Bill Browder and the Hermitage Fund

The extraordinary story of how the American-born British financier Bill Browder’s Moscow-based Hermitage Capital was targeted in one of the most brazen frauds in history has gained worldwide publicity, in large part through the courage and tenacity of Browder.

Shortly after Browder had been refused entry to Moscow on his return from London in November 2005, special forces from the Russian Interior Ministry raided his company’s offices, seizing corporate documentation.  These were used to fraudulently re-register Hermitage’s holding companies in the name of an ex-convict, after which the perpetrators of the fraud applied successfully for a $230 million tax rebate.  

Sergei Magnitsky, one of the Hermitage Fund’s Moscow-based lawyers, testified against the perpetrators and was subsequently jailed on trumped-up charges. He fell ill and died in prison after being denied the medical help he needed.  After his death Browder lobbied the US Congress to pass the “Magnitsky Act”.  Since 2016, the bill, which applies globally, authorizes the US government to sanction individuals who it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US.  Similar, landmark legislation was passed in Britain, Canada and other countries.

The crime which Magnitsky had sought to expose was both sophisticated and complex.  From the start, WorldPR helped Browder devise a strategy to communicate the story to the world, including policymakers and legislators on both sides of the Atlantic.  The campaign was launched with a ten-minute film posted on YouTube in English and Russian that used professional actors to re-enact the crime. The film caused shock waves when viewed in Russia and Browder went on to produce three more films on aspects of the crime and its aftermath.

From the start, WorldPR advised Browder that the only effective way to achieve his objective of punishing those Russian officials who were ultimately responsible for the crime, as well as for the death of Magnitsky, was to target the individuals involved – not the Russian state. The success of this strategy was reflected in the response to his campaign.  In October 2017 the Russian government sought to place Browder on Interpol’s list of criminal fugitives.  While visiting Spain in May 2018 he was arrested by the Spanish authorities on a new Russian Interpol warrant. He was released after two hours when Interpol confirmed that this was a political not criminal matter. 

Since then, Browder has vigorously continued his campaign to expose the criminal nature of certain elements of the Russian state.

YouTube video:  Hermitage Reveals Russian Police Fraud

Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan

Imran and Jemima Khan with Aslan Maskhadov, President of Chechnya, London 1998

WorldPR first advised Imran Khan in May 1994, when he married Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of the Anglo-French billionaire Sir James Goldsmith who had founded the Referendum Party.  Although the marriage to Jemima came to end in 2004, Imran Khan went on to play an important role in Pakistan’s politics, eventually becoming the country’s Prime Minister in 2018.

Khan, former international cricketer for almost a quarter of a century, was born to a Pashtun family in Lahore in 1952 and educated at Oxford.  He began his international cricketer career at the age of 18 in a test series against England.  He served intermittently as his team’s captain between 1982-1992, leading his country to its first and only victory in the Cricket World Cup in 1992. 

As his sports career approached its end Khan moved to the world of philanthropy, public affairs and politics. In 1998 he led a delegation organised by WorldPR to war-torn Chechnya to promote the peace and recognise Chechen independence.  At home, he launched an international fundraising campaign to set up a cancer hospital in memory of his mother, Mrs. Shaukat Khanum.  After raising $25 million to establish a hospital in Lahore he went on to create a second hospital in Peshawar and a research centre in Lahore, and founded Kamal College, a university providing access to poor students linked to the University of Bradford, where Khan served as chancellor from 2005-14.

Campaigning against corruption and in favour of economic reform, Khan founded the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, winning a seat in the National Assembly in 2002.  In November 2007, Khan was put under house arrest after president Musharraf declared a state of emergency.  His party’s prospects of gaining power were at first written off by the international media and it chose to boycott the 2008 general election, but in the subsequent election PTI became the second-largest party by popular vote.  

