Fri Jul 3rd, 2009 at 04:21:45 AM EST
As reported in stories put up by de Gondi in the European Salon, the American lawyer Emanuel Zeltser, sentenced in Belarus last August on charges of 'using false official documents' and 'commercial espionage', was released on Tuesday, following a pardon by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
His release represents a victory for the energetic campaign on his behalf centred round the Save Emanuel Zeltser website. This campaign, however, can be seen as a vindication of the cynical observation of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich -- that the difference between a rat and a hamster is just a matter of public relations.
According to the version of the affair presented by his brother Mark on the website, Zeltser was an innocent victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by the fugitive Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
But evidence I produced in a recent diary demonstrates that, far from being an innocent victim, Zeltser was a key figure in a conspiracy to steal the estate of the late Georgian billionaire oligarch Arkadi 'Badri' Patarkatsishvili, who died of a massive heart attack in February last year. Deeply implicated in this conspiracy is the Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili.
Claims by Saakashvili at the time of last August's war between Georgia and Russia that he was an innocent victim of Russian aggression are now being definitively exposed as false by evidence gathered by the European Union commission looking into the war. For U.S. policymakers who strongly supported his aspirations to join NATO, the evidence of Saakashvili's complicity in fraud is one embarrassment too many.
This story was given to de Gondi and me by a U.S. contact, Karon von Gerhke, whose 'inside information' showing that the official British version of how the former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko died was a frame-up I discussed in a diary last December. On the Zeltser affair, besides pointing to publicly available sources, she also provided 'inside information' -- centering around admissions made to her by Mark Zeltser.
As one would expect, the key admissions were made verbally, and the evidence that they were made comes in reports of what was said to interested parties from Karon von Gerhke. Given the explosiveness of these disclosures, in our first diary we deliberately focused on the publicly available evidence supporting her claim that Zeltser and Saakashvili were co-conspirators in an attempt to steal Patarkatsishvili's estate. As the evidence that this was so is overwhelming, we now move on to the 'inside story'.
At the heart of the account given by Mark Zeltser on the Save Emanuel Zeltser website of how his brother came to be imprisoned in Belarus is the claim that Patarkatsishvili left legally valid documents appointing his distant relative Joseph Kay as executor of his estate.
In his capacity as Patarkatsishvili's lawyer, it is alleged, Emanuel Zeltser had possession of these documents. If he was to succeed in stealing half of the estate, it is suggested, Berezovsky had to suppress them -- and accordingly kidnapped Zeltser and delivered him over to torture and a mock trial in Belarus.
But in an email sent on September 12, 2008, to a distinguished lawyer, O. Thomas Johnson, of Covington & Burling LLP, Karon von Gerhke reported that in private Mark Zeltser was telling a quite different story:
Mark informed me Kay was engaged in negotiations with Russian and Israeli buyers whom Kay expected to net hundreds of millions by selling well below market value, with Saakashvili's approval, of course. Mark was particularly ecstatic at the thought of selling Berezovsky's assets out from under him.
Between you and me, Mark has never stated that the documents are authentic. To the contrary, he has gone so far as to state that his brother would freely admit they were forgeries if it would result in his release and return to the U.S. Mark not only knows where his brother placed the documents, he has access to them.
As I noted in my previous diary, Patarkatsishvili's widow Inna Gudavadze has brought an action against Kay and Zeltser in a U.S. court. Following the failure of her attempts to seek redress in the Georgian courts, meanwhile, she has brought an action in The International Court of Arbitration against the Georgian government, alleging the expropriation of the Imedi television station. In both actions, she is represented by Debevoise & Plimpton, the U.S. legal firm with which the former British Attorney General, Lord Peter Goldsmith, serves as European Chair of Litigation.
Evidence assembled in support of these cases, I showed in that diary, makes amply clear both that Kay and Zeltser were using forged documents, and that Saakashvili was complicit in their attempt to steal Patarkatsishili's estate.
