The Meaning of Yeltsin's Veto of Russia's Law on ReligionMonday, July 28, 1997
This briefing provided an analysis of the events surrounding President Yeltsin's veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia which would have effectively banned the activities of certain religious minority groups including Protestants and Catholics. The bill passed emphatically in both houses of the Russian Parliament, mounting great domestic pressure on the President to approve it. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute credits the blocking of the bill to international pressure from both the US and the EU, which were vocal in their opposition. Congress sent several letters to Mr. Yeltsin, including one which was signed by 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. The discussion in the question and answer period centered around more concrete measures taken by the US Congress to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, including economic incentives tied to foreign aid and trade.
Russia’s Religion LawMonday, July 28, 1997
This briefing addressed Congressional concerns about a draft law regarding religion that was making its way through the Duma. Given that this draft was vetoed by President Yeltsin, the Commission took special care to highlight this act standing for religious freedom and the efforts that were made to respect and adhere to the Russia’s international commitments. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute provided an analysis of the events surround President Yeltsin’s recent veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia. The roles of domestic and international influences in this resulting veto were each evaluated. Trends of religious freedom in Russia were also examined in the context of how much progress the defeat of this law would actually make.
Report on Human Rights and the Process of NATO EnlargementSunday, June 01, 1997
The Commission held a series of three public hearings on Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement in anticipation of the summit of Heads of State and Governments of Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be held in Madrid, Spain, on July 8 and 9, 1997. The emergence of new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and the demise of the Warsaw Pact created a security vacuum in the territory between the current eastern frontier of NATO and the Russian border. The first attempt to address the new security realities in the region occurred at the end of 1991 with the establishment of NATOs North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as a forum for the evolution of a new relationship based on constructive dialogue and cooperation. In early 1994, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was launched with the aim of providing a practical program to transform the relationship between NATO and states participating in PfP, moving beyond dialogue and cooperation to forge a genuine security partnership. (All 27 states of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) are OSCE participating States.) Simultaneously, NATO began to consider the possibility of enlarging the Alliance. The result was the 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement which addressed practical steps and requirements candidates for membership would have to satisfy. In December 1996, NATO foreign ministers called for a NATO summit at which one or more countries that wanted to join NATO would be invited to begin accession negotiations. The U.S. Congress was instrumental in stimulating the debate through several legislative initiatives. The NATO Participation Act of 1994 (PL 103-447) provided a reasonable framework for addressing concerns about NATO enlargement, consistent with U.S. interests in ensuring stability in Europe. The law lists a variety of criteria, such as respect for democratic principles and human rights enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, against which to evaluate the suitability of prospective candidates for NATO membership. The Act stipulates that participants in the PfP should be invited to become full NATO members if they... remain committed to protecting the rights of all their citizens.... Under section 203, a program of assistance was established to provide designated emerging democracies with the tools necessary to facilitate their transition to full NATO membership. The NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act of 1996 (PL 104-208) included an unqualified statement that the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights are integral aspects of genuine security. The law also makes clear that the human rights records of emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe interested in joining NATO should be evaluated in light of the obligations and commitments of these countries under the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act.
The Present Situation in AlbaniaFriday, May 23, 1997
This briefing, moderated by the Honorable Eliot Engel, Co-Chairman of the Albanian Issues Caucus, examined the international response to the crisis in Albania since the collapse of the pyramid schemes in the beginning of the year, which led to protests, rebellion, and political stalemate. The need for free and fair elections was emphasized in light of a political impasse over the holding of elections in June. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Julius Varallyay, Principle Country Officer for East Central Europe for the World Bank, Stefano Stefanini from the Italian Embassy, and Avni Mustafaj, former Director of Open Society Foundation for Albania – discussed the previous efforts that had been made to encourage political reforms and steps that needed to be taken in the future. The need for a comprehensive donor assistance program to complement international assistance was specifically address, as was the political reform on which this program would depend.
The Continued Use of Torture in TurkeyTuesday, April 08, 1997
This briefing analyzed the continued practice of torture despite the Turkish Constitution’s ban on torture and public pledges by successive government to end torture. Turkey’s obligations under numerous international conventions, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment were emphasized. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Holly Cartner, Executive Director, of Human Rights Watch; Dr. Erik Holst, President of the Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims, Denmark; and Doug Johnson, Executive Director of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Prevention of Torture – evaluated the lack of accountability for the perpetrators of the gross human rights violations that occur via the practices of torture that are regularly employed in Turkey. Special public hearings regarding these instances of torture, recognition of the need to act as a model for the world in pursuing justice, and respect for the victims of this abuse were all actions that were called for.
