To Meddle or Not to Meddle: Boris Nemtsov’s Visit to the U.S. Poses Questions over America’s Commitment to Re-set


The Russians in power and out acknowledge their many problems and will solve them at their own pace and with their own resources. For an argument against outside meddling, read what follows…


To Meddle or Not to Meddle: Boris Nemtsov’s Visit to the U.S. Poses Questions over America’s Commitment to Re-set


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



Since its founding in 1946, the Harriman Institute of Columbia University has been one of the key centers of Russian studies in the United States. During the academic year its crowded agenda of events open to the public features not only scholars but well-known personalities from politics, culture and other aspects of life in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Q&A session with leader of the Russian Opposition Boris Nemtsov on Wednesday evening, 17 November, was exemplary of this tradition and drew an audience of nearly 200, mostly Russian speakers and mostly sympathetic to the anti-Putin message of the guest.


This Columbia appearance was on the sidelines of Nemtsov’s visit to Washington, D.C., where his mission was to encourage U.S. meddling in Russia’s internal political fights, as he explained in his opening remarks


What brought him here was yet another scandal of Russian justice which is grist to the Russophobic disposition of American mainstream politicians and it is also splendid material for self-promotion of anti-Kremlin elites in the Russian opposition.


November 16th was the first anniversary of the death in detention of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky as a consequence of an untreated medical condition. Nominally, he was awaiting trial on charges of fraud, but looking more deeply, his complicated case arose out of his association with what was at one point Russia’s largest foreign investment fund, Hermitage Capital, and its boss William Browder. Browder ran afoul of the Kremlin over his shareholder activism, exposure of corporate malfeasance and corruption at Gazprom and several other partly state owned Russian blue chip companies.


In short, we may freely concede that the Magnitsky case is a poster child of corruption and cover-up by high officials in the Russian government. It is one more grand cause on top of the Khodorkovsky court drama, which also was the subject of informational material handed out by the organizers at the entrance to the hall where Nemtsov spoke and Khodorkovsky’s plight figured in his talk. Publicizing these cases and talking them up with Congress and the White House admirably serves the cause of the newly formed Coalition for Russia Without Tyranny or Corruption in which Nemtsov’s Solidarity movement is one of four constituent parties.


As he explained to the audience of the Harriman Institute event, during his stay in Washington, Nemtsov discussed the Magnitsky affair with Michael McFaul, special adviser to the President on Russia. Human rights and civil society are McFaul’s core expertise from his academic posts prior to his government appointment, and it is noteworthy that Nemtsov identified him not only as a ‘brilliant’ specialist but also as someone with a special ‘feel’ for Russia. This meeting of the minds is all the more interesting given that the day before Nemtsov spoke to the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington about why Russians doubt the commitment to rule of law and democracy in their country of McFaul’s boss, President Barack Obama.


When in Washington, Nemtsov also met with U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin, (D-Maryland), who is chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or Helsinki Commission. Together with Congressman James McGovern (D-Mass.), Cardin has introduced a Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2010 which would impose sanctions including denial of visas to a list of 60 Russian officials from the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service, Federal Tax Service, arbitration courts, general prosecutor’s office, and Federal Prison Service, all of whom, it is claimed, were involved in Magnitsky’s death. Cardin has already indicated he will encourage EU member states to do likewise and bar the Russians from traveling through their space.


From his statements at the Harriman, it now appears that Nemtsov wants to see U.S. sanctions directed against Russians both more widely and more deeply than this in order to further his own political agenda. Specifically he said that the target of any sanctions should be ‘those responsible for human rights violations, for fraudulent elections in Russia, those responsible for corruption and violations of democracy.’ The penalty should go beyond denial of visas and include freezing of assets. Nemtsov did not offer any list of whom he had in mind, but from the tenor of his talk it could apply to a broad swathe of Russian officialdom including the prime minister, Vladimir Putin.


This brings us to the central thesis of Boris Nemtsov’s talk at the Harriman, which may be summarized briefly as follows: that Russia today is an absolutely corrupted police state and will remain so because it serves the interest of Vladimir Putin and his associates. Nemtsov tells us that the associates have enriched themselves at the public expense and become dollar billionaires. But his greater emphasis is on how Putin has allegedly used corruption as an instrument of rule. According to this interpretation, bribes are the means Putin uses to ensure the loyalty of officials; here is the backbone of his ‘vertical of power.’ Destroy corruption and you destroy ‘Putinism,’ Nemtsov tells us.


