I’ve blogged previously about Russia’s flirtation with fascism, the rise in authoritarianism and nationalism, and the increased aggression in its near abroad. I don’t need to rehash the propaganda campaigns, the lies, and the efforts to destabilize eastern European nations. Seems Russia is in the news a lot ever since the 2016 election.
Lately, something else seems to be on the rise, but isn’t getting as much attention as the cyber intrusions: corruption and murder which looks very much to be linked to the Kremlin.
You remember the murder of Boris Nemtsov, don’t you? No?
Boris Nemtsov was a leading Russian opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister who was murdered in Moscow in February 2015. BBC reported at the time that an unidentified attacker shot Nemtsov four times in the back as he crossed a bridge in view of the Kremlin.
In a recent interview, Mr Nemtsov had said he feared Mr Putin would have him killed because of his opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Mr Nemtsov, 55, served as first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
He had earned a reputation as an economic reformer while governor of one of Russia’s biggest cities, Nizhny Novgorod.
Falling out of favour with Yeltsin’s successor, Mr Putin, he became an outspoken opposition politician.
Five ethnic Chechens were tried for the murder, and Chechen
leader thug Ramzan Kadyrov quickly proclaimed the defendants not guilty and blamed the United States.
It’s only a coincidence that the accused thugs were Chechen, and it’s only a coincidence that Nemtsov was fearless in his public accusations against Putin and his ally Kadyrov of misappropriating government funds, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture. And it’s only a coincidence that Kadyrov is a close ally and cousin of Duma Deputy and Adam Delimkhanov.
Nothing to see here. Move along.
A British inquiry into the death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko found that Putin had likely approved the polonium tea that killed the spy who fled to Britain after becoming an outspoken Putin critic.
But nothing to see there either.
Another Putin critic recently wound up in the hospital. Intrepid journalist Michael Totten posted this article on his Facebook page yesterday about Russian reform advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza who wound up in the hospital for the second time in less than two years.
Vladimir is perhaps the most authentic, articulate, informed, reasoned, effective, and persistent advocate for reform and decency in Russia. He has carried his message to audiences in Washington, and across Europe and his own country. He played a key role in the passage of the Magnitsky Act which restricts travel to the US and freezes the assets of designated Russians whose violations of human rights standards have been especially pronounced. Vladimir is also courageous beyond words. After his friend and colleague Boris Nemtsov was murdered outside the Kremlin almost exactly two years ago, Vladimir chose to return to Moscow to advocate for reform in Russia. He did so at considerable personal risk and sacrifice.
Kara-Murza worked for Open Russia, founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was tossed into the Russian clink for daring to stand up to Putin.
Khodorkovsky was arrested on what appeared to be pretty spurious charges of tax evasion and fraud. He spent the next 10 years in prison, with new charges added on to his sentence, including the accusation that he stole 350 million tons of oil… from himself. His trials were, by all accounts, kangaroo tribunals. It took months just to read the initial charges against Khodorkovsky in a notoriously corrupt judicial system, in which his defense attorney now faces the Russian equivalent of disbarment for failure to defend her client effectively.
He was released in late 2013 and later started Open Russia to promote civil reforms in Russia, and Kara-Murza worked for the NGO and was a good friend of the late Boris Nemtsov. Open Russia – restarted by Khodorkovsky after being harassed by the Russian authorities, and its accounts frozen in 2006 – continued to experience… um… incidental problems, as Kara-Murza wrote in 2014.
Open Russia was revived eight years after being forcibly shut down by the Russian authorities. Its relaunch and the opening videoconference that linked civil society activists in ten cities across Russia—from Kaliningrad to Tomsk—were greeted with the typical official response. Almost all regional locations experienced difficulties with the Internet, which was mysteriously cut off minutes before the conference. In Moscow, conference participants were confronted by “journalists” from the notorious NTV channel, which specializes in slandering civil society and opposition activists (incidentally, the location of the event was never publicly announced). In Yaroslavl, someone sabotaged the door lock the night before the conference, leaving activists unable to enter, and the technical equipment blocked inside. In Nizhny Novgorod, members of a pro-Kremlin group headed by United Russia deputy Yevgeny Fedorov stormed the hall where conference participants were assembled.
But move along. Nothing to see here. Russia is innocent. It’s just a coincidence that those critical of the Kremlin and Putin’s policies are either dying or being imprisoned. Magnitsky, Navalny, Litvinenko, Nemtsov, Khodorkovsky, and Kara-Murza. And that’s just the top of the iceberg. If I wanted to go on, I’d mention the list of journalists and freelancers who were murdered, and who were reporting on corruption and human rights abuses, including Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, and Igor Domnikov.
Is it any wonder that the United States late last year passed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act? The legislation augmented the Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2012, and ensures human rights abusers from anywhere in the world were denied entry into the United States and barred from using our financial institutions. It was signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The indomitable Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) last year uncovered an army of Russian trolls attempting to influence U.S. foreign policy by using the White House’s online petition tool to demand that the Magnitsky Act be repealed.
Don’t count on it, motherfuckers.
The freedoms we so take for granted and even condemn others for exercising can have real and tragic consequences in places other than the United States. And the truth reported by journalists elsewhere, which media outlets so take for granted here in the United States, can result in violence, suppression, arrest, and murder.