The Future of ChechnyaThursday, March 13, 1997
Former senatosr and commissionesr chaired this hearing, which focused on the efforts of the citizens in Chechnya to free themselves from Russian power. Russia’s “transgressions” against the Chechnyan populace entailed lack of recognition of international principles. More specifically, the 1994 OSCE Budapest Document, with which the Russians agreed, stipulates that each participating state will ensure that its armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with the provisions of international law. Moreover, even when force cannot be avoided, each state will ensure that its use must be commensurate with the needs. At the time of this hearing, anywhere between 30,000 and 80,000 people had been killed because of the conflict in the territory, and tens of thousands of men, women, and children had been driven from their homes. In addition, there had been a cease-fire in Chechnya. However, the dangers had not recently ended.
Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)Thursday, February 20, 1997
This briefing focused on the topics of European security and NATO enlargement, specifically in terms of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Elements of the treaty that remained especially important, including the goal of avoiding destabilizing concentrations of forces in Europe and the goal of creating greater transparency and promoting information exchange among governments in Europe, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at this briefing spoke to the need for amendments and changes to the CFE, but maintained the relevance of the treaty to international security. Different strategies for making these changes related to Russian pressure and NATO involvement were presented.
Religious Freedom in RussiaTuesday, January 14, 1997
Helsinki Commission Staff Advisor John Finerty presented the question of the quality and depth of religious freedom in Russia currently, and allowed for an evaluation of the progress, or lack thereof, of religious liberty following the fall of the Soviet Union. Larry Uzzell, the Moscow representative of the Keston Institute of England, one of the oldest organizations specializing in religious life and religious freedom in Communist and former Communist countries, was asked to address the issue of religious freedom in Russia and had several key points to say on the matter. In his testimony, Mr. Uzzell emphasizes discrimination in the practice of registration in giving provincial governments the power to regulate all aspects of religious life, which is detrimental to religious liberty, and asserts that the prospects of religious freedom in Russia have suffered a setback in recent years.
Political Turmoil in SerbiaThursday, December 12, 1996
In this hearing, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) discussed, with witnesses, the developments in Serbia and what opposition forces had to say about the future of the country. Witnesses present included Miodrag Perisic, co-founder and vice president of Serbia’s first political opposition party (the Democratic Party); Branislav Canak, the president of a confederation of independent trade unions that wanted to organize workers throughout Serbia (the Independents); Veran Matic, Editor-In-Chief of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station; and Obrad Kesic, program specialist for the Professional Media Program at the International Research and Exchanges Board. More specifically, Smith and witnesses discussed popular unrest against Milosevic’s refusal to accept election results regarding the ruling Socialist Party and its allies, underscoring more general displeasure with the Serbian government’s track record regarding the economy, human rights, and a lack of confidence that Serbians’ children would have a democratic and prosperous future.
U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon SummitFriday, November 01, 1996
This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.
Russia’s Election: What Does It Mean?Wednesday, July 10, 1996
Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and others discussed the outcome and the implications of the Russian presidential election of 1996, which, at the time of the hearing, had just happened. The winner of the election was Boris Yeltsin, who was re-elected with a margin of thirteen percentage points over Communist Party Chairman and challenger Zyuganov. The hearing also incorporated discussion concerning the conflict in Chechnya and the circumstances under which the election transpired (i.e., fairness, media coverage).
Russian Media in Light of Upcoming ElectionsTuesday, May 14, 1996
This briefing examined the Russian media in light of the upcoming elections and also with reference towards Russia's obligations to permit and protect the free media in Russia in accordance to the Helsinki Final Act. The true state of the press in Russia and whether the Yeltsin regime is complying or even trying to comply with its internationally recognized obligations were topics of discussion. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Elena Masyuk, Reporter for NTV and Catherine Fitzpatrick, Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists – illuminated the issues that journalists and the media in general had encountered in recent years, including government sponsored threats and deprivation of accreditation. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in particular, voiced its concerns about the restrictive and even deadly conditions in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Report: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugolsavia, An UpdateWednesday, May 01, 1996
In early 1996, with little fanfare, the U.N. Security Council quietly and quickly selected Canadian Judge Louise Arbour to succeed Justice Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The relative ease with which a replacement was chosen -- in contrast to the prolonged, relatively public, and embarrassing manner in which the Security Council members fought among themselves for nearly a year over the selection of the first prosecutor -- reflects the dramatically changed circumstances in which the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal now finds itself. At the time of Goldstone’s appointment in 1994, most observers of the Yugoslav conflict seemed to fall into one of two categories: those that thought war crimes trials should be held, but did not believe the Tribunal would ever indict anybody above the rank of private (let alone hold an actual trial), and those who believed that the mere discussion of war crimes trials undermined peace negotiations. Under Goldstone’s able stewardship, the Tribunal has developed a full complement of staff, including prosecuting attorneys and investigators; issued more than fifty indictments, including for the two highest ranking Bosnian-Serb political and military leaders and three members of the Yugoslav People’s Army; obtained custody of three men; and begun the Tribunal’s first trial. Goldstone has deftly managed a multitude of political crises, successfully traversed the treacherous waters of the U.N. bureaucracy, and, thus far, helped safeguard the legal integrity and credibility of the Tribunal. All of these factors, combined with the achievement of a tenuous peace agreement in Dayton in November 1995,2 now make the possibility of war crimes trials seem, to many, more real than ever before. This memorandum outlines the basic structure of the Tribunal and the most recent developments with respect to investigations and trials, cooperation by U.N. member states with the Tribunal, and funding.
