In the latest episode of Expert Opinions - Russia, Eurasia, a podcast from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, Masha Udensiva-Brenner interviews Matthew Murray about recently-imprisoned Russian opposition leader and political activist Alexei Navalny and his transparency efforts in Russia. Murray started doing business in St. Petersburg in 1991 and became involved in business ethics and anticorruption efforts there. He got to know Navalny personally in the mid aughts, and also knows Sergei Kolosenikov, the whistleblower featured in Navalny’s recent video exposing Vladimir Putin’s alleged scheme to build a lavish palace on the Black Sea with Russian taxpayer money.
Matthew Murray is adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Harriman Institute. Currently, he is serving as the Chair of the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee of Afghanistan, an agency created to monitor and evaluate the anti-corruption efforts of the Afghan government. From 2012 to 2017 he served in the Obama Administration as a Senior Advisor on Governance and Rule of Law, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is print & digital media manager at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Any opinions in this podcast do not reflect the positions of the Harriman Institute or Eurasianet.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner: Hey everyone, I'm Masha Udensiva-Brenner and you're listening to Expert Opinions - Russia, Eurasia, a podcast brought to you by Eurasianet and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
There's been a lot going on in Russia recently—the poisoning and arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, followed by his recovery in Germany, his return to Russia, his prompt arrest and show trial, where he was sentenced to more than two years in prison, and, of course, his publication of a video that exposed an alleged scheme by president Vladimir Putin to build a multi-million-dollar palace on the Russian seaside with Russian taxpayer money. All of this was followed by mass protests and an incredibly repressive response by the Russian state.
Today, you'll hear from Matthew Murray who can put some of these events into context. He's a lawyer by training. And he's been in the field of U.S.-Russia relations for decades. He has a unique vantage point because he started doing business in Russia at the beginning of the post-communist transition. He became involved in business ethics and anti-corruption efforts there, and through that, he got to know Alexey Navalny.
To start, let's travel back in time to the beginning of Russia's economic transition in 1991. At that point, Matthew was recently out of law school and in the process of launching a company in St. Petersburg focused, in part, on small business incubation and rule of law development.
Udensiva-Brenner: So, Matthew, I’m curious, what were you expecting to find when you started doing business in Russia in the wake of the Soviet collapse? It was such a unique period to be there.
Matthew Murray: That's an excellent question. I went in with the expectation and hope that we could build bridges through honest business, through ethical business, through business that was based on integrity and values. And, indeed, I found that in many Russian counterparts and partners and lawyers, and, began to build businesses with them.
What none of us had anticipated was that success with honest business would become, in effect, a target. And, that even modestly profitable businesses would become subject to predatory conduct by a combination of local government officials, criminal groups, the court system.
I used to call it the risk of success. And as the risk of success grew, I decided with my Russian partners to create a center, which would, in effect, promote best practices and try to protect the honest businesses that were growing in the environment. At the time we called it the center for business ethics and corporate governance. It was founded on Russian soil in the year 2000.
Through that center, we began to help Russian government reformers and Russian honest business leaders create the building blocks of a free market.
Udensiva-Brenner: And you came to know Alexei Navalny through your anticorruption work. Can you tell us a bit about that? Do you remember the first time you met?
Murray: Sure. I was introduced to Alexei in 2007, and at that point I had been working with the nonprofit in Russia, known as Transparency International, which is part of the international NGO Transparency International, and it was led by Elena Panfilova.
And so, Elena introduced me to Alexei, who was an emerging anti-corruption champion with his own formula, very media savvy, a very smart lawyer, and he was coming on the scene and Elena really respected his work. So, the three of us sat down in The World Trade Center in Moscow and we got to know each other. And, within a couple of weeks, Alexei and I were collaborating on a project dedicated to exposing a very serious level of grand corruption in the oil and gas industry.
Udensiva-Brenner: And can we just pause here for a second and talk about your first meeting with Navalny, what were your impressions of him on a personal level?
Murray: Well, you know, I did get to know him very well at a personal level. I traveled with him in the United States when he came over here as a Yale World Fellow, had him over to dinner at my house in Arlington. And what struck me about him is that he did not carry the familiar markers if you will, of, other Russian opposition leaders and anti-corruption activists.
He was not fatalistic or nihilistic. He did not carry a kind of resignation around. He was instead very optimistic about Russia's future. He was also, and this is, I think, very important, he was impatient. He wanted change then, and he wants change now. He doesn't buy into this myth that somehow, Russia's not ready for democracy, freedom and human rights.
He was really quite dedicated to making change and taking on the entire system. He also had nerves of steel. It was clear then that he was extremely courageous. He was not dissuaded by any threats; he wasn't concerned about his physical safety. And he carried himself with a great deal of confidence, charisma, humor. He had all sorts of potential. It was clear in those early days.
