Interpol has refused a Russian request to issue an international arrest warrant for controversial hedge fund manager Bill Browder. Although the Russian Interior Ministry claims it was “puzzled” by the decision, this simply represents the latest phase in an unprecedented struggle between the multi-millionaire and the Russian government.
Browder was an early investor in Russia, co-founding Hermitage Capital in 1996. After ten years of rapid expansion in Russia, though, the company began to run into problems in 2006 when Browder was barred from the country. In 2007, Hermitage officers were raided by the police, who claimed it had been used to defraud the tax authorities of $230 million. In 2008, one of Browder’s lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested: after eleven months of pre-trial detention, he died in prison, having been denied medical treatment.
Browder has countered the official charges with allegations that they were a front for the theft of assets by a criminal conspiracy within Russian officialdom and successfully lobbied for the passage in the U.S. of the 2012 Magnitsky Law, blacklisting 60 officials regarded as involved in the theft and the subsequent persecution of Magnitsky in prison.
In return, in February, Browder and Magnitsky were also charged with “qualified swindling”, evading $16.8 million in taxes. In May, Moscow approached Interpol and tried to have it issue a Blue Notice on Browder, which would have required member states to monitor his activities and pass the information to the Russians. However, it decided that the request was “predominantly political in nature and therefore contrary to Interpol rules and regulations.”
Both were found guilty in absentia in July—Magnitsky’s posthumous conviction was unprecedented—so on July 26, the Russians requested a Red Notice from Interpol, an international arrest warrant that would have required any member state to detain Browder and extradite him to Russia to serve the nine year sentence he was given. This was again rejected.
On the one hand, the Russians’ pursuit of Browder reflects the extent to which he is a thorn in their side. The Magnitsky Law genuinely alarmed a Russian elite which has become accustomed to being able to steal with impunity while still travelling and keeping assets in the West. That Browder is now encouraging European states to follow the U.S. example is a particular concern, as is the precedent the law sets.
But Browder is also assuming a new role in Russian propaganda: the all-purpose foreign enemy, whose well-funded machinations can be accused of being behind every embarrassment and reversal. Until his death in March, this part was played by shadowy émigré businessman Boris Berezovsky. However, Browder—a rich, outspoken American-born British citizen, willing to devote himself to challenging the powers who first cultivated and then persecuted him—seems an admirable substitute for the Kremlin. As it retreats into nationalism and xenophobia, the Putin regime needs such figures to explain away its decreasing stock in the world beyond its borders.