THE CHECHEN CONFLICT AND RUSSIAN DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENTWednesday, March 06, 1996
The hearing addressed the OSCE-brokered military agreement in July 1995 between Russian and Chechen representatives to end ethnic conflict among Chechens, Russians, Ingush, and other ethnic groups caught up in the terror of war. The Commissioners discussed the disappearance of people, including a prominent American humanitarian aid worker and an American freelance journalist. The witnesses gave testimony on the visible breakdown in law and order which has forced humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, to withdraw to a safer location.
Report on the Russian Duma Elections of December 1995Friday, March 01, 1996
On December 17, 1995, Russia held an election to the lower chamber of Parliament (Duma). The election was Russia’s second since the breakup of the U.S.S.R., and its first since the December 1993 election that followed the October 1993 destruction of the former Parliament building. Although some analysts had warned of the possible cancellation or postponement of the election, the voting took place without incident or violence. International observers considered the election to be free and fair. According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), about 63 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. The figure was higher than had been anticipated, considering the widely-reported malaise and cynicism in Russian society. The high turnout testifies to the electorate’s continuing involvement in the political process, despite many disappointments and economic hardships, and to the desire for change. Russia’s parliamentary election was a multi-party, multi-candidate contest. Forty-three parties fielded party lists totalling 5,675 candidates. Parties needed 5 percent of the national vote to gain representation in Parliament. In the 225 district races, 2,700 candidates entered the lists, an average of 12 per district. All participating parties received an equal amount of free air time on television, and they could buy more. The big winner in the election was the Communist Party (CPRF), headed by Gennady Zyuganov. According to the official results, the CPRF won 22.3 percent of the proportional vote, plus another 58 seats in single mandate districts. The CPRF appealed to voters who had not benefited from Russia’s experiment with a market economy and were discontented about crime, corruption, and a general sense of "disorder" in post-Soviet Russian society. Zyuganov also advocated the restoration, "by voluntary means," of the Soviet Union. The strong showing by the Communist Party mirrors the electoral revival of communist forces in other former Soviet republics and in Eastern Europe, 3.5 years after Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared in the U.S. Congress that "communism is dead in Russia." Zyuganov has also become the frontrunner in the race to unseat Yeltsin in the June 1996 presidential election.
Mass Graves and Other Atrocities in BosniaTuesday, December 05, 1995
Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and others discussed the atrocities committed against women, men, and children in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. These atrocities exemplified Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the former Yugoslavia at large, as areas where internecine violence and strife seemed to be constant phenomena.
Summary of the OSCE Rule of Law SeminarFriday, December 01, 1995
From November 28 to December 1, 1995, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened a seminar on the rule of law. The meeting was organized by the Warsaw-based OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Thirty-eight of the 53 fully participating States attended, along with representatives from two Non-Participating Mediterranean States, six international organizations, and 25 non-governmental organizations. Over the course of two days, a number of emerging democracies described the constitutions and other legislative provisions that had been adopted in their countries to provide for the rule of law, at least on paper. Western participants, for their part, generally spoke of the specific and concrete challenges faced in their countries in actually implementing safeguards for the rule of law. In general, the participation of East-Central European and former Soviet countries—most of which attended this meeting—was more active than at the 1991 Oslo meeting, and Western participants, for their part, avoided the West-West bickering that marred the earlier seminar. At the end of the meeting, the rapporteurs produced summaries of the discussions.
Pre-Election Briefing on RussiaWednesday, November 29, 1995
Dorothy Taft, Chief of staff for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, on behalf of Representative Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, the Chairman and Co-Chairman of the commission, presided the pre-election briefing on Russia. This briefing discussed the Duma and the Presidential elections in Russia, that would determinated the direction that the State will take as to European security and cooperation. Ms. Taft was joined by four recognized specialists in Russian affairs and electoral processes that shared with the Commission their insight on the Duma elections and beyond: Mr. Robert Dahl, an elections specialist with the International Foundation for Electoral System; Dr. Leon Aron, professor of post-Communist transition in Russia; Dr. Peter Stavrakis, Director at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies; and Mr. Paul Goble, special advisor for Soviet Nationality Problems and Baltic Affairs at the State Department.