Udensiva-Brenner: And based on all your conversations with him, do you think Navalny’s time at Yale affected the way that he thought about his work in Russia?
Murray: Alexei was a curious, very curious mind. And it was fun and interesting to watch what he absorbed through Yale. He became well known up there and he became a leader among the other world fellows, that was clear. And I think it reinforced in him the idea that it's possible to build democratic systems.
They're not perfect. But they're more efficient at providing access to justice and human rights and economic opportunity than other systems. Interesting point though was, he didn't ever convey or communicate a belief that America had it right. He was very much the Russian Patriot, always.
He was very loyal, and is very loyal, to his people, to his cultures, to his tradition. And he very much believes that Russians can carve out their own path based on their own interpretation of these principles and it wasn't about being more like America ever for him.
Udensiva-Brenner: So it wasn't that he wanted to impose some sort of Western democratic framework onto Russia. He was envisioning something different.
Murray: Yes. I think he was working on and has been working on fundamentals in Russia, starting with the idea that you cannot give over the power of government to people who convert Russia's resources for their own personal gain.
And so, his fundamental one is, we shouldn't tolerate corruption at this level or at any level. Why? These are Russian resources. And then secondly, Russians deserve and have earned the right to choose their leaders according to fair elections. Russians should get a fair treatment under the law and in the court system.
And so, I think he's devoted to those basic principles and wants to make sure that they take hold inside the country.
Udensiva-Brenner: And you met him in 2007, which is right around the time that he made some of these nationalist videos that have been circulating, and that are part of the reason that Amnesty International decided to revoke his prisoner of conscience status. Did you ever discuss any of these issues with him or get a sense of how he felt about them at the time?
Murray: I never did discuss those issues with him. It's an interesting point and I'm glad you raised it. And the first thing that needs to be observed here, I think, is that we have to be careful in the West not to put this through Western filters and perpetuate what may contain elements of disinformation that are being pushed out there against Alexei. He is being attacked by the Russian controlled state media and through other disinformation techniques. Having said that, it is clear on the record, and Alexei has admitted this, that at one point in his political strategy he reached out to nationalist groups who were opposed to Putin, and he did so in order to build coalitions with them with, I think with the common aim of ending the Putin era.
Does this all make him an alter nationalist who we should be concerned about? I don't think so.
Udensiva-Brenner: And are the two of you still in touch? Do you still talk to Alexei?
Murray: Alexei and I stopped communicating when his email was hacked back in 2011 and at that point I was also transitioning into government, so, you know, it was clear that it wasn't in his interests, or in mine, for us to be in touch. He needed then and needs always to be completely independent of Americans, especially Americans in government.
Udensiva-Brenner: And what was it like, after not talking to him all this time, to hear last August that your old friend and colleague had been poisoned?
Murray: I was devastated. I was very worried for the next 72 hours until it was clear that he could at least have a chance for survival, that he was going to be removed from Russia to Germany, where he had a fighting chance to be treated properly.
Udensiva-Brenner: And he stayed in Europe for a few months. Were you surprised when he decided to return to Russia?
Murray: I wasn't surprised. I know many viewed that as rather quixotic and, perhaps, romantic. However, in my view, it was very predictable that he would in effect make a statement that he would not be self-exiled. He could not be intimidated by Putin or the system. And that he would continue to take on the system.
So, I wasn't surprised when he returned notwithstanding the clear danger that he would be arrested immediately upon his return. And when that happened, he was ready. He was ready with the production, two days later of this video expose of what is now known as “Putin's Palace.”
In other words, he was ready to in effect, put the spotlight immediately back on Putin and his system.
Udensiva-Brenner: A lot of information in the past video was already public. What do you think are the new insights we can glean from the video, both about Russia today and about Putin himself?
Murray: Well, that's an excellent question because I do think, in fact, it brings a new level of sophistication to our understanding of the form and the methodology and the algorithm of the corruption that Putin has been able to organize as the head of the Russian government.
It alleges that Putin has used his position of political power to abuse the political and legal system and organize the funding of a palace on the Black Sea at a cost of approximately $1.4 billion with the help of a network of cronies and civil servants who are willing to stand in for him and his family and essentially sign and execute the documents and take the other official steps to give this palace the veneer of official legality.
And what Alexei has done is to provide a very strong circumstantial case that, most importantly, Russians can now examine for themselves. They can look at this and they can decide for themselves whether the evidence is there and whether the president and his networks should be held to account. It was interesting, while in the past president Putin has been able to successfully trivialize many of Alexei's videos and claims in this case, he felt it was necessary to defend himself and say, no, my family doesn't have any ownership of the palace.