Pressure ... at the 'very highest level'
That the justice of Gudavadze's case is accepted by the U.S. State Department is clearly evident, meanwhile, from an email sent to Karon von Gerhke on June 18 by the assistant to one of the officials most closely involved in this whole affair, the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department responsible for Georgia, Matthew Bryza. It reads:
In reality, Mr. Bryza is in contact with the legal team working with Mr. Patarkatsishvili's widow in pursuit of a just outcome to this case, and has repeatedly pressed the Georgian Government at the very highest level to abide by the rule of law in this case and all instances. Mr. Bryza does not discuss this publicly, as doing so would be inappropriate, given the private nature of the legal case.
And indeed, evidence of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to pressure Saakashvili emerged in a recent report
on a site called EUObserver.
According to the report, Gudavadze has hired the U.S. public relations firm, APCO Worldwide -- described as having 'close ties' to the State Department -- to 'help create political pressure around the legal battle to secure her late husband's assets', by lobbying European Union institutions. The report quotes an EU official remarking that APCO 'seem determined that only a decision at political level will solve it, not at judicial level'.
Both Bryza's view as relayed to von Gerhke, and the position taken by APCO, imply an acceptance of the validity of the specific claim that Saakashvili has expropriated key assets belonging to Patarkatsishvili's estate in Georgia -- and the more general claim that the rule of law does not prevail in that country.
What also seems clear is that, although influential forces in the U.S. are attempting to bring Saakashvili to heel, they are doing so in ways which seek to prevent the acutely embarrassing light cast by this whole affair on the nature of his rule being exposed to public scrutiny.
And indeed, this a central point made in the email from von Gerhke which provoked Bryza's response. According to a report by the very well-informed Laura Rozen on her blog on the Foreign Policy website, Bryza has been recommended for the post of U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan. In response, von Gerhke informed him that she would be filing a statement with the Senator from her home state of Vermont, Patrick Leahy -- currently chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- opposing the nomination.
Her grounds were what she described as his 'complicity in obstruction of justice through obfuscation and concealment of Saakashvili's knowing and willful complicity in theft of Patarkatsishvili's $12 Billion estate.'
Behind closed doors
In his eagerness to repudiate the suggestion that he was obstructing the attempt by Gudavadze to prevent Saakashvili stealing her husband's estate, Bryza actually pointed to what to some of us is one of the most worrying aspects of the whole affair -- the way that information on the Georgian President's role is being kept from coming into the public domain.
The case against the Georgian government being brought by Lord Goldsmith on behalf of Gudavadze is a civil case, to be heard in The International Court of Arbitration -- whose hearings are behind closed doors. In the Western press, apart from one excellent report by the BBC's Ray Furlong in March, coverage seems conspicuous by its absence.
On a Georgian website back in February, Lord Goldsmith was quoted as saying that legal action was taking place not simply in Georgia and the U.S., but in Liechtenstein and Gibraltar -- where indeed Patarkatsishvili is known to have held substantial assets. But Google searches turn up nothing on any actions in these last two places.
A central issue raised by the Georgian war, in the light of the evidence now available, has to do with the dangers of confusing rats and hamsters -- to hark back to Abramovich's cynical quip. As many now recognise, alike in Brussels and in Washington, to offer Saakashvili promises of inclusion in NATO -- and concrete military assistance -- might have made rather better sense, had he indeed been an inoffensive hamster.
In the event, it encouraged him in the rat-like gamble of attempting to reincorporate the separatist area of South Ossetia by force. And Bryza was at the heart of this -- as a former senior Clinton Administration official remarked to Rozen, he was seen as having gone 'beyond what someone in his position would usually do' in showing support for Saaksashvili both in the run-up to the war and during it.
But, as the historian and journalist Mark Almond chronicled back in November 2007 in a notable piece on the falling out between the beneficiaries of the 2003 'rose revolution', a wilful refusal to look at the unpleasant undersides of Saakashvili's regime was common in the West. And this gives many people a strong vested interest in keeping the story of Patarkatsishvili's estate under wraps.
But how then did Karon von Gerhke come to be the recipient of admissions by Mark Zeltser incriminating Saakashvili? Her involvement in matters concerning Russian oligarchs, as I noted in last December's diary on the Litvinenko mystery, goes back to 1993, when she was approached by a Vice-President of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Menatep Bank, called Alexander Konanykhine.
From CIA contacts, as she testified before the House Banking Committee in 1999, von Gerhke learned that he was trying to enlist her help in an elaborate operation 'to launder billions of dollars stolen by members of the KGB and high-level government officials' -- and she became involved in a CIA operation to penetrate this. Also testifying to the committee on Konanyhine was a former KGB operative called Yuri Shvets, whom she befriended.