Pre-Election Briefing on RussiaWednesday, November 29, 1995
This briefing, which then Commission Chief of Staff Dorothy Taft moderated, focused on the Russian Federation’s upcoming Duma elections in December of the same year. Among the implications of these elections was a potential change in the direction that the Russian Federation would take concerning European security and cooperation. Of course, there was also the possibility that the Duma elections would significantly impact the nature of the U.S.’s and the former U.S.S.R.’s bilateral relations. Considering what was at stake in the Duma’s impending elections, not to mention the former U.S.S.R.’s presidential elections in June of the following year, the Commission, understandably, wanted to hold this briefing in order to be acquainted with Russia’s political leaders and the political landscape upon which they operate.
Religious Liberty: The State Church and Minority FaithsTuesday, November 28, 1995
Samuel G. Wise, Director for International Policy at the US Helsinki Commission, presented the second briefing in a series focusing on religious liberty in the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular discussion was intended to evaluate the relationship between state churches or traditional religious and freedom of religion for minority faiths in the OSCE region through an analysis of the effects of certain historical legacies on individual states. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Father Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America; Father George Papaioannou, Pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church; Gerard Powers, Foreign Policy Advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference; Lauren Homer, Founder of Law and Liberty Trust; and Lee Boothby, Vice President of the Council on Religious Freedom – focused on the issue of minority and majority in society as it relates to religion and the potential for this issue to result in conflict. The historical origins of these tensions, especially in Eastern Europe, were particularly emphasized.
The harrowing tale of Bill Browder—how an American-born businessman became an enemy of the Russian state, how he has to live in constant fear, never knowing if the long arm of the Kremlin will snatch him, or kill him—is its own kind of daily terror. But what Browder’s story tells us about the way Vladimir Putin operates, and what he might want from this country, should scare us all.
William Browder took his family on vacation in July, though he won't say where because that is one of those extraneous bits of personal information that could, in a roundabout way, get him bundled off to a Siberian prison or, possibly, killed. For eight years, he's been jamming up the gears of Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic machine, a job that seems to often end in jail or death, both of which he'd very much like to avoid. He'll concede, at least, that his leisure travels took him from London, where he lives, through Chicago, where he changed planes. As he walked through a terminal at O'Hare, he got a call from a New York Times reporter named Jo Becker.
"Do you know anything," she asked, "about a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya?"
Browder stopped short. "Yes," he said. "I know a lot about her."
One of the most important things he knew was that Veselnitskaya had spent many dollars and many hours trying to convince Washington that Browder is a criminal. More than a decade ago, Browder was the largest individual foreign investor in Russia, managing billions in his hedge fund. Then, in 2009, one of his attorneys was tortured to death in a Moscow jail after exposing a massive tax fraud committed by Russian gangsters. His name was Sergei Magnitsky, and Browder has spent the years since trying to hold accountable anyone connected to Sergei's death. The most significant way is through the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a 2012 U.S. law that freezes the assets and cripples the travel of specific Russians, many of whom have allegedly laundered millions of dollars in the West.
The Kremlin hates that law. Putin's hold on power requires the loyalty of dozens of wealthy oligarchs and thousands of complicit functionaries, and their loyalty, in turn, requires Putin to protect the cash they've stashed overseas. Putin hates the law so much that he retaliated by banning Americans from adopting Russian children—yes, by holding orphans hostage—and has said that overturning the Magnitsky Act is a top priority.
That's where Veselnitskaya comes in. As a lawyer, she represented a Russian businessman trying to recover $14 million frozen by the Magnitsky Act. More important, she was involved in an extensive 2016 lobbying and public-relations campaign to weaken or eliminate the act, in large part by recasting Browder as a villain who conned Congress into passing it. That was not empty political spin for an American audience: The Russians really do want Browder in prison. In 2013, a Russian court convicted him in absentia (and Sergei in his grave) of the very crime Sergei uncovered and sentenced Browder to nine years in prison. Later, it got worse. In April 2016, Russian authorities accused Browder of murdering Sergei—that is, of killing the person on whose behalf Browder had been crusading, and who the Russians for seven years had insisted was not, in fact, murdered.
The campaign was oafish yet persistent enough that Browder thought it wise to compile a 26-page presentation on the people behind it. Veselnitskaya appears on five of those pages.
"I've been trying to get someone to write this goddamned story," Browder told Becker on July 8. "She's not just some private lawyer. She's a tool of the Russian government."
But why, Browder wanted to know, was Becker suddenly interested?
"I can't tell you," she said. "But I think you'll be interested in a few hours."
Browder flew off to the place he won't name, switched on his phone, and scrolled to the Times website. He drew in a sharp breath.
He exhaled. F***.
Donald Trump Jr. told the Times that the June 9, 2016, meeting had been about adoptions, which demonstrated either how out of his depth he was or how stupid he thought reporters were. If Veselnitskaya had been talking about adoption, she of course had been talking about the Magnitsky Act.
Which meant she'd also been talking about Bill Browder.
He read the story again, closely. Browder wasn't sure what the implications were. But if he'd known about it in real time—that the staff of a major-party presidential candidate was listening intently to those who accuse him of murder and want him extradited and imprisoned—he would have been terrified.