These are the points which Nemtsov and his fellow fighter for democracy Vladimir Milov, leader of the affiliated Democratic Choice movement, set out in their book Putin: Results. 10 Years, which they distributed to one million followers in Russia in the past few months.


Nemtsov’s indictment of the Russian ‘regime’ in his talk at the Harriman Institute included claims that Dmitry Medvedev’s election in 2009 was fraudulent, that he is an illegitimate president, that polls suggesting Vladimir Putin remains popular are also phony. He said that the only way to practice politics in Russia today is in the streets and cited various mass demonstrations in which his movement participated which caused the authorities to reverse unpopular decisions. Nemtsov walked a thin line, carefully staying just on this side of sedition.


The audience appeared to lap up Nemtsov’s comments on assorted abuses of power under Putin and recent corruption scandals. Indeed everything was going Boris Nemtsov’s way until one of his political sparring partners from the past took the floor and, in the course of five minutes of comments, demolished the entire opposition thesis on corruption.


The speaker was a political commentator well known to many in the audience from the 1990s. Andranik Migranyan is a prominent activist and defender of civil society, he is a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, alongside other leading personalities from among Russian NGOs. Since 2008, he heads the New York representative office of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation which the Kremlin established to monitor respect for human rights in the USA, as a push-back against what it sees as Western meddling in its internal affairs.


Without challenging the reality that Russia has a serious problem with corruption, Migranyan deftly reminded the audience that the problem had emerged and flourished not under Vladimir Putin but a decade earlier, in the 1990s, thanks to the policies of Boris Yeltsin and his circle of free-market advisers including Boris Nemtsov’s intellectual comrades-in-arms Gaidar and Chubais who oversaw fraudulent privatization and compounded the theft through their loans for shares schemes which propped up an unpopular government by giving away the national treasure. This, said Migranyan, was a government Nemtsov participated in when he served as Deputy Prime Minister during 1997-98 under Viktor Chernomyrdin. And whereas Nemtsov had delivered a very kindly eulogy to his former boss upon his death a week earlier, Migranyan would not have us forget that Chernomyrdin had effectively wrecked the Izvestiya newspaper house when it reprinted information from Forbes magazine showing his ill-gotten holdings of $4 billion in Gazprom stock which placed him among Russia’s wealthiest men.

As an experienced politician, Nemtsov chose to dismiss these body blows with a wave of the hand, merely saying that he personally had been clean and had insisted to Yeltsin when he was appointed that he would not participate in the privatization of the Kremlin, rather would work for its nationalization. Nice words, but an inadequate response to the charges. Oh, yes, and Chernomyrdin had given back the shares…

There were no other challenges to upset the visiting fighter for democracy, although one might have asked a good many questions about Nemtsov’s lack of fastidiousness these past several years in choosing political bedfellows in the opposition. There is more than a hint of unscrupulous maneuvering for power in his conduct.


My point is not to denigrate one of Russia’s best known democrats, merely to indicate that it is scarcely in the interests of the United States to take sides, to be drawn into the political brawling of Russia’s political classes, to celebrate shining knights and vilify authoritarian tsars. This is an extravagance the Obama administration can least indulge in during these days when it seeks to ratify the new START treaty with Russia to cut the arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons. More broadly, the human rights agenda is abused by the enemies of a rapprochement with Russia, the now famous re-set policy, to perpetuate cold war divisions and ill-feeling. The Russians in power and out acknowledge their many problems and will solve them at their own pace and with their own resources.

Boris Nemtsov’s talk at The Harriman Institute on ‘The Current Political Situation in Russia and Perspective for the Future’ was videotaped and is available for viewing at


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010

*  *   *   *  *

G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. Doctorow’s latest book,  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


One thought on “To Meddle or Not to Meddle: Boris Nemtsov’s Visit to the U.S. Poses Questions over America’s Commitment to Re-set

Comments are closed.