Putin’s Achilles heel: Bill Browder shows how to punish dictators

‘Freezing Order’ recounts his efforts to avenge a murdered colleague.

Bill Browder, author of 2015′s best-seller “Red Notice” and the brand new “Freezing Order,” has been warning the world about Vladimir Putin since 2005.

As a result, Putin has come after Browder with eight attempted arrests and one attractive fashion model.

The model was deployed in 2012, when Browder was campaigning for European nations to adopt Magnitsky Acts. The legislation is named for Browder’s colleague who was murdered in prison, and is intended to freeze the foreign assets of human rights abusers.

Browder spoke that summer in Monaco, at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. One evening, during a reception at a fancy hotel, a six-foot Russian blonde named Svetlana approached him at the buffet and told him she worked in “fashion” but that she felt they had really made a “connection.”

“She smelled like sandal-wood,” he writes. Later she urged him to meet for a drink at his hotel. “I am a middle-aged, 5-foot-9, American business man with glasses,” he said, during a conversation from his London home. “I’m not the kind of guy a supermodel throws herself at.”

Browder laughs now, but he was frightened then. “If the Russians are doing this, I’d better get out of Dodge,” he thought. “I don’t know what they will do next.”

Credit: Simon & Schuster

Credit: Simon & Schuster

The incident is recounted in a chapter of “Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath,” which Browder will discuss Monday at the Atlanta History Center.

The new book, which reads like something from the typewriter of John le Carré, follows in the spirit of “Red Notice,” a real-life political thriller that traces Browder’s dramatic rise and fall as a hedge fund manager in the “Wild East” of post-Soviet Russia.

Browder had unique bona fides for the job. His grandfather, Earl Browder, a union organizer, traveled to Russia in 1927, married a Russian woman, and became head of the Communist party in the U.S.

Browder took the opposite path. “My grandfather became the biggest communist in America. I thought why don’t I try to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe?” he said.

With help from financier Edmund Safra, Browder created the Hermitage Fund. He invested in privatized Russian utilities, and quickly expanded from “zero” to a billion dollars under management.

The money mostly disappeared when Russia defaulted in 1998, but Hermitage slowly recouped. Browder’s technique was exposing corruption at Russian utilities, then benefiting from rising stock prices as managers instituted reforms. The fund rose to $4.5 billion.

When Putin came to power in 1999, the Russian premier was initially on the side of the reformers. Then, said Browder, Putin began looting his own country. In 2005 Browder was expelled.

Putin cronies raided Browder’s offices, fraudulently re-registered the company as their own, then illegally filed for a tax rebate of $230 million. It was granted in a day.

Browder’s tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who was still in Russia, drew attention to the crime. For that he was arrested, tortured and held in prison without medical care for a year as his health declined.

On Nov. 16, 2009, Magnitsky was transferred to an isolation cell, chained to a bed and clubbed to death by eight prison staffers with rubber batons.

Credit: Bill Browder

Credit: Bill Browder

Browder’s two books recount his efforts to avenge his colleague’s death by campaigning for Magnitsky Acts worldwide. Since 2009 he has succeeded in promoting such legislation in 34 countries, including the U.S., Canada and England.

The message in “Freezing Order” took on new urgency with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve spent a decade shouting from the rooftops that Putin is killer, Putin is a crook, Putin needs to be contained,” he said, in a video interview with the AJC. “The consensus was that everyone wanted to buy Russia’s gas and take Russia’s money and look the other way. Now everyone agrees with me. It’s a good time to come out with a book, but I just wish people had listened to me 10 years ago.”

Browder’s book opens with a nerve-wracking account of being arrested in Madrid, one of several attempts to extradite him to a Moscow jail. On that occasion he surreptitiously tweeted a photograph of his arresting officers from the back seat of the cruiser, and his 100,000 Twitter followers sounded the alarm.

Browder has, all along, purposely kept a high profile (hence, the current book tour), reasoning that it would be harder for Putin’s thugs to nab him under the watchful eye of celebrity. It also helps sell books.

His advisors told him to do the opposite, but he said “If I followed that advice I would be dead, for the simple reason that the Russians would have killed me and nobody would have cared, because nobody would have known what I was fighting about.”

In 1998 Browder became a citizen of Britain (where Russian operatives do, in fact, occasionally kill people) and gave up his U.S. citizenship. Would he be safer here in the U.S.? “I don’t know,” he said. “A friend of mine, an anti-Putin activist, fell off a seven-story building a couple of weeks ago.” Investment banker Dan Rapoport fell to his death from a D.C. apartment building in August. Despite the murky circumstances, police ruled out foul play.

Unfortunately for Browder, the invasion of Ukraine is bad news for his safety. Putin might have been previously worried about public reaction if he hit Browder with a dose of nerve gas, but the universal condemnation of Putin’s Ukraine adventure has made such scruples irrelevant. Clearly Putin doesn’t care what the West thinks about him.

“I’m now in more danger than I’ve ever been,” said Browder, who added that, nonetheless, he plans to make things difficult for any would-be assassin and live his life the best he can.


EVENT PREVIEW

Bill Browder discusses “Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath”

7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19. $30; members, $25; books sold at 30% discount. Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com.