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Bill Browder on His Book “Red Notice” and the Future of Russia

March 11, 2015

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The investigation of the death of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has stirred global speculation about Russian politics and the country’s President, Vladimir Putin. Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellow Bill Browder has first-hand experience with both topics. Browder is the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which was the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s lawyer, died in prison after uncovering a $230 million fraud committed by Russian government officials. Since then, Browder has led a campaign to expose Russian corruption and human rights abuses.

We spoke with Browder about “Red Notice,” his newly-released account of his experiences, the passage of the Magnitsky Act, and what he believes lies ahead for Russia.

Aspen Idea: You have spent so much time over the past 10 years telling your story to journalists and policymakers. What are some of most common Western misconceptions about Russia?

Bill Browder: The most common misconception about Russia is that it operates like a normal sovereign state, where the leaders act in the national interest. In fact, Putin and his top lieutenants operate a finely-tuned kleptocracy, where their main and overriding objective is to maximize personal wealth at the expense of the state and the Russian people. This leads to all sorts of distorted decisions and actions, which most Western leaders can’t understand. 

AI: What do you hope telling this story through your book “Red Notice” achieves?

BB: My primary objective is to honor the sacrifice that Magnitsky made by standing up for his ideals against an evil regime. As long as Putin is in power, there will never be an opportunity to honor him in Russia, so I want to construct what I think of as a ‘literary monument’ for him outside of Russia.

AI: Tell me about the process of lobbying the US Congress and European Parliament to pass the Magnitsky Act. What were the biggest challenges? What were the keys to successful passage?

BB: When I couldn’t get justice inside of Russia for the torture and murder of Magnitsky, I sought justice outside of Russia and came up with the idea of visa bans and asset freezes for the perpetrators. When I took the idea to Washington and Brussels, it was one of the few nonpartisan issues that elected politicians could agree on. It didn’t matter whether you were conservative or liberal, the idea of banning torturers and murderers from coming to America or Europe had universal appeal.

Unfortunately, the place where I ran into resistance was with the Obama administration and the European Commission. They were focused on trying to appease Putin, and the last thing either wanted to do was bring up the thorny issue of human rights. In the end, I was able to overcome this ‘realpolitik’ in the US because Congress can overpower the executive branch with an issue so black and white like this one. Unfortunately in Europe, the European Parliament doesn’t have such power and we are still trying to find a way forward.

AI: What do you expect to happen to US-Russia relations over the next few years? Any chance for improvements?

BB: There is no chance of improvement as long as Putin is in power. In the last few years, Putin has become increasingly concerned about being overthrown, and the way he has dealt with this is by creating a nationalist fervor in Russia and accusing the West (and particularly the US) of trying to destabilize Russia. Because this is now his core ideology, in my opinion there is no chance that he will back down.

AI: How have sanctions and legislation targeting Russian oligarchs made a difference in combatting corruption? What more do you think should be done?

BB: The Magnitsky sanctions are terrifying for Putin’s cronies. Anyone on the sanctions list effectively becomes a ‘financial leper,’ where no bank or multinational in the world will do business with them. This is particularly disturbing for people with lots of money and investments around the world. As a result, sanctions have created real tension at the top of the Russian government and have led to a certain amount of restraint among certain people who will avoid following bad orders in order to protect their wealth and ability to travel from sanctions. My key objective going forward is to get more people added to the sanctions list.

AI: Where do you see Russia in 20 years?

BB: It all depends on how long Putin lasts. If he can hold on like Mugabe did in Zimbabwe, Russia will end up as a carcass of its current self with no money and terrible social problems. On the other hand, if there is a popular uprising in Russia like there was in Ukraine, Georgia, or Tunisia, Russia could become a prosperous middle income European country. Sadly, between now and then, it is almost inevitable that there will be a lot of heartache and bloodshed.

AI: You are a Henry Crown Fellow and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. How has being a part of this community impacted your life and your work for justice for Magnitsky?

BB: The Aspen network has been invaluable in all aspects of my campaign. There are 10 Fellows who have personally assisted me with political advocacy, my public relations strategy, and legal pursuits. I could have never achieved my goals without the collaboration of this community of friends and allies.

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.