Russian ‘Justice’ Become Ever More Surreal
By Denis MacShane
Where are you Mikhail Bulgakov when we need you? The Russian surrealist writer had to wait in 25 years in his grave before his masterpiece satire on Stalin’s Russia, The Master and Margarita was published. Stalin’s body was a decade into his embalmed state before Bulgakov’s book came out.
Will the world have to wait that long before a modern Russian artist describes in a novel, film or play the surreal destruction of justice and democracy on display in today’s Moscow.
Alexei Navalny, the witty, rumbustious, street-smart Russian opposition leader was jailed last week on faked up charges of fraud. He was carted off to begin his five years in prison when suddenly, like one of Bulgakov’s apparitions, three wise men, Russian ‘judges’, appeared, and decided he could be freed on bail.
Both this first verdict and the new release are Kremlin orchestrated operetta. Navalny now faces the political prisoner’s dilemma. Does he stay in Moscow and run for political office as Mayor and face certain defeat at the hands of the Putin election fixing unit in the Kremlin followed by a return to prison? Or does he skip to a democratic country and have his moment of fame and freedom before relapsing into the miserable life of a political exile?
Meanwhile in another surreal moment, the G20 finance ministers met in Moscow to discuss tax evasion and cleaning up the world’s lax tax régimes. In Moscow? The home of the greatest group of state-sanctioned tax dodgers seen in world history?
The irony is just too delicious. At a meeting of Russian oligarchs in 2003 which was filmed and shown in Norma Percy’s remarkable BBC documentary series on Putin, the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khordokovsky is seen telling Putin that he and fellow oligarchs can no longer recruit the best minds from Moscow’s elite universities. Instead the brilliant young men wanted to become tax police officials because that was where the real money was to be made.
Their zeal was not to obtain a fair share of new Russian wealth for the people and state but to help the new pol-biz elites avoid tax with the help of accountants and lawyers in London amongst other world centres of tax avoidance.
One of the best documented episodes of tax policy thieving is the tragedy of Sergei Magnitsky. He was the forensic tax expert hired by the British businessman, Willliam Browder, to try and find out what happened to $230 million of tax Browder’s Russian investment fund had paid to the Russian tax authorities.
As Magnitsky beavered away he uncovered, as the Council of Europe has recently reported, a chain of tax thievery at the highest level of the Russian state. Magnitsky was arrested on the Kremlin’s orders and died in atrocious conditions in a Moscow prison in 2009.
At the very least, Britain’s George Osborne, France’s Pierre Moscovici and Germany’s Wolfgang Schauble and other G20 finance ministers should have gone to the Preobrazhenkoye cemetery in Moscow where Magnitsky is buried. They might have laid a wreath to honour the memory of a man who died exposing a tax scam and theft organized not by greedy businessmen but by high officials of the Russian state.
Instead in a moment of pure satire the G20 finance ministers sitting in the world epicenter of oligarch tax evasion will agree that something must be done.
The final moment requiring a Bulgakov or a Gogol is a libel trial that opens in London next week. The defendant is the victim of the Russian tax scam, Bill Browder. The plaintiff is the Russian tax official who has been named in the US law – the Justice for Magnitsky Act – as being one of the men now banned from entering America because of his involvement in Magnitksky’s death.
The dead Magnitsky cannot be a witness in this libel case and nor will the Russian functionary be present. But London is not the world capital of libel tourism for nothing and the man whose tax cheque was stolen sits in the accused box as lawyer’s fees soar to the heavens.
There are some good journalists who write about this like Edward Lucas of the Economist , Piotr Smolar of Le Monde and Luke Harding of the Guardian but this saga requires the hand of a great artist. Russia has always produced Europe’s finest novelists. Soon one will emerge to explain to the world what is really going on.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Europe Minister