"Putin kills people," Browder said to me one afternoon this autumn. "That's a known fact. But Putin likes to pretend that he doesn't kill people. So he tends to kill people he can get away with killing."
Browder did not say this as if it were a revelation. (And technically it's an allegation that Putin has people killed, albeit one so thoroughly supported by evidence and circumstance that no one credibly disputes it.) Rather, he told me that by way of explaining why he was telling me anything at all: The more often and publicly he tells the story of Sergei Magnitsky, the less likely he'll be to get poisoned or shot or tossed out a window, which has happened to a number of Putin's critics. If anything does happen to him, he reasons, the list of suspects would be short.
He spoke softly, methodically, though with great efficiency; not scripted, but well practiced. We were in the conference room of his offices in London. Afternoon light washed through a wall of windows, threw bright highlights onto his scalp, sparked off the frame of his glasses. Browder is 53 years old, medium build, medium height, medium demeanor, and was wearing a medium-blue suit. He does not look like a threat to Russian national security, which the Kremlin declared him to be 12 years ago. Still, there is a hint of steel, something hard and sharp beneath all of the mediumness; if he confessed that he'd served in the Special Forces, it would be a little surprising but not shocking.
It was late September, and Donald Trump had been president for 248 days. In the weeks after the election, Browder was "worried and confused." Trump has a creepy habit of praising Putin, but he'd also surrounded himself with Russia hard-liners like General James Mattis, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo—secretary of defense, ambassador to the United Nations, and director of the CIA, respectively. Browder war-gamed the Magnitsky Act but didn't see any way that Trump could kill it—Congress would have to repeal the law—only a chance that he might refuse to add more names to the target list. (Five people were added to the list last January, bringing the total to 44.) He figured the same was true with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which President Obama signed shortly before leaving office, expanding the targeted-sanctions tool to human-rights abusers worldwide. The Russians hate that law, too, because having "Magnitsky" in the title reminds the entire planet where the standard was set and by whom.
The first months of the new administration unspooled, spring into summer. Trump's flirtation with Putin persisted, but with no practical effect. "The Russians got nothing," Browder said. Congress, in fact, imposed its own sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, cutting Trump out of the loop entirely. "I watch this like a hawk," Browder said, "and so far they've gotten nothing. There's not a single piece of Russian policy that's gone Putin's way."
But then, in July, the Times reported that Veselnitskaya had met with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager at the time, in June 2016. That shifted the calculus. "America has been my staunchest ally," Browder said. "It wasn't an assumption but a question: Had they flipped my biggest ally?"
That was still an open question when we met in London. Much more had been reported about Trump and Russia. Other contacts and communications were known, and details kept evolving, an endless, sloppy churn of information. There was more, too, about the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which happened two weeks after Trump secured the nomination: It was attended by eight people in all, including Rinat Akhmetshin, who is usually described as a former Russian military-intelligence officer, though that generously assumes that any Russian spook is ever fully retired from the spy game. Browder has another PowerPoint presentation on him. Additionally, Manafort's notes on the meeting reportedly mentioned Browder by name.
This is all bad. "They were in a meeting to discuss Bill Browder, the Magnitsky Act, and how to get the Magnitsky Act repealed," he said. "Now, what [the Russians] were offering in return, we don't know. But if it had just been a courtesy meeting, only one of [the Trump team] would have showed up."
Maybe no one will ever know what, if anything, the Russians offered. But there's no doubt what they wanted, and how badly. In a four-page memo prepared for the meeting by Veselnitskaya (and later obtained by Foreign Policy), the Magnitsky Act was inspired by "a fugitive criminal" who ripped off the Russian treasury and then went on a worldwide publicity tour to, apparently, cover it up. "Using the grief of the family of Magnitsky to his own advantage, Browder exposes them as a human shield to distract attention from the details of his own crime," she wrote. Passage of the Magnitsky Act, moreover, marked "the beginning of a new round of the Cold War."
That is an assertion as grandiose as it is belligerent. And yet it is not wholly inaccurate. To understand why the Kremlin is so perturbed, it helps to understand Bill Browder. In many ways, he is the Rosetta Stone for decoding the curious relationship between the Trumps and the Russians.
Browder's grandfather Earl was a communist. He started as a union organizer in Kansas and spent some time in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, where he married a Jewish intellectual and had the first of his three sons, Felix. The family moved to Yonkers in 1932, where Earl became secretary general of the Communist Party USA. He ran for president twice, in 1936 and 1940, and Time magazine put him on its cover in 1938 above the headline COMRADE EARL BROWDER. His fortunes fell in 1941, when he was convicted of passport fraud. His four-year sentence was commuted after 14 months, and he was released into relative obscurity until the 1950s, when he was harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Bill's grandmother steered her boys away from politics and toward academics, in which they wildly overachieved. Felix enrolled at M.I.T. at the age of 16, graduated in two years, and had a Princeton Ph.D. in math when he was 20. He met his wife, Eva, at M.I.T., a Jewish girl who'd fled Vienna ahead of the Nazis and spent her teenage years in a tenement with her impoverished mother.
