It’s not often that one gets the chance to say something nice about our politicians, but the Conservative MP Dominic Raab has put forth a good bill. Supported by, among others, David Miliband, Jack Straw and Sir Malcom Rifkind, all former Foreign Secretaries, the motion proposes that the 60 Russian officials from the so-called Magnitsky list be denied access to Britain and have their assets frozen.
Allow me to remind you of the facts of the matter. In 1996 the Stanford-educated American financier Bill Browder started Hermitage Fund which in due course became the biggest foreign investor in Russia. That country figured prominently in Mr Browder’s family history: his grandfather Earl was one of the founders of the American Communist Party and a lifelong KGB agent. One suspects, however, that this fact was of less importance to Browder than to the KGB people who run Russia, particularly Putin who is known to be sentimental about his alma mater.
One way or the other, Browder managed to stay on the right side of the Russian authorities long enough to become a very rich man, and one with enough clout to have supported Putin in his rise to power. He did, however, try to introduce Western business practices into the murky world of Russian finance, which is a bit like trying to teach Mike Tyson not to punch people. A conflict was inevitable, especially since gratitude doesn’t figure high on Putin’s list of virtues.
In 2006 Browder was out of the blue denied entry to Russia, but continued to run Hermitage from his offices in London. Such absentee management, though at first successful, couldn’t work indefinitely. Over the next two years, Hermitage’s Moscow offices were raided by the police, with various employees arrested, beaten, maimed and otherwise reprimanded. To Browder’s credit, he tried to get as many of them as he could out of Russia, but one of his lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, stayed behind.
He was arrested and 11 months later died in remand prison. The official (false) diagnosis was pancreatitis, a disease usually, though not always, caused by excessive drinking. The unofficial (true) reason was abuse, beatings, torture and denial of medical treatment.
Since then Browder has waged a tireless international campaign aimed at punishing those 60 Russian thugs directly involved in the murder. The Raab motion is a reflection of the political support he has managed to whip up, and I do hope it becomes law. However, there are larger issues involved.
There are about 300,000 ‘new Russians’ living in London, and many of them come from the same KGB-mob background as the Magnitsky 60. Having made millions in ways that would be illegal anywhere else in the world, they use their ill-gotten gains to buy up not only the most expensive houses in London but also quite a few venerable Brirish institutions, such as football clubs, bookstore chains and newspapers.
We don’t mind: money doesn’t smell, and anyway it’s not illegal to buy things, is it now? We’re all supporters of private enterprise, aren’t we? So we don’t flinch when the ‘new Russians’ bust up expensive London restaurants and pay for the damage with briefcases full of cash. We don’t wince when observing those gangsters order a £2,000 bottle of wine and then dilute it with Diet Coke. We don’t mind when the likes of Berezovsky and Abramovich make a travesty of British justice by settling their tawdry accounts in our courts. We do object to their use of Polonium 210 in central London, but not too strenuously and not for very long.
Jonathan Sumption, Abramovich’s own barrister, has acknowledged that his client acquired his wealth through ‘an agreement to sell media support to the president of Russia in return for privileged access to state-owned assets.’ That, according to Mr Sumption’s admission, was ‘corrupt’. This isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind, but the question is, how is this any different from the way organised crime normally operates?
Now, I’m neither a lawyer nor a historian of law, but I do find it hard to imagine, say, the Krays being allowed to buy The Times in the 1960s, the Richardsons being welcome to The Telegraph, or even either of them allowed to take over a string of football clubs all over the country. Money didn’t smell in those days either, but its provenance mattered somewhat. So what has changed since then? I’ll let you answer this question yourself, provided you do agree that things are different now. We’ve become champions of free enterprise über alles, but free enterprise shouldn’t be a suicide pact.
So well done to Dominic Raab and those politicians who support his motion, even though one would be within one’s right to question some of their motives. Jack Straw and David Miliband, for example, haven’t repudiated Lord Mandelson, that exemplar of fiscal probity and their party comrade, for his intimate links with Oleg Deripaska, the aluminium king whose kingdom is not of the Western world. So what has awakened their conscience in this instance?
I wonder if Miliband in particular is still smarting from the indignity he suffered during his stint as Foreign Secretary at the hands of Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. When Miliband mentioned in passing Russia’s record on human rights, Mr Lavrov displayed an enviable command of the English idiom by replying, ‘Who the f… are you to lecture me?’ I can’t imagine Viscount Palmerston or, closer to our time, Lord Carrington being talked to that way, but then we have agreed that things have changed.
Still, whatever their motives, they are doing the right thing. I just hope they don’t stop here.