Subsequently, Shvets became entangled with Berezovsky. After the death of Litvinenko he would testify both to the British investigators and the BBC -- who broadcast his claims without any mention of the Berezovsky connection, or any attempt whatsoever at critical examination -- that the dead man had told him he had been poisoned by his business associate Andrei Lugovoi. Having exchanged emails with Shvets at the time, von Gerhke was able to demonstrate that he was perjuring himself.
The accusations against Lugovoi, uncritically recycled by the British authorities and British media, her evidence demonstrated, were the product of a disinformation operation orchestrated by Berezovsky and his associates.
Unsurprisingly, then, von Gerhke took a close interest in the claims that Berezovsky had kidnapped Emanuel Zeltser after the lawyer was arrested in Belarus in March last year. And it was indeed she who introduced Mark Zeltser to Patton Boggs LLP, who have been instrumental in organising the public relations campaign on Emanuel Zeltser's behalf.
What then emerged was that the accusations against Berezovsky had, in key respects, as little relation to reality as the accusations of the oligarch and his associates against Lugovoi -- which indeed Mark Zeltser came to admit. Meanwhile, the evidence of Saakashvili's involvement in fraud became, in the wake of the Georgian War, yet more explosive than it would otherwise have been.
The graymail plea
Eventually, von Gerhke succeeded -- or so it seemed -- in persuading Mark Zeltser that rather than continuing with a campaign based upon patently false accusations, it would better sense for Emanuel Zeltser to concede the truth of the allegations against him.
The case Lord Goldsmith had brought on behalf of Inna Gudavadze in the U.S. was stalled, because the whereabouts of the documents on whose authenticity or lack of it everything depended was supposed to be known only to Emanuel Zeltser -- who was in prison in Belarus.
Accordingly, it seemed to von Gerhke that it might be possible to persuade either Berezovsky or Gudavadze and Goldsmith to take action to get Zeltser back. Clearly, Berezovsky had influence with Lukashenko. So also did the Russian authorities. They were in contact with Gudavadze, and had every reason to prefer that Patarkatsishvili's assets should end up in her hands, rather than those of Saakashvili -- and they also had leverage with Lukashenko.
With Zeltser back in the U.S., having confessed all, there would then be ample leverage on Saakashvili to abandon the attempt to expropriate Patarkatsishvili's assets -- and he might also be persuaded to stand down, in favour of a more stable and predictable leader. This is what is known as graymail -- the threatened use of material that governments cannot afford to have in the public domain, to influence legal proceedings.
According to von Gerhke, she was authorised by Mark Zeltser to submit a graymail plea offer to John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel of the CIA -- and given assurances that Emanuel Zeltser was prepared to cooperate. And this she did on October 10 last year. Subsequently, according to von Gerhke, both Berezovsky and Debevoise & Plimpton were contacted.
At the same time, Karon von Gerhke put Mark Zeltser in contact with Washington lawyers who had the necessary security clearance to negotiate such a deal with the CIA.
Among the lawyers with whom she put Mark Zeltser in contact was Plato Cacheris, described in a Time profile back in 1998 as an 'uber-lawyer, the guy you want on speed dial when a prosecutor is threatening you on the other line' - and has having had a 'role in nearly every scandal since Watergate'. The email to O. Thomas Johnson of Covington & Burling LLP, from which I quoted earlier, was sent in pursuit of the suggestion that they might be engaged by Mark Zeltser.
Also contacted was another partner at Covington & Burling, Stuart Eizenstat, who has held numerous important official positions -- including that of U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. He is also a member of the International Advisory Council of APCO Worldwide -- the company reported to be lobbying on Gudavadze's behalf in Brussels.
Meanwhile however the campaign on the Save Emanuel Website, based upon blatantly false claims about Zeltser's role, went on its way unchecked -- to Karon von Gerhke's great concern, given that enraging Lukashenko and Berezovsky with false accusations seemed an unpromising way of persuading them to release the lawyer.
The Complaint against Belarus, alleging kidnap as well as torture to the UN's Human Rights Committee, was, as I noted in my previous diary, produced by Patton Boggs in December, and the request for a formal investigation by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture submitted by the company in January. It was on February 5 that the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, was described by her spokesman as being 'focused' on this 'very troubling situation'.