Felix and Eva had two boys. Their first, Thomas, took after his father: University of Chicago at 15, doctoral student in physics at 19. Their second, Bill, did not. He liked to ski and smoke and drink. He got kicked out of a second-tier boarding school and barely got into the University of Colorado, which was fine with him because it was a notorious party school. By his account, he spent his formative years rebelling against everything his leftist-intellectual family held sacred.
"Rejecting school was a good start, but if I really wanted to upset my parents, then I would have to come up with something else," he wrote in his 2015 book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice. "Then, toward the end of high school, it hit me. I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss off my family more than that."
He started studying, transferred to the University of Chicago, got into a two-year pre-MBA program at Bain & Company, in Boston. He parlayed that and an essay about Comrade Earl Browder—from communist to capitalist in two generations!—into a seat at Stanford. Out of genealogical curiosity, he began thinking about Eastern Europe. "If that's where my grandfather had carved out his niche," he wrote, "then maybe I could, too." He got a job with a consulting firm and moved to London in August 1989. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled. Eastern Europe was wide open for business.
His first account was consulting for a Polish bus manufacturer that was bleeding cash. It was miserable work in a miserable little city, but while he was there his translator explained the financial tables in the local newspaper. With the fall of communism, nationalized companies were being privatized and their stocks were offered at fire-sale prices: A company with $160 million in profits the previous year had a stock valuation of only $80 million.
Browder invested his entire savings, $2,000, in Polish stocks. He eventually walked away with $20,000. He'd found his niche.
By 1993, he was in Moscow, investing in staggeringly undervalued stocks: He invested $25 million and turned a $100 million profit. With money that good and almost no Western competition, Browder, in 1996, raised enough cash to open his own fund, Hermitage Capital.
Over the next decade, Hermitage did exceptionally well. The downside, though, was that the economy wasn't transitioning from communism to capitalism so much as it was devolving into gangsterism. Corruption was endemic. A handful of oligarchs looted and swindled at their leisure. Browder countered by positioning himself as an activist shareholder; he and his staff would piece together who was ripping off what, name names, try to impose a modicum of order on a lawless system.
When Vladimir Putin rose to power, Browder believed he was a reformer eager to purge the kleptocracy. In 2003, for example, Putin arrested the country's richest man, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, charged him with fraud, and displayed him in a cage in a courtroom until his inevitable conviction. In the context of the time, many critics saw the ordeal as a capricious show trial orchestrated by an authoritarian thug.
Not Browder. "I would trust Putin any day of the week," he told The Washington Post in early 2004. "It's like being in a lawless schoolyard where there's bullies running around and beating up all us little people, and then one day a big bully comes along and all the little bullies fall into line. That's what the state is supposed to be—the big bully."
But Putin, he discovered, wasn't pushing for good corporate governance. He was taking over the rackets. Putin put Khodorkovsky in a cage for the same reason Vito Corleone put a horse's head in Jack Woltz's bed: to send a message. Oligarchs could steal, but they had to pay tribute.
Oligarchs no longer needed to be named and shamed; they needed to be kept in line and to keep earning. At that point, an activist shareholder like Browder became an expensive nuisance. Browder was kicked out of the country on November 13, 2005.
For a while, he thought the Russian bureaucracy had made a mistake by canceling his visa, confusing him with someone else, perhaps, or misfiling some paperwork. He enlisted the help of British diplomats—Browder had been a British citizen since 1998—to no avail. There had been no mistake. Browder had been declared a threat to Russian national security.
Hermitage Capital remained in business, though, its office run by Browder's staff while he oversaw operations from London. But in Moscow, the pressure only increased. In June 2007, security forces raided Hermitage and the office of the law firm it employed. They carted away computers and files and, interestingly, all the corporate seals and stamps. At first, none of that made sense.
But then Sergei Magnitsky, a 36-year-old Muscovite who handled tax matters for Hermitage, started digging around. He eventually discovered three of Hermitage's holding companies had been used by Russian gangsters to swindle $230 million in tax rebates. It was a straight-up robbery of the Russian treasury. The scam wasn't unheard of, except the amount was perhaps the largest such tax fraud ever uncovered in Russia.
Browder and his staff reported the theft to the authorities and the media in the summer of 2008. They even named suspects, including some of the security officials who'd earlier been involved in the office raids. Nothing happened. Then, a few months later, on November 24, 2008, Sergei was arrested at his home.
He was held for nearly a year in various prisons, overrun with rats and damp with sewage. According to complaints Sergei wrote, he was fed porridge infested with insects and rotten fish boiled into mush. He contracted pancreatitis and gallstones but was refused treatment. Yet he was repeatedly told he would be released if he would recant his allegations and, instead, implicate Browder as the mastermind of the tax scam. He refused every time.
