him as one of Russia's most famous prison inmates — and one of Putin's most outspoken critics.

Pavel hasn't been back to Russia since his father's arrest, but keeps in close correspondence with Mikhail, monitoring events in Russia. He explained how the adoption ban seemed to be a bargaining chip for Russia, and one that Russian orphans would lose out from. He admitted that his family's hope for the Russian opposition had initially been high, but that the Kremlin's clampdown means "criteria by which we judge the progress will have to change." Finally, he explained why the Magnitsky Act was so important, not just in the Hermitage Capital case, but also for other jailed dissidents, such as his father.

The transcript of our conversation with Pavel, lightly edited for clarity, is below.

The first thing to talk about is the U.S. adoption ban in Russia. Were you surprised at how quickly that went through and with so little opposition?

I think the legislators in Russia have quickly realized that they're really not going to achieve anything with the original piece of legislation [a Russian black list for U.S. officials] because not many state officials travel to Russia. I don't think that McCain is going skiing in the Ural Mountains anytime soon. It's just a futile effort at retaliation. And I think there was this idea — I actually don't believe that it was coming from the Kremlin — to create an additional lever. Basically create a negotiating avenue, something that people would care about in the U.S., and that became the adoption ban.

You know the statistics — 60,000 kids were adopted over the course of the last 10 years. Nineteen cases, yes, tragedies. But compare that to 1,500 kids who are dying in orphanages every year in Russia, and those are just the official statistics, taken straight out of the website of the general prosecution office. It certainly looks like they have a much better chance of getting proper medical care, and frankly surviving, here in the U.S.

I think 1 out of 10 adoptions from foreign countries in the U.S. is from Russia, and 1 out of 3 from Russia to foreign countries is to the U.S. I think that played a lot into this idea. I didn't think it was going to pass. It was going to fly through the United Russia Party but there was going to be opposition. And then it flew through all the three readings, almost unanimously voted for.

I actually think that Putin did not initiate this. It's one of those situations where the head of the gang has to be the biggest, toughest member of the gang.

I actually think that Putin did not initiate this. It's one of those situations where the head of the gang has to be the biggest, toughest member of the gang.

He cannot show any mercy, any weakness. His group had no other choice but to sign that. If you remember in the press conference on the 20th or 21st, he was still very undecided, he got like eight questions about it and he couldn't give a straight answer. He said everything short of I'll sign it, and then seven days later he signed it.I was surprised.

It was primarily aimed at achieving leverage over the United States. I would hate it to become one of those trading points — we'll not include a member of the Russian bureaucracy on the Magnitsky list, and you'll let out 10 kids.

Do you think there's much public support for it in Russia? Do you think the average Russian citizen supports it or even cares about it?

It falls into the background that's been fostered over the past 10 years of anti-Americanism. It depends on how you ask the question. If you ask the question, do you want your kids to have a better chance of good medical care if they're adopted by a foster family from abroad, you'll get a different response from do you want Russian kids to go to the U.S.? The statistics that everyone is citing — the 56 percent in favor of the adoption ban — is from a government statistical analysis organization. I'm sure that the question was asked in a very predetermined way. They said that 25 percent are undecided — I find that very hard to believe. A quarter of the population cannot be undecided on such an issue. This is such a polarizing issue. You should be getting single digits. Look at any other issues of that magnitude, you'll see the population completely split. And here you have a quarter versus 56 percent, in favor versus against, so those numbers seem wrong.

If the question was asked properly, and actually people have the full statistics that go along with it — that the majority of kids who are being adopted by U.S. parents have some sort of sickness or come from an ethnically diverse background and have very little chance of being adopted [there would be higher approval]. There are these orphans and orphanages in Russia that are of Tartar, Kyrgyz, Kazakh origin, and, frankly, they're not popular with Russian foster parents. And Americans, they go, it's a long process and they have to work with the agency, and they go to the orphanages. And year after year they see the same kids, and oftentimes families adopt more than one.