Since becoming Prime Minister in 2018, Imran Khan has brought in anti-corruption measures and introduced major reforms in education and healthcare. On the international stage, he has sought to improve relations with both the US and China while seeking to expand his country renewable energy sources.  His government is currently seeking to secure the repatriation of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif who, having been sentenced to ten years in prison by the Federal Judicial Complex in 2018, absconded from Pakistan in 2019 and is now directing an opposition campaign from London. Uniquely among Pakistan’s recent political leaders, Khan has enjoyed 50 per cent or more approval rating throughout his premiership.

venessa redgrave and jeremy corbyn

Chechnya

Between 1994 and 1996 a violent conflict in the Caucasus resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians. The war between the Russian armed forces and Chechen independence fighters involved appalling human suffering while heavy Russian bombardment resulted in the obliteration of the capital, Grozny as well as of much critical infrastructure.

The conflict ended in August 1996 when, under the terms of the Khasavyurt Accord signed by Russian General Lebed and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, Russia withdrew federal troops from Chechen territory and granted the country de facto independence.

Hired by President Aslan Maskhadov, the task of WorldPR was to establish the identity of the new Chechen state, to draw attention to its existence as a new player on the international scene, and to help secure recognition, political support and inward investment. This was a difficult, complicated and sometimes dangerous assignment, fraught with obstacles and diplomatic hurdles.  Two international delegations to Grozny organised by us and led by Imran Khan, the current prime minister of Pakistan, and Lord McAlpine, former Treasurer of the British Conservative Party, were accompanied by bankers, investors and journalists, including the legendary war reporter, Sandy Gall and his daughter Carlotta, whose vivid book on the war created growing sympathy for the fledgling state.  Working with the actress Vanessa Redgrave and Jeremy Corbyn MP, WorldPR orchestrated an information campaign in parliament to brief MPs and gather support for the new state. In the words of Vanessa Redgrave, “The important thing is to seek for truth, to help, to do something.”  

In March 1998, WorldPR organised President Maskhadov’s first overseas visit to the UK, as he looked “to Britain and our friends in Europe to help rebuild our country”.  While in London, Maskhadov dined at the Ritz Hotel with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, met with Foreign Office officials and attended a glittering party at Church House attended by, among others, Imran and Jemima Khan, Lord Tebbit, Lady Annabel Goldsmith and many leaders of the exiled Caucasus diaspora.  The celebrated British journalist and author, Simon Sebag Montefiore, described this extraordinary event in a colourful article for The Sunday Times.

Chechen dreams of independence were shattered when the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, ordered his forces to reoccupy the country in September 1999.  But  for a brief historical moment, with our help, Chechnya’s  brave and dogged fighters captured the attention, sympathy and hearts of global audiences.

President Aslan Maskhadov was killed by Russian special forces in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt on 8th March 2005.

jimmy goldsmith

Sir James Goldsmith
and the Referendum Party

Sir James Goldsmith, Patrick Robertson and Andrew Roberts at the Referendum Party election Rally at Alexandra Palace, 1997

In 1994, the Anglo-French billionaire and MEP, Sir James Goldsmith, launched The Referendum Party, the most ambitious political campaign of modern times.  Its aim was to secure for the British people the right to vote on leaving the European Union. He asked Patrick Robertson to put his plans into action.

In the run-up to the 1997 general election, The Referendum Party, under Patrick’s direction, created from scratch a national political organisation capable of fighting an election against the established political parties on a single issue:  Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Chaired by former Conservative Party treasurer, Lord McAlpine, and led by Sir James, the party recruited and trained 547 parliamentary candidates and 180 political agents, opened ten regional offices served by a fully staffed HQ at Westminster, and signed-up more than 160,000 registered supporters.  The Referendum Party’s £35 million media campaign, launched in 1996, produced twenty-five million copies of the newspaper “Referendum Now” posted to every household in Britain, six million copies of a compelling video called “The Most Important Video You’ll Ever Watch”, and the biggest media advertising campaign of any political party.  On the eve of the election, The Referendum Party held a rally of 12,000 supporters at Alexandra Palace, the largest political gathering of any party since the war.