Udensiva-Brenner: Yeah, it was the first investigation about himself or anyone in his circle that he's openly responded to. Which was really interesting.
And interestingly enough, you not only know Navalny, but also Sergei Kolesnikov, the star witness in this video. Can you tell us about him?
Murray: Sergei was involved and helped enable the Putin system allegedly used to build the palace. And he blew the whistle on this. In 2010, when he came to the United States and went to New York and went to Russia's UN mission office and gave him a box of documents and an open letter to Medvedev saying, this is the algorithm, these are the documents. This is how over a period of one decade, starting in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, Prime Minister Putin and his surrogates have been able to successfully loot Russia and create this slush fund to build Putin's palace.
At the time he did it, Sergei was implicating himself. So, he was taking both legal and physical risk because he was actually part of the scheme. And I was running the NGO at the time and I was introduced to Sergei and asked if I would take him around Washington and introduce him to those non-profits and newspaper outlets who could help him promulgate his story and protect him.
And so, I spent about a week and a half with him. And I asked him what changed his mind and heart, if you will, about being embroiled in this scheme. And what he said was, at one point, he felt that what started out as a project that he could defend as one that would lead to new investment coming into Russia. Because, some of the monies that were being taken out of the funds that were ostensibly being used to build dental clinics and doctor's offices and hospitals was being parked offshore and reinvested in Russian companies, including shipping and other major industries.
And so, through that vehicle, which was called RosInvest, Sergei felt that he could justify what he was doing. But then when the word came down that 35 percent of the monies needed to be set aside for building the dacha that eventually became the palace, Sergei said he had enough. He felt that the greed being exhibited was unlimited and it was something he couldn't tolerate.
Udensiva-Brenner: So, essentially, he got in over his head and saw the Medvedev government as a way to get out.
Murray: Exactly. He saw the Medvedev period as opening up the possibilities for civil society, and for protest and dissent. And he took his moment. And, of course, very little happened at the time, unfortunately, and it was obviously quite disturbing to him personally, and he made his way to Europe and became anonymous, and it really became a story that was buried until Alexei brought it out again 10 years later
Udensiva-Brenner: These events—the arrest, the video, the protests—all coincided with the advent of the Biden administration in the U.S. The administration has recently announced sanctions targeting the seven officials behind the Navalny poisoning. And Biden is the first president in a while who didn't come in with a plan to reset U.S.-Russia relations.
Matthew was a senior advisor on governance and rule of law for the Obama Administration and has worked with President Biden personally. I wanted to know his thoughts on Biden's potential Russia strategy moving forward.
Murray: He has a very balanced view of Russia with no illusions. He will be ready to confront Putin both publicly and in private—it's very important that he be consistent in that respect.
He will not back down from difficult discussions and he's the right person for this moment in history, dealing with a very complicated Russia. Now, it needs to be said that Putin is showing, that he is going to continue to tighten his strangle hold on the political system in Russia, the legal system, he is going to continue to close the civil society space if he can, and so, the Biden administration faces a series of difficult questions that will require much nuanced strategy and tactics.
I think point number one is they can't really fixate on Putin. He is obviously a huge and significant risk to our relationship, but we shouldn't fixate on him. And we need to find a way to work with Russian civil society in a way that supports Russian civil society. And doesn't backfire on Russian civil society.
Udensiva-Brenner: And speaking of Russian civil society, what do you think will happen now that Navalny is at least physically out of the picture for the next two-and-a-half-years, if not more? Where do you see civil society in Russia heading?
Murray: That is an excellent question. And what I would respond with is, as he said, when he arrived back in Moscow and was immediately arrested, it's now up to the Russian people to demand justice.
I think his most important impact recently is the way in which he demonstrated that every Russian has free will. Every Russian has the choice. Putin is not inevitable. Russian doesn't need a czar. Russia is ready for democracy. He reminds one, a bit of the heroes in Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky.
And as you know, that book is a tremendous treatment of the issue of free will versus determinism. And the heroes in the Brothers K are those who can master their own fears and exercise choice over their fate. And so, Alexei, in a way is a Dostoyevsky level hero. And he has given Russians an example of what it means to take on the entire system as an individual.
Udensiva-Brenner: Matthew. Thanks so much. It was really interesting to hear your take on all this, and I'm really glad to have had you on the show.
Murray: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
Udensiva-Brenner: You just listened to part one of a two-part episode on Navalny, transparency, and political repression in Russia. In the second part I'll interview Alexis Lerner, a scholar who studies the intersection of authoritarianism and dissent.
I’m Masha Udensiva-Brenner. Thanks for listening to Expert opinions, Russia Eurasia, brought to you by Eurasianet and the Harriman Institute at Columbia university. Please leave a review and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Eurasianet is based at the Harriman Institute.