LONDON - British citizen Bill Browder is the co-founder of the Hermitage Capital Management fund that has been described as one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia from 1995 to 2006. A noted critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Browder was banned from Russia in 2006 after calling attention to corruption and tax evasion by Russian businessmen.
He was convicted on tax evasion charges by a Russian court in 2013, a proceeding the West describes as political and does not recognize. Company lawyers say Hermitage was a "victim of what is known in Russia as 'corporate raiding': seizing companies and other assets with the aid of corrupt law enforcement officials and judges".
One of Hermitage's lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested in 2008 and charged with the tax evasion he and Browder had uncovered. Magnitsky died after 11 months in pretrial detention in 2009. In 2012, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Moscow that were named in honor of the deceased Russian lawyer.
Browder spoke in London with VOA Russian about opposition leader Boris Nemtsov's murder and the low expectations for an impartial investigation.
Q: Russian authorities have vowed to investigate Boris Nemtsov’s murder, bring the responsible to justice.
A: It Is a joke, it is an absurdity that the Russian authorities will make any promises like that at all. We have seen Russian investigation into the murder of Sergey Magnitsky, when all they did was cover up the people involved and put Sergey Magnitsky on trial himself. And in this case in particular it is clear to me and to many other people that the most likely suspect is the Russian authorities or maybe even Putin himself. And for him to do an impartial investigation is a joke.
Q: Are not many people jumping to conclusions too fast? [Including the Russian president, who immediately called it “provocation”].
A: There is no way that the Russian authorities can do an impartial investigation. Let us just say we are going to give everybody the benefit of a doubt here - it will be impossible for one of the suspects to be doing the investigation. That is the big absurdity.
There needs to be some type of impartial external investigation in which all of the materials are available, not just to the people who many people believe are the culprits in this crime, namely the Vladimir Putin regime.
Q: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that Nemtsov planned some revelations related to the Russian involvement in Ukraine. Do you know anything about it?
A: I have heard it from number of sources. If true, if Boris Nemtsov was preparing this, this would be very relevant motive for Putin and his regime to kill him. Let us just look at the story - what has been happening is Putin has claimed he does not have any troops in Ukraine and he uses this to create some plausible deniability about the Ukrainian conflict, and so there is now the debate within the European Union and America about how harsh the sanctions and response should be to Russia’s Ukrainian invasion.
If that is proved to be different - and it is proved to be different by Boris Nemtsov - it would create very real and material problem for Vladimir Putin. And if this assassination was done to prevent this from coming out, that is a very clear and plausible motive.
Q: Some say it is a new chapter for Russian opposition, change of the rules.
A: The one thing that happened nobody should ignore is that Putin now is very scared. Why is he scared? Because he used to be the good economy president, when the average Russian citizen was getting better off - he could pretty much rely on regular Russians to be politically apathetic.
He is now in a different world, where the ruble is devalued by 50 percent, consumer goods are 100 percent more expensive, the economy is shrinking, people are losing their jobs, so now he can not rely on Russian people to be politically apathetic.
And all of a sudden, the Russian opposition is a potentially dangerous opposition to him, because people who may not have had a lot of influence in the past can be calling for demonstrations, people who are hungry and angry, to come out into the streets. And I believe that the current economic situation has forced Putin to raise the stakes in Russia right now."
Q: Can you tell me about your acquaintance with Boris Nemtsov?
A: When Sergey Magnitsky was murdered in Russia, and we started to call for justice - a number of influential people showed up to offer their support and to join us in our fight for justice. And of the most influential of those people was Boris Nemtsov. Boris Nemtsov demonstrated to call for justice for Magnitsky, he went to Washington D.C. and made presentations along with Senators and Congressmen calling on the U.S. government to impose Magnitsky sanctions.
Boris Nemtsov went to the European Parliament and the European Union, calling for Magnitsky sanctions. He even wrote chapter in a book calling for Magnitsky sanctions. And as we know, Magnitsky sanctions is one of the things that terrify Vladimir Putin, because these are sanctions on Russian human rights violators, and Putin can not disclaim his responsibility for violating human rights in Russia, and Putin is also a man with a large personal net worth and so this puts him directly in a target. And Boris Nemtsov was an important part of this process.
Q: You said in your statement it “won’t be the last killing”. What do you think will be the next chapter for Russia’s opposition?
A: It is clear to me that in the past the Russian government and Putin never murdered opposition politicians. They put them in jail. And the ones they did not put in jail, they opened cases against them, in hope they would flee into exile. And so the fact they murdered an opposition politician means that the Rubicon has been crossed, and if that has been crossed, other may be murdered as well. And sadly, given how desperate Putin is now to control the population with his economic decline, I fear very profoundly other people will be killed."
Q: But Putin’s supporters say he had absolutely no interest in doing it - some accused the opposition of “sacrificing their own” to provoke - ahead of the mass protest march.
A: I think it is a complete nonsense. They made the same type of statements about Magnitsky and his murder - this is sort of typical FSB disinformation - they try to do it to confuse everybody. It is clear that Boris Nemtsov was touching on a very sensitive areas - which was calling opposition rallies when people are hungry and economically affected, calling on Putin’s own personal corruption, and then pointing out there are Russian troops in Ukraine - there is a clear motive for him to do this.
And Putin also has a history of taking out one symbolic person too terrify the rest in that group, he did that with the oligarchs with Khodorkovsky, he did this for journalists with Anna Politkovskaya, he did it with foreign investors with me. There is a lot of different boxes you can check to say that Putin had a motive to do this, and it would be naive not to check these boxes and to assume he is one of the prime suspects in this murder.
Q: President Putin’s press-secretary Dmitry Peskov said that if you compare Putin and Nemtsov’s popularity, Nemtsov would be “not much more than the average citizen” and he posed no political threat.
A: Well, is that why they refused to put him on any state television, why they followed him around and the FSB keeps tabs on him wherever he goes. They made the same statement after Anna Politkovskaja died. I can not even imagine in a Western country the presidential press secretary saying - “We did not murder this person - he was too unimportant”. It is just an absurdity to hear these words coming out of the [Russian] president’s press-secretary.