A family that we're friends with adopted two kids from Russia and they are United States citizens. They adopted one kid, and then they kept coming back for another two years and then they finally adopted her when she was three years old. And when you actually lay out these facts, I think you would get a completely different response.

Obviously this is a response from the Magnitsky Act. I know that Bill Brouder is pushing for an EU-wide list. If such a plan went into place, would you expect another retaliatory action from Putin or the Duma?

It's a lot more damaging to spoil relations with European nations than with the U.S., because there's a lot of trade. And the fact that Russia has for a while now been trying to get visa-free access. So retaliatory measures would be a lot more damaging to Russia itself. So I don't believe that there would be. But I believe there would be a lot of lobbying in the meantime to prevent it. This is one of Putin's biggest check-marks that he hasn't checked off — getting visa-free access. If he can get one of the countries in the Schengen zone to pass legislation that would impede access to any of the bureaucrats in the Schengen zone, that would be a disaster for him. So he would most certainly lobby hard. 

The EU passed a resolution last year for a Magnitsky-type measure. But the resolutions of the Parliament of the EU are not legally binding on member states, so you can't have an EU-wide law.

Do you think you've seen any change in Kremlin policies since Putin returned to the presidency?

Domestically, most certainly. Internationally, well he ditched the G8 summit, which was probably an unwise thing to do. But it shows how in the first few months, he wasn't sure how he was going to be received, so he avoided it. Domestically, we've seen a huge change. We've seen a more subdued style of repression to a complete reversal. All of the legislative initiatives introduced in the spring of last year were basically flushed down the drain. The registration for the parties became completely balanced out by a new law that prevents any foreign funding to NGOs, prohibits United States citizen from being employed in any organization that deals with politics, and another law that interprets consulting for foreign government as essentially treason.

So all of this has completely balanced out the positive. And the return to the free elections of governors has been diluted to its most ineffective form. And on the streets you see that Putin has chosen to repress people. Thirteen cases from Lubyanka Square in May are in court. Some of these people have not even participated in the protest, but most of these people will most likely get sentences. We have two criminal cases against [Alexey] Navalny and [Sergei] Udaltsov. Today, Navalny has been yet another time to the prosecutor's office and he has met this new team of investigators — now 11 people. And he has received the final version of the charges against him. And he's accused of stealing 16 million from KirovLes. There's certainly a trend of embroiling the opposition leaders in these legal battles and sapping them of their efforts to do anything else.

How do you feel the opposition leaders are doing? This time last year, we were talking about protests in Moscow, Pussy Riot, international news. Now, we have these kind of clamp-downs. Do you still have hope for the opposition movement?

I do, but the criteria by which we judge the progress will have to change. We finally have some form of proper organization — I'm speaking of the Opposition Council. It's slowly but finally starting to work, and there's finally some cohesion. But obviously we've lost the momentum on the street. But I'm optimistic because once again, to give you an example — you might have read the comment by Masha Gessen, that when there was an adoption protest in Moscow, that there haven't been that many creative posters, placards, that it's been kind of predetermined. But I don't see it as a negative.

Creativity on the street is great when you want to pass it around the social networks and laugh at the funny posters and condoms on the street in response to Putin's comments — that's great. When you want to have a sustained movement, you need to have some sort of organization. And that's exactly what Putin's camp has been doing. Look at the crowds of 120,000 that have been dragged out from neighboring cities — they've been celebrating Putin's win. They rally people, they sometimes pay money to organizations to let their employees off work for the day, pay for their meals, sponsor their tickets to Moscow — they sponsor everything just to drag people out. And I'm not saying opposition has to employ the same tactics, but it needs the same structure.

The underlying reasons haven't gone away — the government has done nothing to address the reasons for discontent that have bubbled up last winter. We have the same problem with elections — we've had the Khimki elections. We've had the same reports coming out of the polling stations of the alleged fraud. We've had pretty much the same tactics employed in that election. So nothing has really changed in the way the government is responding to people's concerns.

