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By John Helmer in Moscow

It’s not so surprising that religion tends to be humourless. Making people accept the impossible usually requires threats, not jokes.

There is no record that Jesus Christ ever laughed out loud. His idea of humour was sarcasm, and puns he lifted from fishermen and carpenters. But for overdoing seriousness, the early eastern patriarch, St Cyril of Alexandria (378-444 AD), takes the cake. He’s the fellow who sets the record for heaping more anathemas on a single target than anyone in Christian history.

Without getting into the Greek and Hebrew too deeply, an anathema was the most extreme form of denunciation, curse, or execration that was imaginable to the Hebrews and the early Christians. At the time, there were a variety of sins and crimes for which a believer might be excommunicated by the church, or punished by the secular authority. But to be anathematized was much worse. It was the theological equivalent of emptying all 600 rounds of a Kalashnikov magazine into a mouse.

In retrospect, the story of Cyril’s 12 anathemas against his rival, Nestorius of Antioch and Constantinople, looks to be more fifth-century geopolitics than theology, with all too familiar power-grab motives. Cyril wanted to preserve Alexandria as the seat of the church, and himself in papal power, making sure the Byzantine emperor Theodosius, ruling from Constantinople at the other end of the Mediterranean, didn’t pick his own man, Nestorius. So Cyril concocted 12 anathemas; rigged a bishops’ council at Ephesus to validate them before Nestorius and his backers could arrive to defend themselves; and delivered what Cyril thought was the fait accompli to the emperor. When the scheme didn’t convince Theodosius, Cyril sent a crowd of thugs and protesters to his palace to make sure.

Noone cared exactly what was in Cyril’s indictment; and in the short run it paid off for Cyril. The outcome of his power-play, however, was a territorial split of the church, with Nestorius walking off with his devotees into what is known today as Syria. Cyril hung on to the illusion of his own and Alexandria’s preeminence, but they couldn’t match the growing power of the Byzantine court in Constantinople; the leftovers for Cyril’s successors finally disappeared when Alexandria was taken by the Persians.

Since then, a lot of dirty water has flowed under the bridge, until we come to the modern doctrine of over-kill. That originated with – who else? – the Germans. They discovered that in combat most soldiers fire within a 300-metre range. Accordingly, in 1939 what the German generals and armaments manufacturers decided they needed was not powerful single bullets travelling on well-aimed trajectories over long distances to strike an adversary’s head or heart. No, the German idea was a burst of lots of bullets, sprayed over a short distance at great speed, killing everything within radius, without aiming too carefully.

(One reason Germans need to be cut back every generation or so is that they are always coming up with inventive ideas for concentrating lethality, which they test out on the rest of us.)

And so on to the application of anathematizing and short-range shooting of adversaries by two well known Russian businessmen,

Sergey Ottovich Frank
and Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska.

You can test for yourself just how easily St. Cyril’s anathema technique works by doing no more than putting the helmut on Frank, and the cigar in Deripaska’s mouth. Hey presto! You appear to have a very bad German, and a replica of Al Capone — and you don’t need 12 anathemas to recognize how execrable they appear to be. Of course, St Cyril got away with his anathemas by stacking the court and bullying the media of his time. Modern democratic Russia can hardly be so primitive or gullible, can it?

For five years, Frank, a former Russian Minister of Transport, has tried to anathematize a rival named Dmitry Skarga; he had preceded Frank as chief executive of the state shipping company Sovcomflot between 2000 and 2004. Skarga had been appointed to his post when only 29 years of age by a powerful Kremlin figure, Igor Sechin, then advisor to President Vladimir Putin, and now Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the energy sector. Also involved in the appointment was a group of businessmen involved in the production of crude oil, refining, transportation to port, and tanker loading and delivery to market. The oil producer, in which they had an interest, was Surgutneftegas; the refinery, Kirishi; the oil trading firm, Kinex (Kirishineftekhimexport), and the shipping company, PNP. Two of these businessmen were named Yury Nikitin and Gennady Timchenko.

Skarga’s job, according to documents from those who had helped get him the job over Frank’s rival candidates, was to clear up several hundred million dollars worth of debts Sovcomflot had unable to reduce during Frank’s ministerial term in office; and to finance the construction of a new fleet of oil tankers, with ice-class design to enable them to operate in winter at Russia’s newest oil port then being built, Primorsk on the Gulf of Finland. In addition, Skarga had to find new lenders, meet the order from Putin to lift the volume of Russian crude oil his fleet was transporting; and lock in as much of Sovcomflot’s forward revenue as was prudent in light of expert forecasts of declining tanker rates and falling revenues for his company.

By the time Frank took over from Skarga in October 2004, Skarga had done pretty much what he had been told to do. Perhaps he had been too successful, and was no longer prepared to take orders. According to Frank, he had done nothing if not for corrupt inducement and unlawful greed. Say the name Skarga – or google it in Russian – and you can read Frank’s anathemas in full.

