Demands for Russia to uphold the rule of law

This article was published in The Guardian 

David Cameron's trip to the Kremlin must address the Sergei Magnitsky case 

12 September 2011 

In diplomacy there is an unofficial statute of limitations on rows that poison state-to-state relations. November will see the fifth anniversary of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents in London. David Cameron will certainly raise the case when he goes to Moscow for his first trip to the Kremlin but equally certainly will have to swallow the Russian dismissal of the crime. But he will find it less easy to swerve around the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer employed by a British citizen and his London-based investment company. Magnitsky exposed the biggest tax swindle in Russian history, and was put to death by Russian officials for his pains.

The Magnitsky case is poised to return to Parliament as a private members' bill will push for 60 named Russian officials to be put on a visa ban by Britain with any assets they have in Britain frozen. In the United States, Washington has already imposed a similar travel ban on named Russians who took part in the process that led to Magnitsky being arrested, flung in prison and so harshly treated that he died in the manner that Solzhenitsyn described in his novels on the communist Gulag.

Magnitsky was employed by the American-born Bill Browder, now a British citizen. His grandfather, Earl Browder, was leader of the US Communist Party in wartime years until he was fired by Stalin for failing to toe the Kremlin line. After getting his Stanford MBA, the grandson went to Russia in 1990 and developed one of the most successful investment funds operating in the country.

But making money in Russia requires political approval and Browder refused to enter the world of corruption that Putin's economic model demands. Instead, he hired a leading tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to defend his interests in Moscow after Browder himself had prudently moved his office to London as he refused the pay-offs Russian officials demanded.

Magnitsky discovered that Russian police were involved in a $230m tax claim against Browder which they were diverting to bank accounts of corrupt officials. The lawyer had a name as an anti-corruption crusader but was not involved in politics or seeking to do anything except ensure Russian law was observed.

He was arrested in 2008, beaten in prison, denied medical treatment for pancreatitis and died in November 2009. Even Russia's Council for Human Rights, set up by President Dmitry Medvedev, has accused Russian Interior Ministry officials in connection with Magnitsky's death.

The Interior Ministry and the Kremlin have rejected demands for an investigation. But Magnitsky's widow and friends in Russia and his former boss in London have not given up. They have met opposition from government bureaucracy, especially in foreign ministries that dislike individual cases messing up diplomatic relations. The Democratic US Senator for Maryland, Ben Cardin, tried to enlist the State Department's help but was brushed aside. So he launched his own bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, and got Senator John McCain and 18 other senators to back it. Faced with the anger of the legislature, the US executive buckled and earlier this month Hillary Clinton listed 60 Russian officials linked to Magnitsky's death who now face a travel ban. The Dutch foreign minister refused to heed Dutch MPs when they asked for similar action. So the Dutch parliament voted by 150 to zero for a travel ban to be imposed. German and French MPs are looking at similar measures. FCO ministers in replies to me and other MPs have also pooh-poohed the idea of actually doing something to hold Russia to account over Magnitsky's death. So now there is a private member's bill which, alas, does not have the force of a US Senate's draft act, but which nonetheless signals parliamentary concern over FCO foot-dragging.

David Cameron could show leadership by agreeing the travel ban before he goes to the Kremlin so that Mr Putin understands that Britain does want to see the rule of law upheld and that employees of British firms should not be put to death. Putin's response to Britain's demand for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi in connection with Litvinenko's murder was to put Lugovoi in the Duma, which is an extension of the Kremlin, not an independent parliament. Mr Cameron will get no joy on the Litvinenko case. But he can and should take action on the Russians who put Sergei Magnitsky to death.

Thinking about a 21st-century European Union

This article was published in The Independent

Slash and burn: less Brussels, better Europe

7 September 2011

Has the word "leadership" been expunged from the dictionaries of Europe? It is not just David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel who are all on holiday. The crisis of the eurozone exposes a Europe whose institutions no longer work.

For Britain, George Osborne has had the boldest response to the crisis, when he welcomed the idea of joint economic governance and fiscal policies for the 17 eurozone nations – a startling change from previous British policy, which for centuries has been dedicated to preventing the formation of a hegemonic ideological, economic or religious continental puissance. The Osborne doctrine in favour of a single economic governance for 75 per cent of the EU is dramatic and new.

Can this open the way to changing the sterile, petty, point-scoring dialogue of the deaf between Europhiles and Europhobes, federalists against nationalists, that most voters treat with contempt?

Britain could take the lead in a new argument about changing the way the EU is run. The first priority is to stop the unending growth of the Commission. It now has 27 commissioners, with more in the Balkan waiting room. Most do overlapping jobs with an army of officials justifying their existence by producing ever-increasing minutiae of regulations that drive most European citizens mad with fury. Less Brussels will make better Europe.

Second, the European Parliament sees fewer and fewer voters electing barmier and barmier MEPs at each election. The near-10,000 national parliamentarians in the 27 EU member states feel completely excluded from all European decision-making. The answer is to connect national parliaments to Strasbourg, where the European Parliament should be elected in thirds every two years so that it is more in tune with national electorates. A second chamber consisting of national MPs should be set up to check legislation. The Commons committee system needs revision so that EU policy and laws are examined jointly by MPs and MEPs.