And that's just focusing on the actual election procedures. And then we have stuff like the Pussy Riot sentence, and the Taisia Osipova sentence — eight years — four more than what the prosecutors have asked for. And now we have potential sentencing for these people from Bolotnaya square — and this is all going to continue to rattle the society, because not much positive has happened in the course of the last year. And I think the reason that they're not doing much is that they're counting on the repression tactics to scare off the crowds. Also they're looking forward to the next year — February 2014, we're hosting the Sochi Olympics and they're hoping that will boost the national morale. I don't know if that will be a big success because the construction is in complete disarray. But I think this is the plan, to ignore the short-term concerns and to go full-steam ahead to big events, full-steam ahead to Sochi, let's get the national pride restored. But that's not going to address the concerns of a major part of the population.

This is going to be the 10th anniversary of your father's incarceration. How is he interpreting the changes in Russia?

You know he's been offered to participate in the elections for the opposition council. But he's declined, because he thinks he wouldn't be much use. He would probably win a seat, but the communication lag would make it impractical. And people are criticizing him, saying 'you're not prepared to side with any opposition movement.' But that's not true — he's in communication with a lot of the leaders of the opposition movement, and he hasn't been hiding any of his preferences. And he's made very direct comments addressing current events. he's very happy that the council has taken organizational shape and form. He's a manager. He knows how to organize the process and he understands the organizational benefits, and that's a big plus in his book.

Overall, we're all kind of at a loss in terms of gauging the speed of change. If you asked me a year ago, both my father and I were thinking we'll have major changes in two years. But you ask me today, I don't know.

If you asked me a year ago, both my father and I were thinking we'll have major changes in two years. But you ask me today, I don't know.

Because it seemed like the scare tactics are still working really well. We don't have the underlying economic pressures on the society that existed in the Arab world. For example Tunisia, the discontent with the government fell on the very poor economic situation. It's like oil into the fire and we have a revolt. In Russia, the country is fairly stable in terms of its economic well-being. Unless we have another crisis in Europe, which we might, as you know.

I've read recently that your father's sentence would be reduced and under the new sentence, he could be out next year. I wanted to know your interpretation of that.

I've been very happy that my father has not gotten overly excited over that. It could give a lot of hope, but at this point it would be false hope. And that's for a number of reasons. First of all, the sentence was reduced not because the court agreed with the reasoning of the defense team. The appeal to the Supreme Court, which was later handed off to the Moscow City Court for the hearing, dealt with the underlying verdict, and the fact that the charges had been false. The decision of the Moscow City Court does not address that. It reduces the sentence based on the changes in the criminal code, which reduces sentencing for some of the alleged crimes. My father has said himself those are ostrich tactics.

Another reason not to get too excited is that the prosecutor asked for a reduction in sentence of 3 months less than was ultimately granted by the court, so they have reason to go back with an appeal to the supreme court, as our defense team has, citing an extreme reduction in the sentence.

Since it's not a regular appeal, there is no 10-day limit on when it has to be filed so they can go back at any point. So we see it as a pure PR tactic in light of the Sochi Olympics. It will provide a very positive background. Russia's going to be hosting the Olympics, [Platon] Lebedev is going to be let out in a couple of months, Khodorkovsky is going to be let out at the end of the year. Everything is great, Russia's back on the right back track, let's celebrate. The Olympics are done the 23rd of February, everybody leaves and there's no more focus on Russia and there's a new case against my father. Just like that.

So I was very worried that my father would get overly hopeful but he has retained his calm. So he knows what are the chances here, and they are slim.

Was there anything else you wanted to touch upon?

Well primarily the Magnitsky list. We have the next couple months to determine how this is going to be effective. This is just the first round. This is when the State Department will have to present a list.

The way that the law is written, 5 committees on the House side and 5 committees on the Senate side, the chairman and the ranking member can submit additional candidates for the consideration of NSC and then the State Department. And that can happen in mid-April — that's the first list. Obviously this is a huge win for the human rights community in Russia, because there is absolutely no way to get justice back home.


Thank you to Pavel for taking the time to talk to us. Learn more about the Institute of Modern Russia here.

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