Conspiracies are the stuff of Russian politics, and the anarchy of online political discourse makes the RuNet an especially exciting place to watch conspiracy theories unfold. Consider the never-ending saga of Bill Browder and the late Sergei Magnitsky, the two key figures in a multimillion-dollar tax fraud scam. For years, Russian federal investigators and Browder’s firm, Hermitage Capital Management, have traded accusations about who’s to blame for the theft of 230 million dollars.
Last week, on March 6, 2013, the national television network NTV (notorious for producing sensationalist documentaries against the anti-Kremlin protest movement) aired a special report [ru] targeting Browder with a wide array of accusations. Titled “The Browder List” (a pun on “the Magnitsky List”), the TV program implicates Browder in several mysterious deaths (including Magnitsky’s), questionable corporate practices throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and a whole mess of tax evasion schemes (including the exploitation of the mentally handicapped in Kalmykia). None of these allegations are new (newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets commissioned a video documentary [ru] on the Kalmykia story in 2010), and they mostly address Browder’s character (e.g., “look at what a scoundrel he is!”), rather than the substance of how the $230 million disappeared from state coffers.
There was one bit, however, in NTV’s report that did highlight something potentially vital in the tax fraud case—and it came from a blogger. And it wasn’t just any blogger, but Stanislav Apetian, known online as “politrash,” who recently joined the analytical staff at the new Kremlin-friendly think tank The Civil Society Development Foundation. In “The Browder List,” Apetian argues that “expert analysis” disconfirms a key claim made by Hermitage Capital that state officials reregistered their subsidiaries (effectively stealing them), in order to request illegal tax rebates. Browder contends that federal investigators managed this reregistration with the use of corporate stamps (their “seals” for official documents) confiscated in a June 2007 search of Hermitage’s Moscow office. According to Apetian, an analysis of the tax rebate forms proves that the stamps seized in 2007 were not the ones used by the thieves. In other words, the key evidence linking state authorities to the crime is no good.
The “expert analysis” supposedly disproving Browder’s version of events seems to date back to September 2008, roughly nine months after the massive tax refunds were issued and a full two months before Magnitsky was ever arrested. In an obscure weekly publication [ru] called “Business Tuesday” (Деловой вторник), someone calling himself Gleb Novoselov authored an attack piece against Browder, titled “Pure English Swindling.” In that article (now available only [ru] where others have archived it), Novoselov makes the following claim:
Были проведены судебно-криминалистические экспертизы, которыми установлено, что печати на доверенностях нанесены штампами, не соответствующим оригинальным печатям, изъятым в ходе обысков офисов подозреваемых компаний «Файерстоун Данкен» и «Эрмитаж Капитал» («Hermitage Capital»). а подписи доверителей были подделаны.
Expert forensic analyses were conducted, showing that the stamps on the legal documents do not match the original stamps seized during the searches of Firestone Duncan’s and Hermitage Capital’s suspect subsidiaries, and the principals’ signatures [on the reregistration forms] were forged.
Gleb Novoselov, however, appears to be a pseudonym, as he’s published nothing since (or before). Curiously, “Gleb Novoselov” is a character in Oleg Blotskii’s semi-official biographies [ru] of Vladimir Putin, released in two volumes in 2001 and 2002. In a May 2010 blog post, conspiratologist Vladimir Pribylovsky—seemingly unaware of the September 2008 article—mused [ru] that Blotskii’s Novoselov could be a disguise for MVD police general Boris Miroshnikov (later fired [ru] by President Medvedev in January 2011), pointing out the similarities in their history and relationship to Putin.
In November 2010, the press service head of the MVD’s investigative committee, Irina Dudukina, made official [ru] what for two years had been Gleb Novoselov’s mysterious intimation: the government’s expert analysis shows that the seized stamps weren’t used in the phony tax rebate applications. Two months later, in January 2011, anonymous blogger Kovane guest-authored an English-language assessment of the Magnitsky-Browder case on the blog “The Kremlin Stooge,” highlighting the disconfirmatory “expert examination” of the corporate stamps. (In July 2012, Apetian posted a Russian translation [ru] of this post on his LiveJournal blog.)
Another anonymous blogger, tskgml, has also published extremely in-depth reports on this case, specifically addressing the corporate stamps issue. In August 2012, in part three [ru] of a five-part series, tskgml compared legal records hosted on Browder’s own website, russian-untouchables.com, highlighting one report that Hermitage staff (Vadim Kleiner and Ivan Cherkasov) actually asked state investigators not to return the corporate stamps until the investigation was completed, despite the authorities’ readiness to hand them back.
Without access to the raw findings of the MVD’s expert analysis, it’s impossible to assess whether or not the confiscated stamps were used in the tax rebate scheme. If these stamps were not used, it would signify a watershed moment in the case, and erase the key link in the paper trail commonly thought to incriminate state officials like Pavel Karpov and Artem Kuznetsov. But what is the nature of the expert analysis? What does it actually say? And will it take the tenacity (or possibly the nefarious ties) of Russia’s bloggers to find out?
Very interesting post, Kevin. If I were in Browder’s shoes, I would be sweating in them plenty, because his defense against Karpov’s defamation suit is looking weaker and weaker. British law specifies in such cases that the onus, rather than being on the plaintiff to prove the alleged defamation damaged him/her personally or professionally, is on the defendant to prove that his/her accusations are true.
As you will appreciate, this offers a very high standard of proof, and Browder – or, rather, his lawyers – will be stepping through a minefield in order to bring forward evidence which supports his position without inadvertently hurting his relentless cheerleading for Magnitsky and his own very vigorous part in bringing the Magnitsky Act forward for signature. The whole house of cards could well come tumbling down. At the same time, he cannot simply back away from the defamation suit and offer to make restitution, because it would run completely counter to his previous aggressive, loud-mouthed attacks and suggest they were baseless, or motivated by personal anger at seeing a sweet deal wrecked by his own overreach.
As this handy guide to English libel law ( http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/A_quick_guide_to_libel_laws_in_England_and_Wales.pdf ) points out, 154 libel cases in 2010 were reviewed by Justice Jackson for costs of civil litigation; the plaintiff won in every case. There is a defense referred to as “The Reynolds Defense”, which rests on the protection of responsible journalism and can allow “the reporting of facts which are uncertain, but whose reporting is in the public interest”. However, it is also said to be notoriously tricky to execute.
Another interesting hole in Browder’s defense appears to be his accusation that Karpov participated in the search of Firestone-Duncan’s offices on June 4th, 2007, and in an attack on a Firestone-Duncan employee. Karpov was out of the country on June 4th and did not return until 4 days later; presumably this is verifiable.
Lots of excitement coming up for legal-watchers, for whom Berezovsky’s fall from grace was but a tease upon the tongue. The next few months also offers the possibility that the USA named its human-rights legislation after a criminal, impelled by the entreaties of yet another criminal.
I think the judge will see through the murkey kafkaesque way of judicial Russia. Different stamps or not. If you look at his meagre income of $6,000 per year, how can he afford such a luxurious lifestyle? And what about the Fedor Mikheev, case, pre-magnitsky? I am sure BB’s team is a.t.m. collecting statements from witnesses in that case!