Almost a year after he was arrested, desperately ill, Sergei was handcuffed to a bed rail in an isolation cell. Eight guards beat him with rubber truncheons. A little more than an hour later, he was dead.
Before Sergei was killed, Browder had been lobbying anyone he could think of to pressure the Russians into releasing his accountant. One of the agencies he approached in the spring of 2009 was the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency in Washington that monitors human rights in 57 countries, including Russia.
Kyle Parker, one of the Russia experts there, wasn't interested. He knew who Browder was—the money manager who'd championed Putin, the guy who'd made the rounds of Western capitals a few years earlier trying to get his visa restored. He assumed that's what Browder was still after. "Not gonna be able to make it," he e-mailed a colleague scheduling the meeting. "Unless much has changed, I see this meeting as info only and would not support any action on our part."
He eventually met with Browder, though, and he listened to the story of Sergei. Parker understood, but it didn't seem especially uncommon. "I was thinking: Why is Bill trying to suck us into a pissing match between competing criminal groups?"
Parker didn't even include Sergei in a 2009 letter to Obama highlighting the commission's most pressing concerns.
After Sergei had been killed, Browder went back to the Helsinki Commission.
Parker told him how sorry he was. He told him that he cried when he heard Sergei was dead, that he read about it through teary eyes on the Metro, riding the Red Line home to his wife and kids. He said he was going to help.
"Here you have this Russian hero almost of a literary quality in Sergei Magnitsky," Parker told me. "He wasn't a guy who went to rallies with a bullhorn and protested human-rights abuses in Chechnya. He was a bookish, middle-class Muscovite. I see Sergei metaphorically as that Chinese guy standing in front of the tanks, but with a briefcase. He provided an example for all the other Russians that not everybody goes in for the deal, not everybody is corrupt, not everybody looks the other way when people are swindled."
What Browder wanted was some form of justice for Sergei, though what form that would take was unclear. He'd researched his options for months. The Russians weren't going to prosecute anyone—officially, Sergei died of heart failure. There was no international mechanism to hold Russian nationals criminally accountable in another country. "Eventually," Browder said, "it became obvious that I was going to have to come up with justice on my own."
He outlined a three-pronged approach. One was media, simply getting Sergei's name and his death and the reasons for it into the public consciousness. He talked to reporters, and he produced a series of YouTube videos, short documentaries on the people allegedly involved in Sergei's death.
The second was tracing the money. "They killed him for $230 million," Browder said, "and I was going to find out where that money went." It was parceled out to dozens of people, tucked away in Swiss accounts and American real estate and Panamanian banks, some of it held by proxies; part of it allegedly ended up in the account of a Russian cellist who happened to be a childhood friend of Putin's. By mining bank transfers and financial records, Browder and his staff have accounted for much of it, including $14 million allegedly laundered by a Cypriot company into Manhattan property. (The Justice Department froze those funds in 2013 but settled with the company, Prevezon, last summer for $5.9 million. Prevezon's owner, a Russian named Denis Katsyv, is represented by Natalia Veselnitskaya. The case did not allege that he had any role in Magnitsky's death.)
The final prong was political. Browder had heard about an obscure regulation that allows the State Department to put visa restrictions on corrupt foreign officials. But in the spring of 2010, the Obama administration was attempting to normalize relations with Russia—a "reset," as Obama famously put it. People die horrible deaths every day, and it's terrible and it shouldn't happen. But Russia is also a large country with a significant sphere of geopolitical influence and a lot of nuclear weapons. In that context, a dead middle-class tax lawyer wasn't relevant.
But what if, Parker suggested, they went to Congress? What if the legislature, rather than the administration, took action?
That was also a long shot. Getting any law passed is difficult, let alone one the administration opposes. But Browder told Sergei's story to congressional committees and individual senators and congressmen, and he kept telling it until the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law 11 days before Christmas 2012.
The act originally named 18 Russians, including bureaucrats implicated in the original scam; investigators Sergei had accused of being involved and getting a cut of the $230 million; jailers who tormented him; and two alleged killers. As more of the stolen money was traced, more names were added to the list. Everyone on it is banned from entering the United States and, more damaging, cut off from the American banking system. That has a ripple effect: Legitimate financial institutions all over the world monitor the Treasury Department list of sanctioned individuals and are loath to do business with anyone on it. "That's what people hate about it the most," Browder said. "It makes you a financial leper."
And that matters to Putin, Browder maintains, because the Russians on the list are not independently wealthy, like, say, Bill Gates or Richard Branson. "They're dependently wealthy," he said. "They're dependent on Putin." If the deal is that corrupt Russians can keep their cash in return for their loyalty, the Magnitsky Act is an enormous thorn in Putin's side. If he can't protect anyone's pilfered money, what's the point of loyalty? Putin surely understands that, because he was so transparently rattled: Taking orphans hostage is not the reasoned reaction of a man merely annoyed.
