Another sign of the times in Russia – corporate leaders and business people, who don’t agree with the Kremlin, find themselves in deep trouble. You know the story of Yukos’ imprisoned top executive Mikhail Khodorkvsky. Now comes the story of another corporate leader, this time an American, who finds himself at odds with President Putin.
St. Petersburg is Russia’s second biggest city. Named for its founder, Czar Peter the Great. Called the Venice of the North, window to Europe, more than 300 bridges link the 44 islands that makeup this city of five million. Rich in architecture, museums and history, now the venue for the G8 Summit. But, as it prepares to host the World’s most exclusive club, there are signs Russia is becoming less welcoming to others from abroad.
It’s not your father’s Russia. The new oil and gas dynasties are visible on every exclusive corner of Moscow. There’s the new rich – the brand-name addicts who no longer want foreigners in their clubs. As for the Russian companies that create this wealth, they no longer need overseas investment.
"With all the money they have for themselves it means they can be a little more proud and a little more arrogant as far as how they deal with people coming from the outside," said Bill Browder.
U.S. born Bill Browder used to be as welcome in Moscow as his grandfather, Earl Browder, longtime head of the U.S. Communist Party...but for a very different reason.
His Hermitage Capital Management Company, based in London, has $4 billion invested in Russia, making it the largest foreign institutional investor there.
He used to travel 25 times a year to Moscow's International Airport, until, on a routine trip on November 13th, he was told he was no longer welcome.
"At first we thought it must certainly be a mistake...I got a letter from the ministry of foreign affairs...which said that I had been banned from entering Russia based on concerns for national security," said Browder.
Bowder is an admitted and outspoken critic of alleged fraud in the Russian Stock market, and thinks some there who don't share his views on corporate governance have friends in high places.
"You have the economic reformers whose job it is to grow the Russian economy and you have the secret policeman whose job it is to protect the president from being overthrown," he said. "And this is now a power struggle between each of these groups."
Browder is also garnering the support of three US senators, John McCain, Bill Frist and Charles Schumer, who have written to President Bush urging him to make Browder’s case an issue in St Petersburg, because it "reminds us that the path to an open and free market in Russia cannot be taken for granted."
The Government here in London, which represents Browder, now a British citizen, sees this as a litmus test of how open Russia’s political system is to criticism, and whether the kind of reforms that the G8 members would like to see happening are taking hold.
All this under the watchful eyes of its founder, and the revolutionary and the world.