Wenn’s um unsere Zukunft geht

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July 15, 2017 by AK

A follow-up on my previous post on the Russian lawyer (“V”) who met with Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner last year. It bears repeating that, while it was a run of the mill meeting of the sort every politician takes a thousand times a year, the lady’s radioactivity should have set off the Americans’ inner Geiger.

Her client was fighting a civil forfeiture lawsuit filed by the US under the Magnitsky Act, US v. Prevezon. (She might have been an “equity partner” in her client’s “business,” so her money might have been at stake as well, but I’m not taking it as proven in this post.) The government’s case against Prevezon hinged on the information supplied to the prosecutors by William “Bill” Browder. Predictably, V split her time between lobbying to have the Magnitsky Act repealed or weakened (a rather long shot) and efforts to impeach Bill Browder’s credibility.

Any fund manager who invested in Russia’s stock market in the 1990s and/or the early 2000s is vulnerable to allegations of lawbreaking and/or collusion with corrupt officials. Hermitage, the fund Browder managed, was a big name in the Russian equity market in 1990s, on a par with George Soros’s Quantum and Kenneth Dart’s funds. Naturally, the Russian authorities have had little difficulty manufacturing a criminal case against Browder and some of the investors whose money he managed (the Ziff brothers) alleging tax evasion and illegal acquisition of Gazprom shares (breaking the ring-fence rule in force until 2006).

Here’s Browder’s take on the 2016 meeting. Here’s Bloomberg’s take on the meeting and the WSJ interviewing V (paywalled). Browder is saying V’s only purpose was to kill the Magnitsky Act:

And obviously when Donald Trump was starting to rise and when he started to rise post-Republican nomination… they said, we need to get to this guy to repeal the Magnitsky Act because this is their single most important foreign policy priority. And so they probably had embarked using all of their paid advisers to figure out how to get to Trump. And they finally found this odd in through this music promoter. And they went there with the sole objective of getting the Magnitsky Act repealed.

On the other hand, Bloomberg’s source claims this:

She was focusing on hedge fund manager William Browder, the subject of her scorn and of a film she was promoting, and on Ziff Brothers Investments LLC, which had invested with Browder…

Russian prosecutors said they were opening new lines of inquiry against these investors. What Veselnitskaya saw in these steps were alleged tax improprieties that would be a black mark on the Democratic Party, because Browder and at least one member of the wealthy Ziff family had contributed to the Clinton Global Initiative, the person said.

V’s contacts with Russia’s prosecutor-general are not surprising since her (ex-)husband was a relatively senior prosecutor at the regional level. They are all in the same boat in this: not so much an army of Putin’s tin soldiers as a coalition of actors each with a personal stake in the outcome. Moreover, the meeting was not only about the Act itself but also about Browder, who is underplaying his weak spots as a witness for the government.

The Trump camp should now look into other meetings V arranged or tried to arrange. According to Browder,

…she has hired huge numbers of lobbyists and spent millions of dollars on lawyers, on public relations professionals, on smear campaigners with the objective of repealing the Magnitsky Act…

She funded a major film to Washington which was an anti-Magnitsky film. She hired various PR advisers. But most importantly she set up an NGO in Delaware whose sole purpose was to repeal the Magnitsky Act.

Which, if true, practically guarantees that she also sought meetings with other politicians, including various Democrats and the anti-/never-Trump faction of the Republicans. If she managed to get them, it’s time to drag these facts out into the sunlight and show that such meetings are standard political practice: così fan tutti e tutte. (I am convinced they are; we are dealing here with the media’s abuse of optics well known from the log and speck parable.)

The other side might want to turn the public’s attention to the settlement in US v. Prevezon reached in May and reportedly initiated by the prosecutors. At a superficial level at least, it’s an eyebrow-raiser as it followed Preet Bharara’s firing and indicated the government’s willingness to settle for $6 million. Bharara tweeted: “Congrats to Joon & team in Russian money laundering case,” but it only means that his former colleagues did their best under the circumstances. Browder welcomed the settlement:

…the government’s conduct was absolutely correct and successful… Any Russian with illicit money will now be terrified to bring it to America.

However, Browder’s approval probably reflected the risk of the US losing the case more than the merits of his findings. It’s one thing to be heard by a panel of people familiar with Russia’s workings and quite another to appeal to a jury of randomly selected Americans. Especially after one Russian witness fell out of a fourth-floor window and might no longer be available to testify.

The settlement may have been an unavoidable compromise but there’s still something vaguely unsavory about it that needs to be either dispelled or condensed into evidence of impropriety.


A question of hygiene

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July 14, 2017 by AK

Due diligence and background checks are sometimes as indispensable as an antiseptic liquid or protective gloves. Some people are literally contagious; others are metaphorically toxic. It may be tempting for a germaphobe’s son to ignore these precautions but prudence shouldn’t have yielded to temptation.

