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Oligarchs On Trial

Two fascinating stories published this month provide two very different perspectives on the clashes between once-powerful Russian oligarchs and a Russian legal system that many believe to be incurably corrupt.

In "Enemy of the State," Portfolio magazine writer Christopher S. Stewart tells the story of how Robert Amsterdam, an attorney from the Bronx, came to be defending Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once head of Russian oil company Yukos and one of the country's richest oligarchs, now confined to a Siberian prison. "Being around Robert Amsterdam is like living in a spy movie: You sense that you are being watched but can't exactly prove it," writes Stewart. "When I first contact him about the case, he responds that it's better not to talk details on the phone." Not that Amsterdam keeps his views to himself. Now based in London, he writes a blog in which he shares his views on global politics and business and can be heard discussing the Khodorkovsky case along with writer Stewart in this recent radio interview.

In "The Long Arm of the English Courts," Andrew Wigston of The Times of London details the recent British court decision to hear a lawsuit brought by former Russian oligarch Michael Cherney against his former protege Oleg Deripaska, now said to be the richest man in Russia. Cherney, who left Russia to live in Israel, contends that Deripaska seized a 20 percent stake in aluminum company Rusal that he was holding in trust for Cherney. In bringing the case in London, where its connection is tenuous at best, Cherney argued that he should not be forced to litigate in Russia because his personal safety would be at risk and the courts are corrupt. High Court Justice Christopher Clarke agreed on both counts, finding most notably that the case if brought in Russia would face a significant risk of "improper government influence." The ruling, as Wigston reports, has raised controversy in diplomatic and legal circles alike.

During my own trip to Russia last year to meet with judges, lawyers and journalists, the journalists spoke of corruption as common. But the judges and lawyers saw it as a problem more of perception than reality, suggesting that corruption was once far more common than it is today but that outsiders see it as continuing. Whether by virtue of geography or history, the Siberian courts we visited seemed at least partly removed from the Kremlin's influence. With President Medvedev's recent vow to ensure the independence of the judiciary, we can hope that both perception and reality eventually meet on the side of fairness.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on August 15, 2008 at 11:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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