Interesting aside, however. Kara-Murza in January sent a letter to Bob Corker and Ben Cardin – both on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – asking them to carefully consider the situation in Russia before voting on Rex Tillerson’s nomination.
It is also important to remember that, according to the statues [sic.] of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – of which both the United States and Russia are full members – “issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law… are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.”
I trust that you will take these issues into account as you consider the nomination for Secretary of State and the next steps in U.S.-Russia relations.
Here’s wishing Vladimir Kara-Murza a quick recovery and a safe escape from Moscow. Being deathly ill in a Russian hospital is no joke under the best of circumstances (see my description of my tonsil surgery when I was a kid). But when you challenge the Kremlin, survival becomes a whole different challenge.
If you haven’t heard already, in light of Mexican president Pina Nieto’s big middle finger to Trump’s grandiose plan to make his country pay for a “big, beautiful wall” on the border with the United States, 45 has made another proposal: let’s levy a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico!
Some of the Republicans I know, who normally oppose more taxation, were doing a happy dance. “YEAH! Mexico will pay for the wall one way or another!”
Ummmmm… no. YOU morons will. You will buy more expensive Mexican products, and by the way, since Mexico is one of our top five sources of oil, you’ll likely be paying more to fill up your big, ole truck too! It’s a tax on U.S. consumers, not on Mexico, and I won’t even mention what that’s doing to U.S.-Mexico relations, even as Mexico becomes one of our most important partners in fighting cartels, stopping illicit funds from crossing the border, and working to freeze and block the assets of illicit financiers.
Some, who realize that a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods =\= Mexico paying for a wall, have developed other “bright” ideas.
“Oh, I know! Let’s tax all remittances going to Mexico! That’ll be GREAT! Most of them are illegals sending money home anyway! YEAH!”
I’ve detailed previously why this is a bad idea when Trump tried to threaten Mexico with seizing remittances.
Immigrants both legal and illegal send money back home to Mexico. How the hell does one separate the “good” money from the “bad?”
Seizure of private property without due process in order to threaten Mexico with reducing the country’s GDP by an estimated less than two percent? Good plan, there, Sparky!
Stop all financial transactions from banks here to Mexico? You’ve just pissed off the financial sector and empowered bulk cash smugglers, who make billions of dollars per year carting monetary instruments across the Mexican border.
But beyond that, even if you don’t stop the remittances, you would have to examine each one to see if it would be subject to this tariff. This idiot plan would drive up compliance costs for money service businesses (MSB), such as Western Union and MoneyGram, and grow the surveillance state.
Right now, under the Bank Secrecy Act, financial institutions, including MSBs, must file a currency transaction report (CTR) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) for each transaction in currency of more than $10,000. If you think the average remittance to Mexico exceeds this amount, you’re an idiot. The average remittance amount to Mexico in 2003 was $321, according to World Bank data. Even if it’s doubled or trebled in the last 15 years, it will still be far below the threshold.
So, we’d have to decrease the CTR amount. No big deal, right?
Except that MSBs and other financial institutions would have to hire extra compliance staffs to fill out the CTRs and subsequent suspicious activity reports (SAR) when a customer inevitably decides that it’s not worth having his $400 examined and probed by numerous people and declines to complete the transaction. Extra compliance personnel cost money – not just in salaries, but benefits as well. There skyrocket your costs of sending a couple of hundred bucks to your mom in Mexico! And there plunges your volume. Because, really… who the hell would want to pay an extra $10-$20 just to have mom pick up the cash in Coahila?
And then there are the compliance costs on the government side. Guess who gets to pay for those! How many new feds do you think would have to be hired to comb through the volumes of CTRs and SARs generated by the new thresholds? Considering just how many Mexicans we have sending money back home, lowering the transaction threshold would mean that thousands more feds will be combing through thousands more reports that are generated. The feds already have a lot of access to transactional data. You really want to give them more?
Additionally, as Larry Correia mentioned yesterday, “you start regulating something, the shadow economy will grow.”
I mentioned bulk cash smugglers above. Cartels already have hawala-like networks of trusted associates to conduct mirror transactions. That’s a market, I’m sure they couldn’t wait to tap, especially if there’s a mass exodus from regular MSBs! You start increasing regulations on hawalas, and aside from causing dilatory second and third order effects in countries without developed financial sectors that rely on hawala networks to move money, you’re also going to once again increase the compliance personnel required for said increased regulatory environment.
Wanna pay for more feds to snoop into everyone’s finances? Most Republicans, before 45 took office, would have screamed a vigorous “NO!” Now… not so much.
And by the way, if you think there aren’t ways to avoid the formal financial system, I encourage you to purchase a gift card. For a fee of $5.00 and a couple of stamps, you too can send a $400 Visa gift card to your mom in Mexico, which she can use to buy groceries or anything else she needs! You want to regulate that? You’ll need extra post office personnel to go through all the mail, identify the letters going to Mexico, and track the remittances that way.
Or, just start charging an extra fee for every gift card purchased, which will go directly to the feds to build that wall. In which case, once again, YOU are the ones paying for it!
That’s how you build a police state, Republicans. Enjoy!