The historic achievement of Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party was to secure, before the 1997 election, a cast-iron commitment from the main political parties to hold a binding referendum before joining the Euro. That promise protected British independence until the referendum campaign of 2016.  Among political commentators there is wide agreement that this promise would never have been given but for the threat posed by the Referendum Party whose actions profoundly changed the direction of British politics.  In the long term, the Party’s legacy was to provide the educational foundation, training and organisation for a generation of committed Eurosceptic campaigners, many of whom went on to make important contributions to the success of the Leave campaign in June 2016. 

Sir James, who had been bravely battling cancer, died a few weeks after the 1997 election.

Sir James Goldsmith on Campaign in 1997 (AP Archive)

benita ferrero waldner

Austria and the EU Sanctions

In February 2000 an unexpected political drama unfolded in Austria. The newly elected federal government, led by the centre-right People’s Party politician Wolfgang Schüssel, was placed under diplomatic sanctions by the European Union and banned from meetings of the European Council. The trigger for this unprecedented demarche against a fellow EU member state was the secret denunciation by the Austrian president, Thomas Klestil, of his own country’s government.

Klestil was violently opposed to the inclusion in the coalition of Joerg Haider, leader of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPO).  This was the first time that the FPO had been included in government at federal level, although it was no stranger to coalition in municipal and regional government:  since 1956 it had been a frequent and dependable partner of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP).  From its inception, the SDP helped to nurture the FPO by providing it with state funding from the Ministry of the Interior, which it controlled.  The FPO became the instrument with which the SDP could split the centre-right vote at federal elections.  By including Jorge Haider in the new People’s Party-led coalition, Wolfgang Schüssel had beaten the SDP at its own game, but in so doing he had deeply antagonised the post-war Austrian political Establishment.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, was particularly outspoken and led an aggressive campaign of public vilification of the Austrian government.  Despite the confrontational stance adopted by France, however, it soon became apparent that the sanctions against Austria were unworkable and politically embarrassing to the European Union.   WorldPR was hired by Lord Tim Bell to advise the Austrian foreign minister, Mrs. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, on a strategy to resolve the impasse and communicate a positive narrative based on the true record.  The result was a dynamic, Europe-wide campaign that significantly changed the balance of opinion and ended in the complete lifting of the EU’s sanctions against Austria.

Working closely with Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner, WorldPR organised a diplomatic, political and media tour of the key European capitals, including London, Paris and Madrid.  High-level meetings included speeches to lawmakers and leading opinion-formers at which the Austrian Foreign Minister presented a carefully researched report that showcased Austria’s exemplary record of social justice and economic achievement since the Second World War.  Austria’s success story included the peaceful integration of the largest proportion of foreign-born nationals of any country in the European Union – fully 25 per cent of the population.  This seminal report was converted into a pamphlet and distributed in multiple languages to key audiences throughout Europe. 

The second prong of the campaign was to assemble a committee of respected external experts to provide a balanced and unjaundiced view of Austrian society.   The three experts, Professor Jochen Frowein, the director of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, and Marcelino Oreja, the former Spanish government minister, gave the Schüssel government high marks for taking concrete steps to fight racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism.  The committee issued their clean bill of health and on 12th September 2000 the, almost immediately after that, the EU Council lifted all sanctions against Austria.

The European Union Lifts Sanctions Against Austria, The New York Times, 12th September 2000

swimming pig

Regroup in The Bahamas

Anyone who has ever set foot in The Bahamas knows that it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  With a population of 300,000 people centred on the island of New Providence and dispersed over 700 islands, islets and cays in the Lucayan Archipelago, The Bahamas is a paradise on earth with an extraordinary climate, a deeply welcoming culture and an extraordinary range of wildlife. 

