“We’ve got to stop blaming Vladimir Putin,” Robert Amsterdam told his listeners at the Center for Government and International Studies Tuesday morning (May 15). “That does us no good.
“The blame is with ourselves — with all of us who invest in banks and other institutions that have become the enablers of the kleptocracy of the Kremlin.”
Amsterdam is the London-based defense counsel to Mikhail Khordokovsky, the imprisoned former chief of the Russian oil giant Yukos — and a onetime political rival of Putin’s. The title of Amsterdam’s Davis Center-sponsored talk was “The Destruction of Yukos and Russian Energy.”
Khordokovsky has been imprisoned in Siberia since 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion, and Yukos has been dismembered and sold off in a series of what Amsterdam called “obscene auctions,” widely seen as rigged in order to deliver significant national energy assets into the hands of Kremlin cronies and outsiders they have co-opted.
Amsterdam urged the international community to cease its complicity in what he described as a new wave of Russian resource nationalism. “Our companies have got to stop playing by Kremlin rules.”
Before leaving London for the United States, Amsterdam released a statement decrying reports that Russia has offered India a 1 percent stake in Rosneft, a Russian energy company that is nominally private but seems to be controlled by the Russian Federation.
“The Russian Federation is blatantly seeking partners in the laundering of stolen goods,” Amsterdam charged. “Indeed, it is the theory of those oligarchs surrounding President Putin that the more companies they manage to tie to the Yukos assets, the more likely it is that they will be safe from personal prosecution and liability in the period after they depart from office.”
Amsterdam blitzed onto the Harvard campus for less than an hour to speak to the Comparative Economics Seminar before starting for his next destination, Houston. He articulated his new theory of energy risk.
“Resource nationalism,” he said, “is predicated on various factors that are self-sustaining, and those factors are the destruction of the press, the destruction of the independence of the judiciary, the inverse relationship of freedom to oil prices, as outlined by Thomas Friedman, and the motivation that comes from use of energy assets from a strategic rather than a market basis.”
He had particularly harsh words for countries that have let their foreign policy be “captured” by corporate interests. He singled out Germany under former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder, he said, “has profited handsomely from selling out German energy interests and remaining mute and silent while some of the best and brightest in Russia were imprisoned.”
He added, “Those countries that have not allowed their foreign policies to be ‘captured’ like Poland for instance are increasingly dependent on an alliance with the United States that becomes increasingly unpopular as the American administration’s credibility and rationality come under question.”
Amsterdam alluded to Germany’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel, as “the most gifted leader Germany has had in I don’t know how long,” but complained about German reluctance, at least until recently, to criticize Russia.
German historical sensibilities tend to make Berlin feel it needs to keep making up to Russia, Amsterdam suggested — but the result is that the two countries make deals that hurt others, notably Poland.
Russia under Putin seems particularly inclined to make bilateral deals, especially ones that drive wedges between neighbors — between Austria and Hungary, for instance. “There is nothing Russia fears more than the EU, and nothing Russia wants more than to engage bilaterally with countries that are energy dependent on itself.”
“People say, ‘He’s a thief, but he’s not an imperialistic thief … . He just wants to make money.’ Well, I don’t accept this.”
Amsterdam was also sharply critical of the Bush administration for failing to respond to Russian attempts after the Sept. 11 attacks to make some form of rapprochement with the United States — opportunities that were “never properly handled,” Amsterdam said.
However grim his assessment of the Russian situation, he did identify some grounds for hopefulness: “There’s always hope. There’s no ideology behind this. And there’s nothing tying these people together except greed.”
And he had a prescription for constructive action: Ask for public hearings. “The first thing we can do is shine a light on companies that empower Putin,” he said, calling for a boycott of companies that “empower Russian energy imperialism.”
He also called for support of Russian fractious democrats and hailed chess superstar Garry Kasparov’s efforts to unify them. “There are thousands of hardworking, intelligent, democratic-minded liberals,” he said, adding, “They unfortunately are more splintered than a dense forest after a bombing.”