I don’t disagree with Prof. Pirrong’s take on the Veselnitskaya-Trump Jr. meeting, but I wish the media had researched V’s success story a little more studiously. Leonid Bershidsky provides some relevant background on Bloomberg:

Natalia Veselnitskaya… is often described as someone with “connections to the Kremlin.” That’s misleading, although her involvement still says much about how power works in Russia.

How power is exploited and abused for private gain, more like. The Kremlin, according to Berhidsky, is not where one should look for “the ties that made Veselnitskaya a successful lawyer.” The right place is the headquarters of the government of the Moscow region (oblast’), “the constituent part of the Russian Federation which surrounds but doesn’t include the city of Moscow.”

…she married deputy prosecutor Alexander Mitusov — one of the region’s most influential law enforcement officials — and set up a private practice in the Moscow Region. Her success rate and reputation were soon fearsome…

Little wonder they were, considering her husband’s influence in the region, but it was only the beginning. A few years later…

…Mitusov became deputy transport minister under Pyotr Katsyv, Gromov’s deputy and the regional transport minister…

This seems the nexus of the story. Petr (Pyotr) Katsyv, the father of V’s client, was the transportation minister of the Moscow region in 2000-2012. The lady’s (ex-)husband was Katsyv’s deputy in 2005-2012, having already served as a deputy chief prosecutor of the Moscow region for twelve years. V was a “formidable operator” involved in “murky real-estate deals in the Moscow region.” Was she a junior equity partner in a typical post-Soviet “business enterprise?” Was her own money – proceeds from this business – at risk in US v. Prevezon?

If there are good enough reasons to suspect the answer is yes to both questions, one should took care to stay away from this “formidable” character. I think Bershidsky got it right: during Boris Gromov’s tenure (2000-12), the Moscow region’s government acquired a reputation for being notoriously, dangerously corrupt even by Russian standards. Don’t touch anyone, anything close to that gang with a barge pole.

This said, V’s interests happened to be aligned with the Kremlin’s in this case. She tried to lobby against the Magnitsky Act because her client faced a civil forfeiture lawsuit under it and – as I’ve explained – because more could have been at stake for her than a fee.

As a postscript, Moscow oblast is a major transport hub because all the roads in Russia lead to Moscow, literally.


Tortured with Les Annales de la vertu

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July 5, 2017 by AK

Erik McDonald is translating a novella by Sophie (Sof’ia) Engelhardt (Engel’gardt), nėe Novosil’tseva (1828-1894), a Russian author who published her fiction under the pen name Ol’ga N. In 2016, Erik translated another long story by Ol’ga N., The Old Man, now available as a free .mobi e-book.

The female narrator in Engelhardt’s story, published in 1867, grew up under the strict supervision of a French governess and her own mother, whose literary tastes were remarkable:

Speaking of books: at 17 I knew the name Pushkin only by hearsay, and in our house Gogol was called a “hayseed writer.” One understands that his works were not permitted in the drawing room.

The narrator is about the same age as the author, which puts her 17th birthday in the 1843-45 bracket. Pushkin died in January 1837 a nationally recognized, although still underappreciated, poet. In the 1840s, willful ignorance of his work on the part of an upper-class Russian family was, shall we say, deplorable. However, Gogol’s late masterpieces, The Dead Souls and The Overcoat, only appeared in 1842, so the general reading public might have still thought of him primarily as the author of Ukrainian folk stories.

As for our children’s library, it was composed, as if by design, of the dullest books, mostly French ones. I remember one in particular that was called Les Annales de la vertu. It was given to me on my name-day to distract me from my lessons, but they made an instrument of torture out of it. The moment you would do something wrong, the voice of the governess was raised: “Prenez à l’instant Les Annales de la vertu.”

The full title of the unfortunate book, first published in 1781, is

Les annales de la vertu, ou, Histoire universelle, iconographique et littéraire: à l’usage des artistes et des jeunes littérateurs, et pour servir à l’éducation de la jeunesse.

Three author was the illustrious educator and writer, Madame de Genlis (1746-1830). Among other things, she directed (in the 1780s) the upbringing of the young man who would become (in 1830) the “bourgeois king,” the last king of France, Louis-Philippe of Orleans. In 1850, Sainte-Beuve would claim that she was destined by birth to be the world’s most gracious and gallant teacher of children. In the hands of a less gracious, obedience-worshipping pedagogue, any book can easily turn into a torture device.


Children’s games

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June 30, 2017 by AK

This game does not seem to appear on Bruegel’s visual catalog, Children’s Games (1560).

It so happened that I saw two kids playing “headband hoop” in the Ducal Court of the Sforza Castle in Milan one day after seeing Children’s Games at the Museum of Arts History (Kunsthistorisches Museum) in Vienna.

