Robert Amsterdam is interviewed here by a Radio National (ABC) program in Australia.
Business optimism high in Russia Reporter: Mark Colvin MARK COLVIN: For some with long memories, there have been echoes of the Cold War in Russia’s behaviour over the last few weeks. Vladimir Putin certainly raised those echoes before the G8 summit, with his strident objections to missile defence bases on the soil of two of the old Soviet Union’s client States, Poland and the Czech Republic. And a couple of weeks ago, a former Soviet possession, Estonia, blamed Russia for a massive cyber attack that brought down most of the country’s computers and computer networks. Yet for many in international business, the picture in Russia looks rosy. Today’s Moscow Times reports on foreign investors “brimming with praise” at a forum attended by hundreds of foreign business leaders in St Petersburg. Robert Amsterdam was the lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil billionaire and political party backer in 2004 but now languishing in jail for fraud. Mr Amsterdam is himself exiled from Russia, but continues to argue Khodorkovsky’s case around the world, and he’s in Sydney at the moment. I asked him about the reports of business optimism about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. ROBERT AMSTERDAM: We should save that clipping and show that to these gentlemen in a few years. Mr Putin has declared war on the free market, he has stolen YUKOS a company worth $100-billion and imprisoned its founder. He has destroyed freedom of the press. He has presided over the murder of 20 journalists over the last number of number of years. Again, no responsibility on him but in the country that occurred, he is the boss, and in fact Russia is now the third most dangerous country in which to be a journalist So I think these businessman are in fact playing politics and I think it’s a very dangerous game. MARK COLVIN: But when you look at it from the businessman’s point of view, I noticed for instance that Lee Kuan Yew has just spent a week there, and was also praising the country. Is Russia on course to be a kind of Singapore, a place where there’s economic strength but no freedom? ROBERT AMSTERDAM: Well to be frank, the gullage (phonetic) doesn’t exist in Singapore. It exists in Russia. The situation in Russia is far more serious because Mr Putin has armed himself as you now with thousands of warheads which last week he threatened to aim at Europe. So no, I don’t think it’s comparable, I don’t think it’s something we can, in any country, can avoid looking at, particularly in Australia. MARK COLVIN: You represent one of the, what was called the oligarchy, sometimes called cleptocracy. Why should we sympathise with your client, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, when effectively he is accused, and many people believed that he did steal very large amounts of money. ROBERT AMSTERDAM: Well actually, very few people after the show trial, believe, my answer having seen that trial is, that if there were any charges of theft about Khodorkovsky, they would have actually run a real trial. MARK COLVIN: But we could make a distinction. A lot of people think that it was a show trial, it wasn’t an independent trial, but many people also believe that an independent trial could easily have found him guilty of fraud. ROBERT AMSTERDAM: I can assure you, not on those charges. And certainly, if you were going to go after the people involved in privatisation, you’d go after all of them. You wouldn’t single one guy out because he was the one who was, the first guy to have his company audited, the first man to become Russia’s largest taxpayer, the first one to support civil society, the first one to urge democracy and sign the global covenant on human rights, that wouldn’t be your primary target. MARK COLVIN: And that’s you’re point, that he’s in jail while most of the other oligarch’s are out. ROBERT AMSTERDAM: No, my point goes beyond that. He’s in jail as the leader of one of the few groups that care about democracy in Russia, and the real oligarchs, the ones the Putin doesn’t want you to focus on, are the nine guys around him controlling half a trillion dollars in assets who are actually wearing government hats during the morning and running massive corporations in the afternoon. MARK COLVIN: So you’re saying Khodorkovsky was singled out because of his political influence and his political activities? ROBERT AMSTERDAM: Absolutely. As well as the fact that the people in the Kremlin wanted to steal his company and let me very clear. Khodorkovsky stole nothing, he bought a company for $300-million and it’s never publicised that he absorbed $2-billion in debt, his employees hadn’t been paid for a year, taxes hadn’t been paid for two years, and he brought the technology that changed the history of Russian oil. MARK COLVIN: But why do they want to steal his company and now Abramovich’s or some of the others? ROBERT AMSTERDAM: Well they bought Abramovich’s company for fair value, even though the Duma said it was Abramovich’s company that actually had been the egregious tax evader. The clear motif was the political and the fact that unlike Abramovich, Khodorkovsky was pushing the free market. He wanted to sell a piece of his company to an American, he wanted to make sure that the pipeline’s were liberalised and by the way they still aren’t in Russia. He wanted to take away the state’s control over the key sectors of the economy. MARK COLVIN: What are the condition in which your client is being kept? ROBERT AMSTERDAM: Barbaric, he’s been stabbed, he’s been kept in and out of solitary, he’s been put in a camp of the Gulag era and fried over a uranium mine and now he’s being charged with new charges even though he was up for parole in October. MARK COLVIN: You said he was stabbed. What happened? ROBERT AMSTERDAM: While he was asleep, another inmate stabbed him in the face. This is the man who is watched by the FSB 24-7 with a camera. This could have never have happened without the complicity of the authority. MARK COLVIN: What’s the state of his health now? ROBERT AMSTERDAM: Guarded. He’s lost a tremendous amount of weight even, even though he’s 43 his hair is white. Let me tell you the conditions he’s in as well as the conditions he was in just during the trial are shocking. MARK COLVIN: And you say that there, now that he’s coming up for parole, they’re going to charge him with new charges. What’s likely to be the result of that? ROBERT AMSTERDAM: He’s likely to be sentenced 10 to 15, which will mean a sentence further in a remote Gulag location where if we’re not talking about his fate, he will be killed. MARK COLVIN: Robert Amsterdam, the exiled lawyer for the jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky.