July 2019 Open Book Group – Red Notice by Bill Browder

Thank you to Gerry for moderating Red Notice – How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy by Bill Browder.

 Red Notice (an international arrest warrant) is a Bill Browder’s memoir of his life as a fund manager investing in the turbulent emerging markets of Poland and Russia. Catastrophic events in Russia change Browder’s life and he becomes a human rights activist.

Browder wanted to differentiate himself from his Communist grandfather and his distant father, a brilliant academic by becoming a “bombastic financier” (The Economist) and “buccaneer capitalist” (NY Times). He earned an MBA from Stanford and joined Boston Consulting Group. Here he saw the potential for vast profits to be made in the emerging market economies. The Polish government was taking steps to privatise their industries but had no idea how to value its assets. Browder, applying western capitalist valuations, soon saw that companies were vastly undervalued and so he brought large tranches of shares. Once others realised the unmet value, stock prices soared. Browder cashed out making his original investment ten-fold over.

Energised, he moved back to London and joined Salomon Brothers to exploit the emerging Russian privatised economy. There he was introduced to billionaire Edmond Safra who became his mentor. Safra agreed to provide Browder with the capital needed found Hermitage Capital Management. In 1996 he moved to Moscow in search of unvalued stock.

At first, things go well. He is set to make a fortune on shares in an oil company, Sidanco. However, Russia turned out not to be innocent Poland. He comes up against the Oligarchs who are equally avaricious. The company unilaterally increased the number of its shares, so diluting their price. Browder cries foul. He lobbies the Russian “regulators” and sends damming articles, on the Russian financial system, to the western financial press. The share issue is reversed and Hermitage Capital Management’s value soars. Browder swans round Davos feted as a genius fund manager.

Over the next 8 years, Browder takes us through his rollercoaster life. As the Fund’s value falls and soars so does his love life. His first marriage ends in divorce and he meets his second wife. Oil and Gas company, Gazprom, proves to be another wildly successful target for Browder. In the process of acquiring its shares he again widely publishes articles on institutional corruption in Russia. One of the most powerful Oligarchs is arrested and tried.

However, there is the distinct feeling that, behind the scenes, Putin is pulling the strings, using Browder vicariously to teach the Oligarchs where the real power lies.

By 2005 Putin has had enough of the “bad publicity” and brands Browder as a threat to National Security. Browder and his co-workers drop everything and flee back to London realising their lives are in danger. All, that is, except his Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He is arrested on false tax fraud charges but, as a believer in Russian, justice, is convinced the courts could not convict him. Awaiting his fate, he suffers increasingly appalling goal conditions, is denied crucial medical attention, and dies after a violent beating from his prison guards.

Browder feels intense guilt over Magnitsky’s death.

In the second half of the book, Browder becomes a human rights’ activist. After many years of lobbying, in 2012 the US government passes the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act which imposes visa sanctions and asset freezes on those involved in Sergei’s arrest, torture and death, as well as other gross human rights abuses. Putin retaliates with a dictate that Russian children can no longer be adopted by American parents. The use of children as a bargaining tool is widely condemned, but Putin has no such qualms.

The book ends in 2013. It is generally acknowledged that the Magnitsky’s Law was one of the reason’s Putin interfered in the 2016 Presidential election.

The discussion opened with Browder himself. He is not a likeable character. He is single-minded on making as much money as he can, regardless of the fall out to those around him. One member noted the book should have been called Collateral Damage. However, like all strong characters, his huge flaws were also his great strengths. Without his purposeful drive he could not have secured Magnitsky’s Law. He put his work colleagues and family in great danger, but they were very loyal to him. Clearly, he has charisma.

This was never going to be a work of any literary note. One member wondered if it had been ghost-written, but we decided not, given Browder’s supreme belief in his abilities. His descriptions of courting his second wife, Elena “l knew that she was all mine and that I was all hers” made Mills and Boon look like Jane Austen in comparison. General eye-rolling around the table. However, that said, Browder was in his element when he clearly explained the numbers surrounding his deals. These fascinated some members, but we agreed that, if it was not your bent, one could skim read those parts without losing the context.

We also found it very hard to believe that Browder could speak no Russian and that he completed all these deals and submissions, claiming financial improprieties to the Russian authorities, using both translators and his trusted team. We suspected that at times fiction could have entered this nonfiction account. But he would certainly not be the first of us to embellish our life’s story.

So on to the story itself. One member noted that it was ironic that, after his Poland deal, Browder could punch the air and recount how clever he was for several pages, but then rage on when the Oligarchs tried to beat him at his own game.

We were confused about Magnitsky’s desire to stay in Russia and his belief in the Russian justice system. But stay he did, paying a terrible price.

The second half of the book captivated us as we had no inkling of just how difficult is to get legislation passed through the American government. Here Browder’s networking skills were very impressive……. who doesn’t he know?

 

His typically grandiose claim in the title of the book that he was Putin’s number 1 enemy started to ring true when Putin targeted him personally with a Red Notice in retaliation to Browder’s success with Magnitsky’s Law. One can only imagine the level of security he and his family endured and endure to this day. We recalled alleged Russian involvement in several successful, and attempted, assassinations over recent years from the infamous “umbrella stabbing” to the Skripals in Winchester last year.

One member recalled seeing Browder being a very credible witness when he was interviewed as part of the Mueller investigation.

The discussion widened to recent events, the demonstrations in Hong Kong, Australian businessmen gaoled in China, and the Australian student recently released from custody in North Korea. Russian, China and North Korea are authoritarian states, hubristic westerners challenge them at their peril.

A great page-turning, rollicking, read which would be criticised as having an unbelievable plot if it sat on the fiction shelves. However, believe it we must to ensure human rights abuses continue to be exposed in these regimes.

Browder’s site: https://www.russian-untouchables.com/eng/

Browder himself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FREvQbQxkXg

A very sobering video of Browder’s life today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFTXRyXFx24

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