I must admit I had spent some time deducing the purpose of “playing the scourge” on the right side of the painting: a fellow wielding a stick with a weight on a rope, like a flail, taking aim at the bottoms of three other youngsters, one crawling, the other two trying to run away from the blows. But Bruegel’s ugly children – dirty adults? wizened fools? – could be doing it for nothing but fun.


Franco in the 1960s: the case of Grimau

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June 26, 2017 by AK

Putin was born 60 years after Franco (October 1952, December 1892) and was appointed prime minister 60 years after Franco was installed in Madrid (August 1999, March 1939). Chronologically, Franco’s 1959, the year of the Stabilization and Liberalization Plan, which led to fifteen years of economic growth, roughly corresponds to Putin’s 2019 or 2020.

But that’s just a cheap, easy and false parallel that should be left to publicity-hungry historians. Besides, Franco’s regime, despite the economic growth of 1959-1974, did not transform itself into a conservative Rechtsstaat.

A few months ago, in one of the posts about Owen Hatherley’s research on Soviet architecture and urban planning, I wrote that the first khruschovka, properly speaking, was probably built in Moscow on Grimau Street. To be precise, the street was called, literally, (the) Second Academic Drive when the apartment block was commissioned in 1958, but on May 8, 1963, it was renamed after Julián Grimau, the Spanish communist executed by the Francoists 18 days earlier.

The renaming followed the Soviet tradition of honoring martyrs for the Communist cause. Grimau was indeed a victim – one of the last ones – of Franco’s repressive machine, whatever the Communist leader’s record during the Spanish civil war might have been. Captured in 1962, Grimau was tortured by the secret police and thrown out of the window to imitate his suicide (alternatively, he managed to jump out of the window to put an end to his agony). He survived, got patched up and tried by a make-believe court, with one of Franco’s butchers from 1939 acting as a prosecutor.


An odd disclosure

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June 23, 2017 by AK

This is a bizarre piece overall but its ending is simply unbelievable:

But Obama also signed the secret finding… authorizing a new covert program…

The cyber operation is still in its early stages and involves deploying “implants” in Russian networks deemed “important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted”…

The implants were… designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression…

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

The operation appears to be ongoing and will continue unless Trump orders it ended. Why is it being discussed in public? Is this because the reporters are blowing the whistle on something unseemly, or because they feel the “covert program” is some kind of joke, or because the Russians have found out about it?


If Putin’s like the aging Franco, will Russia grow at 7% pa?

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June 21, 2017 by AK

Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center comments in Vedomosti on Putin’s latest media appearances:

A president without a program, reasoning like a common man, in the unwritten memoir genre – all that against the backdrop of a political class deliberating if March 2018 means the advent of a lame duck – resembles the late Francisco Franco rather than a father of the nation confidently staring into the Crimean sunset.

Considering that the caudillo’s sunset years were the time of the so-called Spanish economic miracle (1959-1974), which finally transformed Spain from a rural into an industrial society, and considering that the Russian economy has not fully recovered from the 2014-16 recession and the Russian government expects a growth rate of just 1,5% in 2018-20, the late-Franco scenario does not look nearly as bad as Kolesnikov seems to assume on behalf of the reader.

I suggest looking for parallels in the recent history of Latin America instead. 


Neither Latin nor Arabic?

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June 20, 2017 by AK

In his 1886 etymological dictionary of Slavic languages, Franz von Miklosich (Franc Miklošič) derives šapka (czapka) from Medieval Latin cappa but also mentions “Turkish šabka.” Miklošič was one of Max Vasmer’s sources for the etymology of шапка.

Four decades later, Alexander Brückner claimed in his etymological dictionary of the Polish language that czapka/šapka was a native, proto-Slavic word, to be found in some shape in every Slavic language. I suspect this hypothesis is a minority view today.


Latin or Arabic?

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June 17, 2017 by AK

The Russian word шапка “hat” is ultimately derived from Latin cappa “head-covering” according to Vasmer. The likely route is via Old French and Middle High German. Čapka (Czech) and czapka (Polish) begin with a “tch” sound because in Old French, “ch” was pronounced much as it is in modern English, as “tch.”

In Turkish, şapka – approximately homophonic with the Russian word, except for the stress – also means “hat.” Vasmer’s sources suggest the Turkish word is a Slavic loan.

However, the only Turkish etymological dictionary I have found online, by Sevan Nişanyan, derives şapka from Arabic şabaka(t) “fish net or net of any kind” or “headgear,” similar to Aramaic şibkā. Modern Hebrew has סְבָכָה and biblical Hebrew had שְׂבָכָה (sabakah in both cases) for “lattice, network.”


Clarification on Caesarism

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June 17, 2017 by AK

Michael Anton wrote at least three posts in 2016 to discuss the applicability of Trump(ism)-Caesar(ism) parallels to the American situation. In doing so, Anton relied on Leo Strauss’ work, particularly his Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero, a response to Eric Voegelin and Alexandre Kojève. That’s what I alluded to in my previous post.


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