The third-wealthiest country in the Americas, The Bahamas also offers a home to foreigners looking to settle in a stable, low-tax and English-speaking democracy based on the rule of law.  Famous Citizens, residents and homeowners include Sydney Poitier, Mariah Carey, Tiger Woods, Nicholas Cage, Johnny Depp and the late Sean Connery, among many others.

Following the crippling financial crisis of 2008/9, The Bahamas hove into view as a welcome shelter for ex-pats looking to regroup and build a new life in a tranquil, prosperous and business-friendly Caribbean island.  WorldPR’s 2012 digital campaign to promote The Bahamas as a prime destination to relocate emphasised the rule of law, a stable and prosperous property market, the business friendly and low-tax fiscal environment, its proximity to the US, it’s connectivity and daily British Airways flights to London and, above all, the natural beauty of the islands. 

According to official statistics immigration to the The Bahamas has grown by approximately 10 per cent since the start of WorldPR campaign with the total immigrant population, currently accounting for 18 per cent of the total population, projected to continue growing steadily over the next two decades.

borat

Borat and the
Branding of Kazakhstan

When the comedy film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” was released on the world’s cinema screens in 2006, it produced a tsunami of international media acclaim.  Warmly received by critics and the industry, the film’s chief protagonist, Sacha Baron Cohen, won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in comedy and the film was nominated for multiple awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay at the 79th Academy Awards, and by The Guardian. It was also a huge financial success, grossing $262 million at the box office worldwide.

Unfortunately, this global phenomenon was marred by the immediate and palpable sense of injury that it generated in Kazakhstan and throughout Central Asia.

To ordinary Kazakhs the enthusiastic reception the film received among audiences worldwide came as a nasty shock. Its title apart, Borat had no connection whatsoever to Kazakhstan. It was filmed in Romania, not Kazakhstan. The languages spoken by Borat and the lead actors included Hebrew, Armenian, Czech and Polish, but not Kazakh. The azbuka script was cod-Russian, not Kazakh. Even the cast did not contain a single Kazakh actor. For these reasons, the Kazakh government was, at least initially, as deeply offended as its citizens. It was puzzled as well as offended when Borat dominated US news bulletins during the state visit to Washington of the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 2006.

Although Kazakhs were understandably slow to recognise it, Borat the movie in fact provided a huge opportunity. Despite its size – Kazakhstan is larger than Western Europe – many Americans and Western Europeans unlikely to tell you where it is or cite a single fact about it. Borat provided the occasion to launch a global branding campaign for Kazakhstan that had the potential, quite literally, to put the country on the map.

The initial brief of WorldPR had been to counteract the false and misleading impression created by the film; our task was seen largely as a damage limitation exercise.  But we were able to do much more than that, transforming the negative attitudes created by the film-makers into genuine interest and curiosity about a country of which very little was known.  Instead of trying to dampen interest in Borat we used the controversy surrounding the movie to place media talking-points and news items as well as op-eds in The Guardian (make hyperlink to article) and The Spectator (make hyperlink to article) to explain the facts about Kazakh’s growing political and economic significance and (see below).

Sure enough, over time, Borat the movie played an important role in sharpening Kazakhstan’s visibility, enabling us to draw attention to its rapid economic growth, improving living standards and educational standards as the country ascended the regional ladder to assume a leadership role in Central Asia. Tourism boomed as a direct consequence of the movie while media interest in the country also grew significantly. The result was a noticeable change of mood and approach in Kazakhstan.  In November 2006, on visit to the London, President Nazarbayev displayed his sense of humour when he asked at a press conference in Downing Street if there was a question “from our dear friend Borat”. This gesture, which was widely reported, reflected the fact that something that had originally been perceived as grossly unfair and a PR disaster had been transformed into a successful demonstration of effective soft power. The episode has undoubtedly influenced the way in which the country has successfully leveraged Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest iteration of Borat to its advantage.