At then, on February 20, the court in Georgia turned down the appeal put in by Lord Goldsmith, on behalf of Gudavadze -- and reaffirmed the rights of Kay as executor. As I noted in my previous diary, following this decision a press release appeared on the Save Emanuel Zeltser website, which was sent out by Trent Duffy, a former press spokesman for President George W. Bush.
This quoted an associate of Emanuel Zeltser, claiming that this decision 'deals a striking blow to those who have challenged the legitimacy of claims by Joseph Kay and Emanuel Zeltser in this dispute' and 'should now open the door to his jail cell and lead to his immediate release'.
To hark back to the cynical remark of Roman Abramovich, Mark Zeltser had decided to stick with the PR campaign designed to demonstrate that Emanuel Zeltser was actually an innocent and put upon hamster. This appeared to signal the definitive abandonment of the strategy Karon von Gerhke had recommended.
A behind-the-scenes deal?
What of course we do not know, as yet, is whether the release of Zeltser is bound up with the kind of behind-the-scenes deal between Gudavadze and Saakashvili which Matthew Bryza appears to have been trying to secure -- or whether Saakashvili is still holding out against the pressure that APCO is trying to build up against him. And it is certainly possible that the information gained by von Gerhke has been used in efforts to secure such a deal. This may be become clearer quite soon.
One further element of this information is certainly worth reflection. As I noted in my previous diary, Gudavadze and Lord Goldsmith have now fallen in with one key claim made on the Save Emanuel Zeltser website -- that Berezovsky is fraudulently attempting to acquire a half share in Patarkatshvili's estate, to which he is not entitled. But this is another claim which Mark Zeltser made publicly, and contradicted privately to Karon von Gerhke.
From the very fact that Lord Goldsmith is contesting this claim, however, it is clear that there has to be very genuine doubt as to whether Berezovsky can prove his ownership. If there is proof of ownership, anywhere, a likely location is in the files of Emanuel Zeltser, who was Patarkatsishvili's lawyer, according to Mark Zeltser, for fourteen years.
A central part of the graymail plea, as conceived by Karon von Gerhke, was that Zeltser would agree to surrender all his documentation -- which would include a treasure trove of information on the business dealings, not only of Patarkatsishvili but also of Berezovsky, going back to the early 1990s. For irrespective of whether there was some kind of parting of ways between them in the months before Patarkatsishvili's death, their interests were inextricably intertwined prior to that time.
Whether these files will now become available to U.S. law enforcement authorities is, to put it mildly, an interesting question.
If there is one single source of information which would cast light -- be it favourable or unfavourable -- on the business activities of Russian oligarchs since the collapse of communism, it seems like that the documentation held by Emanuel Zeltser is it. One would very much like to see this information come into the public domain.
But then one of the more dispiriting morals of this whole sorry is precisely how easily information can be suppressed. And one reason for this is that we do indeed have large PR organisations devoted to demonstrating that rats are hamsters -- together with a mainstream media which is commonly all too ready to accept what the PR men, or indeed officials, say.
On the Patton Boggs website, we find a press release welcoming the freeing of Zeltser. It is said to be 'a shining moment for international diplomacy' that the Government of Belarus 'restored the freedom of a man who was wrongly convicted' -- a somewhat questionable claim, to put it mildly. A number of Congressional figures are praised for having 'helped make clear to President Lukashenko that Emanuel's pardon is a precondition for improved relations between the U.S. and Belarus'.
It is not a happy situation when the relations between the United States and other countries can effectively be shaped in this way by PR campaigns designed to portray rats as hamsters. Far more important than the intrinsic significance of this obfuscation of the actual facts about the Zeltser affair, however, is the related obfuscation of the clear evidence as to the complicity of Mikhail Saakashvili in Zeltser's fraud.
This information bears directly upon a crucial foreign policy issue, alike for the U.S. and Europe -- that of whether and in what conditions it is sensible to include Georgia in NATO. It is not information which should be held tightly within a closed circle of people such Matthew Bryza and Lord Goldsmith. It should be generally available, to make possible informed public discussion. This is what democracy is supposed to be about.