T&B just received a forwarded e-mail exchange between a British MP who protests the conviction of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, followed by a stinging reply from a prominent Western journalist who covered Russia for most of the past decade.
We requested permission to circulate his reply and were surprised to receive authorization, with the proviso that we removed his name and that of his employer; Menatep, and their hirelings, apparently still instil fear, and not just in Russia.
The journalist in question is certainly no Putin fan – quite the opposite (for fairness, though not germane to the issue at hand, we have included his list of people whom he considers to be true victims, although we think this be of limited relevance – most of them were gunned down by Chechen enforcers). The point is that, as regards Khodorkovsky, he says what every journalist who worked here in the 1990s knows, but is apparently not allowed to say!
First the letter (which could have been issued on Menatep letterhead – but wasn’t):
Richard Ottaway, Conservative MP for Croydon South and Chairman of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee said:
“I am dismayed by reports that Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been found guilty of further charges of Embezzlement. By all accounts the Rule of Law in the conduct of this trial has been abandoned. This has serious implications for the confidence of overseas investors and on British investment in Russia.”
Then the Reply:
Dear Mr. Ottaway,
I was bureau chief for a prominent western news publication in Moscow for most of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, which is, I assume, the reason why I am still on Khodorkovsky-related e-mail distribution lists.
My colleagues and competitors were routinely intimidated by Menatep and Yukos officials before Khodorkovsky’s arrest. The man himself sponsored a campaign of wholesale bribery of Duma deputies to ensure the failure of government legislation to ban “offshore” tax zones within the Russian Federation, even threatening to kill Economy Minister German Gref if he didn’t withdraw it (according to an interview with Gref in the German newspaper Die Zeit in 2004). His lawyer inadvertently admitted to me that he continued to try to bribe and intimidate potential witnesses even after his arrest, the threats being so effective that the prosecutors (whom I roundly despise) had little option but to bring charges on trumped-up technicalities.
There are, as I am sure you know, serious reasons to implicate him or his associates in murders related to:
a) The privatization of fertilizer company Apatit;
b) The take-over and subsequent management of titanium company Avisma;
c) Tax avoidance in Nefteyugansk, where the mayor who complained about Yukos’ practices was the victim of a particularly sickening murder.
All of this makes me wonder why I am receiving an e-mail from your office now, after receiving no such communication on the occasion of far more disturbing evidence of lawlessness in Russia. I refer in particular to the murders of Stanislas Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natalia Estemirova, Maksharip Aushev and Mahomed Yevloyev, none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, would rank, like Khodorkovsky, among the worst gangsters and murderers of the last 30 years.
Can you please confirm to me that you have never, at any time, received money from Khodorkovsky or any lobbying or charitable organization related to him, and that you would have no qualms about my verifying your response through the usual channels?
This exchange illustrates a point that we have made repeatedly over recent years: Whatever the weak point of the prosecution, whatever the problems with the Russian court system, press relations, or weather, everyone even vaguely cognizant of the situation in Russia in the 1990s knows full well that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were guilty of massive theft, corruption and almost undoubtedly numerous murders. The rest is just details. Al Capone died in prison on a tax charge. Bernie Madoff received a savage 150-year sentence for simple financial fraud (albeit, on a huge scale), Khodorkovsky was put away any way possible. That does not make him any less guilty…
Why then, knowing this, are they defending him? He is such an unattractive, transparently hypocritical individual. There is no shortage of victims in Russia – why single out a murderous thug? The answer, of course, is money – and its handmaiden, politics.
T&B has enjoyed some sharp exchanges over our last article where we discussed the issue of corruption – and perhaps some clarification is in order. It was never our intention to suggest that the individual journalists on the ground in Moscow are corrupt! They most certainly are not. They work hard, for niggardly wages, trudging through the slush in search of a story while their colleagues in Investment Banking drive about in Mercedes. Most of them truly believe in what they are doing. And yet, after a few drinks, prodded by T&B as to why they did not write what they knew full well to be the truth, one after another they have told us that they did, repeatedly – but that it never made it into their paper. The senior editors clip away anything which does not fit with party line. T&B does not envy them that loss of freedom – thanks to our clients we have the luxury of not having to work for the bulge bracket…
Having been threatened with legal action, T&B is happy – delighted really – to restate our assertions: The Western press, including the FT, is deeply “corrupt” – not corrupt in the sense of accepting envelopes of cash in return for favourable coverage, but corrupt in the sense of lacking totally in independence, objectivity, or indeed more recently, any sense of decency. They are following a party line – decided from above – and woe betide the FT journalist who fails to report enough “bad stuff about Russia”!
More generally, the facts speak for themselves without our help: The Menatep machine has successfully managed to steer Western coverage of the trial of a murderous thug to the point that he was being compared to the saintly Andrei Sakharov. Bluebeard and Mother Theresa in the same sentence! Need we say more?
This sort of disinformation is, of course, not confined to Russia.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has received fawning coverage in the international press for defeating the FARC guerrillas, with any inconvenient stories about the methods used to do so being systematically suppressed. This fits well with the major diplomatic initiative by the State and the Pentagon to shore up his government, with a need to drum up as much international political support as possible as a counterweight to Chavez’s Venezuela – this despite the deeply unsavoury characteristics of the Uribe regime.
With Uribe now out of the presidency, the local pressure demanding prosecution for the massive human rights abuses has become overwhelming (see: http://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2008/11/human-rights-uribe-colombia) and his main henchman and former head of intelligence was encouraged to make a run for it before being arrested for attempting to subvert the Supreme Court.
Besides the widespread use of torture, arbitrary arrest, and denial of basic rights by right-wing militias close to the regime, the Uribe family is being investigated for massive corruption – running into the billions of dollars. Several close family members have been accused. Little if any of this is reported on by the international press – one has to go to the fringe to get the story…
At the same time, any perceived misdeeds by those leaders who are less compliant with the “Washington Consensus” – not just Chavez or Castro, but also Ortega and Kirchner – get the full coverage. Again, like for Transparency International or Freedom House, the treatment meted out to any given government is a direct function of its closeness to Washington.
The Dogs Bark – The Caravan Passes
Those of us old enough to have watched the American press coverage of their holocaust in Vietnam, or more recently, the run up to the invasion of Iraq (where the FT was an honourable exception), the Orange Revolution, the Georgian war, etc. should not be surprised… And yet, so prevalent is the myth of the “Free and Fair Western Press” that we are wont to forget the sad reality of spin management and disinformation in the service of financial and political interests.
Happily, the Khodorkovsky headlines on Bloomberg were accompanied by another series of flashes announcing a major investment by GE in Russian medical technology, this after the multi-billion dollar PepsiCo takeover of WBD. The Yukos case is vitally important – but only in the minds of the Western chattering classes. T&B speaks with investors every day, and it has been two years since we fielded a single question on Yukos. Khodorkovsky apparently overestimates his own importance – this is not his first miscalculation, by a very long way…