Article by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, The Spectator, 25th November 2006

Article by Erlan Idrissov, The Guardian, 4th October 2006

pinochet with lucia hiriart and margaret thatcher

Senator Augusto Pinochet

In October 1998 a-Spanish judge, Balthazar Garzón Real, issued a warrant for the arrest of Senator Augusto Pinochet, former President of Chile.  The 83-year old Senator, who was convalescing in a London hospital after a back operation, was arrested late at night.  At the time of his detention, he was a guest of HMG and in possession of an accredited diplomatic passport. 

The Madrid court warrant, which was strenuously opposed by the Spanish government, alleged human rights abuses by the Pinochet administration.  Unknown to the authorities in Spain or the UK, the list of alleged abuses was assembled by the Communist Party of Chile and was a “cut and paste” of historic denunciations that had been addressed or dismissed by the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in the 1990s.  Joan Garcés, a Spanish communist member of the parliament of Madrid and former Revolutionary Adviser of Salvador Allende, the former president of Chile, was the link between the Chilean Communist Party and Judge Garzón, who was later convicted on unrelated criminal charges*.  Garcés had been an instrumental ally of Allende during the 1970s in seeking to coerce Chile onto the side of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Pinochet had prevented this by removing Allende in a military coup in September 1973.  Although Allende commit suicide in La Moneda palace during the fighting Garcés, a Spanish national, had been apprehended and deported to Spain.

The objective of the Pinochet arrest was, firstly, to destabilise Chilean society following years of successful efforts at reconciliation. (Recent turmoil in Chile, historically the most stable country in Latin America, show that in this respect at least the Chilean communists have obtained a result.) Secondly, Garzón and Garcés sought to establish a far-reaching and controversial change in international law, under which activist left-wing lawyers acting on alleged human rights violations in any jurisdiction of which they disapproved could, in effect, secure the arrest and trial of any individual, of any nationality, anywhere in the world, including a former head of state.  The new legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” would, they hoped, trump the long-established doctrine of sovereign immunity – and it nearly succeeded.

Augusto Pinochet was defended in the UK courts by a brilliant legal team led by Clare Montgomery, QC, the distinguished criminal barrister.  During the protracted and sometimes abstruse legal manoeuvres, which pinged back and forth for many months, the House of Lords was forced for the first time in its thousand-year history to set aside a judgment because Lord Hoffman, one of its senior judges, had failed to declare that he was associated with Amnesty International, the co-appellant in the action against Senator Pinochet.  In judgment after judgment, the House of Lords failed to reach a decision on whether to allow the extradition of Pinochet to Spain.

Outside Parliament and on the international airwaves, WorldPR orchestrated on behalf of Chilean Supporters Abroad a vigorous worldwide campaign to secure the freedom of Senator Pinochet, who was held with his wife, Dona Lucia, under house arrest in Virginia Waters, Surrey.  Chief protagonist was former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who was supported, among other parliamentarians, by Lord Lamont, former Chancellor, and a large number of Chilean activists that arrived in the UK to support the former president.  The campaign culminated in a seminal speech by Lady Thatcher the 1999 Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, which dominated the party conference news and deepened the predicament of the Labour government.

After 503 days of house arrest, amidst deadlock in the Law Lords and unprecedented demonstrations in Virginia Waters by Chilean protesters from both sides, British Home Secretary Jack Straw stepped in and issued an order to release Senator Pinochet on grounds of ill-health.   On 3rd March 1999, the Senator flew home on a Chilean air force jet to a rapturous welcome by his supporters.

Among PR professionals there is widespread respect for the way in which an intelligently directed campaign had changed the context of public debate to the very great benefit of the client, who was once again a free man.

(* In 2012 Balthazar Garzón was disbarred by the Supreme Court of Spain for illegally recording the meetings of defence lawyers with their clients.)

BBC Radio Interview with Patrick Robertson, BBC World Service, Witness History, 2010

Speech by The Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher of Kesteven, O.M., F.R.S., C.H., at the Conservative Party Conference, 6th October 1999

Personal letter to Patrick Robertson from Senator Pinochet, March 2000, following his repatriation to Chile.