Browder initially wanted to call the law the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act. But Parker never took to that. "Banning some corrupt officials from coming here isn't even close to justice," he said. "But it's a legislative monument to Sergei Magnitsky until one day Russia builds a stone monument to him. Because I have no doubt he'll be seen as the Russian patriot and hero that he was."
Not quite three weeks after the Times broke the story of Veselnitskaya lobbying the Trump campaign to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, Browder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about, primarily, how Russian operatives wield influence and frame their propaganda. Eight years after he'd started targeting a handful of Russian crooks, Browder was suddenly very relevant to a much larger political storm.
He flew home to London after he testified but had to return to the United States in early August. He checked in at an airline counter in Heathrow but was told there was a problem with his visa. He'd been flagged by Interpol, which had issued a red notice on him. It's basically an international arrest warrant, and it was the fourth requested by the Russians for Browder. Technically, a member nation is supposed to extradite him to the country that asked for the notice. But the British, along with other sensible Western nations, stopped taking Russia's attempts regarding Browder seriously years ago.
In the end, it was only an inconvenience. But what if he'd been in, say, Finland when that notice popped up? The Finns are fine people, but they also have a 500-mile border with Russia. Would letting Browder go be worth risking an international incident with a bigger, more aggressive neighbor? He can make a reasonable case that, no, he would not be worth it. "I'm very realistic about who's coming to my defense," he said. "I am my defense."
So he's careful. He avoids countries that might be friendly to Putin. Much of the Third World is out. So is Hong Kong. He'd be fine in Japan, but only if he didn't fly over Russian airspace. What if the plane has trouble and makes an emergency landing in Novosibirsk? That's where Khodorkovsky was seized and hauled off to a cage.
Even in London, he's cautious. He won't talk about his family or where he lives. He varies his schedule and his route to work every day. He doesn't eat in the same restaurant twice in succession, or in any restaurant with predictable frequency; Russian agents have reputedly twice poisoned dissidents in London. He told me the British government has rebuffed at least a dozen requests to extradite him, and American intelligence has warned him that Russian agents planned to grab him off the street.
Years ago, a Russian living in London came to Browder's staff with information about certain wealthy, corrupt people in Moscow. He was cagey and shifty and, at first, it seemed like he might be a Russian agent trying to plant false clues. But his information checked out and Browder learned who he really was. His name was Alexander Perepilichnyy, and he was nervous because he believed he was on a Russian hit list.
On November 10, 2012, Perepilichnyy dropped dead in front of his house in Surrey. There was no obvious cause of death—no heart attack or stroke or aneurysm—and an inquest wasn't opened until last June. Perepilichnyy wasn't a well-known dissident, so no one thought to take a hard look when he died. "They got away with it," Browder said, meaning the Russians. "That's a perfect example of why you don't want to be an anonymous guy who drops dead."
So Browder is deliberately not anonymous. He does not live in cloistered fear. When a car service got confused trying to pick him up for a photo shoot—definitely a way to not be anonymous—we took the Tube a few stops, then walked through Kentish Town to the studio. There was no security, just two men wandering around London. He has hobbies that he asked I not name, but none of them are solitary or sedentary. "One thing I can tell you," he said, "with the threat of death hanging over you, you live life to the fullest." He laughed a little.
In this new version of his life, Browder is still most often referred to as a financier, but that's only marginally true. He gave all his investors their money back, and manages only his own now. Justice for Sergei—and aggravating Putin—is his full-time job. His staff of 11 tracks money launderers, deciphering which flunky is fronting for which oligarch, sniffing out the rest of that $230 million. He lobbies other governments to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. The United Kingdom has one, as does Estonia. Lithuania is close, and Canada passed one in October. "Unconstructive political games," Putin told a Canadian interviewer immediately after, orchestrated by "the criminal activities of an entire gang led by one particular man, I believe Browder is his name."
And Putin wasn't finished. A week later, Russia slipped another red notice into Interpol's system. For the second time in three months, Browder was temporarily barred from entering the U.S. It's relentless, Putin clawing at him, thrashing. "Their main objective is to get me back to Russia," he said. "And they only have to get lucky once. I have to be lucky every time."
"Everything Bill's done has cost him tremendously," Parker said. "It's cost him money, restricted his personal freedom. And he didn't have to. He was out of Russia. He could have done what many did and walked away. Bad things happen, right? But here's a guy who's proven whatever he needed to prove to himself. He made his money. Now here's a way to find meaning. It's also a debt of honor."
No, it's more than that. "It's penance," Browder said. Sergei Magnitsky was an ordinary Muscovite who happened to work for an American who annoyed Vladimir Putin. "Sergei was killed because of me. He was killed instead of me." He let that hang there a moment. "So, yeah, it's all penance."
Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent.
This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the title "Putin Enemy No.1."