Third, the EU should see if direct democracy can play a role. Handling this is tricky. The Commons will have to debate and say no to hanging because most petitions and plebiscites bring out the worst atavistic and xenophobic instincts. Anyone can follow a mob. In Switzerland, referendums cannot challenge judicial rulings and there may be ways of consulting people to reduce the sense of the EU being run by elites and for elites.

Britain is neither going to fold into Europe nor quit the EU. In the middle ground, new politics and institutions are needed to shape a better 21st-century EU. Britain can opt out of the euro but we cannot opt out of being a European nation. A historic compromise is needed so that Britain can be inside the EU tent, and leading in Europe.

Presidential elections in Abkhazia draw attention to the complicated question of finding an independent voice for this small Balkan region

This article was published on the openDemocracy website

Abkhazian Elections: Russia's Pawn in Georgian Election Game?

1 September 2011

During the Soviet emporium, Stalin and his epigones imposed to run Russian colonies set great store by the forms of democracy. An unverified aphorism has Stalin saying: “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.” Elections were held and each leader claimed a voters' mandate. Opposition parties nominally existed but without freedom of media or assembly were pale instruments. Later this month, like a new production of Anton Chekhov play, the world will see the same process in Abkhazia with an “election” fixed for tomorrow, 26th August. Only certain residents of Abkhazia are allowed to take part in the vote. The ethnic Georgians who bravely remain in situ on their own land in their own country are forbidden to take part. The thousands of residents expelled from Upper Abkhazia during the August 2008 war are not allowed a say. Nor are the almost four hundred thousand removed in previous conflicts. During the 2009 vote, the EU rightly argued that “elections in this region of Georgia can only be valid after all refugees and internally displaced persons are given the right to a safe, secure and dignified return to their homes”. The same applies to this election.

Prior to 1992, the ethnic composition of Abkhazia was 46% Georgian, 18% Abkhaz, 15% Armenian and 14% Russian, with other minorities making up the rest. Since then, nearly all the Georgians have been forced out, their homes burned and destroyed, and their land dished out to new Russian residents. Those displaced have been looked after by the Georgian authorities the best they can, but understandably they long to return to their homes.

Some 47,000 Georgians have tried to return home to the Gali District of Abkhazia. In a report just out from Human Rights Watch (Living in Limbo. The Rights of Ethnic Georgian Returnees to the Gali District of Abkhazia 8 August 2011) HRW lists the humiliation and discrimination the Russian-controlled Abkhazi authorities visit on the Georgian returnees. They are required to obtain Abkhazi passports to work, obtain benefits, or get high school diplomas. Russian is being imposed as a language of education in schools as the Kremlin seeks to eliminate Georgia culture and history in the region of the country under their control. HRW insists that even though Abkhazia has no status other than as a region within the international borders of Georgia, the authorities there “have obligations under international law to respect human rights. Under international law, all human rights applicable within the territory of Georgia also apply to Abkhazia.”

As in Transnistria, Russia is content to create a no man’s land without freedom or democracy. Georgia’s President Saakashvili has pledged not to use force to take back the territory and so Tbilisi is trying a different strategy of opening up Georgian healthcare and educational facilities to residents of Abkhazia, rebuilding transport links, and facilitating greater connections between communities ripped apart by conflict.

Abkhazia is next door to Sochi where Russia plans to hold the 2014 winter Olympics. This month’s electoral charade will not solve anything and international attentions will focus on this frozen conflict. There is no future for Abkhazia as an international pariah and Russian puppet. Abkhazia is a beautiful area with great potential. Georgia offers full autonomy akin with other areas of Europe like South Tyrol or Swiss cantons which have a considerable degree of self-government within an overall state structure.

But as in the imbroglio over Kosovo where Russia backs Serb intransigence in preventing a final settlement in the western Balkans, the Kremlin prefers to keep its sores festering on the edge of its former imperium rather than seek cures and partnership with the new nations that have re-entered history after 1989.

Like Alsace-Lorraine after 1870, the 175,000 strong Abkhazia is firmly under foreign occupation and control. While Mr Putin organises photo-shoots on a bizarre three-wheeler granny’s bike alongside proper Harley-Davidsons, the old Russian election machine will produce the result the Kremlin wants. Despite promises made to President Sarkozy after the August 2008 war, thousands of soldiers remain based in Abkhazia, including one base with 4,500 men. Missile battalions, including S-300 surface to air missiles, have been stationed by the Russian army. Russian authorities have been handing out Russian passports to the remaining population. New Russian settlers are moving into local communities.

Russia has already organised one election in Abkhazia in 2009 which was "won" by Moscow's man, Sergei Bagapsch. The European Union stated at the time that “it does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place”. Turkey, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Norway, Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan all refused to recognise the validity of these elections.

The Russian campaign to encourage recognition of Abkhazian “independence” has been a failure. Only Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Pacific island of Nauru have signed up. It is notable that no member of the Commonwealth of Independent States has endorsed the campaign, even Russia’s closest allies.
In reality it is irrelevant who wins the election, whether it is Alexander Ankvab, Sergei Shamba, or Raul Khajimba as the winner will be a puppet of his Russian masters. The victor will not only lack legitimacy because he will lead a proxy state, but even on its own terms the election is a sham.