In parallel to their rivalry, there had been a dramatic change of ownership of Russia’s oil production assets. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos was out; the state-owned Rosneft, chaired by Sechin, was in. Equally dramatic, but less visible changes had also begun in rail and river transportation of these oil cargoes, and in the allocation of oil between international trading companies. Gunvor, controlled by Timchenko, had begun its rise against non-Russian competitors like Glencore, Vitol, and Trafigura, as well as against Russian rivals like Litasco, Crown Resources, and Kinex. New pipeline directions, new oil ports, and new oil fleet strategy were devised, with Sechin at the command. Timchenko, meanwhile, had gone his separate way from Nikitin.

A relatively simple plan to sell Sovcomflot shares to raise about $300 million from New York investors, requested from JP Morgan by Skarga, was cancelled by Frank. He favoured instead a plan to merge Sovcomflot with the partially privatized fleet company, Novorossiysk Shipping (Novoship), and then to privatize a much more costly chunk of the much bigger company. Had oil prices not collapsed, along with most commodity and trade value, and tanker revenues, in September 2008, this scheme might have been come much closer to fruition than it has done.

Instead, by an accident of timing, Frank’s dozen anathemas – issued with the approval of high officials of the Russian government to make sure Skarga and his associates could pose no criticism, no challenge, no threat – have been issued at a time when Sovcomflot is under heavy financial pressure, and remains under total state control. If there is a scheme to sell a 20% stake of the company to a single Russian businessman – as the Russian minister in charge of privatization recently suggested — then he would be getting the asset on the cheap. Lucky him!

Before we get that far, however, what Cyril was able to pull off at the Council of Ephesus isn’t going as smoothly for Frank. For he and his company witnesses have been obliged to give detailed evidence of their scheming in the UK High Court; stand for days while under cross-examination by defence lawyers; account for contradictions in the evidence; explain the part played in framing their indictments by Deputy Prime Ministers Sechin and Igor Shuvalov, General Prosecutor Yury Chaika, and other ministers of state; and answer to Justice Sir Andrew Smith, an experienced English judge in charge of commercial cases, whose questioning grows longer and sharper as the case winds on.

You see, an anathema is only as good as it stays credible. Multiplying an unsubstantiated anathema by twelve doesn’t make it twelvefold more believable. Cyril was able to ram his claims through the bishops at Ephesus (today Seljuk, on the Turkish coast), because Nestorius couldn’t get there in time; and because Pope Celestine in Rome, and Emperor Theodosius in Constantinople, were too far away themselves to appreciate what a job of stacking the court Cyril had done. Not so for Frank in the High Court of London. By contrast, Frank has gone too far beyond the reach of the political and commercial power, which had put him in Skarga’s place, to be able to fix the outcome of the court proceedings. The greater the ferocity with which Frank and his witnesses issue their anathemas, the further from London and the weaker the long arm of the Kremlin looks to be. (That’s also the point of the modern combat rifle – don’t try killing anyone with it, except at short range.)

This episode must end with a ruling by Justice Smith, and that in turn may be appealed, before it becomes final. It is quite possible that Smith’s judgement will rewrite the tale I’ve just told, and award vindication and veracity to Frank’s claims. But if it doesn’t — if five years of anathematizing Skarga fail, those in power in Moscow may get something like Emperor Theodosius’s case of cold feet.

But what difference will that make, and what will they do? One reason those Russian officials named in the Sovcomflot trial proceedings are in no hurry to reassess their position, or their vulnerability, is that, even if Skarga appears to be gaining in London, noone in Russia knows about it.

This reflects one of the most effective news blackouts in recent Russian history. Not a single major Russian newspaper – not one of the Moscow-based national business dailies – has reported on the testimony, cross-examination, and documentary evidence from the trial, now in its third week. Not counting a handful of recitals of Frank’s anathemas in minor media, and a legal profession website summary of the claims and the defence, there has been no Russian publication at all.

To understand this phenomenon, the editors of the four most prominent Russian national media were asked a question — Yelizaveta Osetinskaya of Vedomosti; Azer Mursaliyev of Kommersant, Pyotr Kiryan of RBC Daily, and Vladimir Mamontov of Izvestia. How do they explain why they have published nothing? They have not replied. It seems likely they don’t intend to. This silence suggests that St. Cyril’s method works in Russia today, not by multiplying the charges, nor by repeating them; but rather by making certain not a word of explanation or defence can be heard from one end of the land to another.

To this end, chasing the anathematized across the Russian border with arrest and extradition warrants works well enough. No matter how trumped-up these documents look to an English court, or to the Home Office tribunal in charge of asylum, the bodies of the culpable have already been disposed of, from the Russian point of view, even before the judgement is handed down. And since noone in Russia has noticed their disappearance, all that remains of them is Frank’s 12 anathemas.

A second case of Russian anathematizing is also moving to judgement through the UK High Court at present. This week, too, the propagator received a blessing from the Emperor himself. That appears to be the meaning of President Dmitry Medvedev’s homily on the victimization of Deripaska under Russia’s bankruptcy law, and at the hands of corrupt fixers of Russian court rulings.

Had Medvedev the career lawyer failed to read the widely publicized rulings of the High Court Justice Sir Christopher Clarke, and of the three-judge panel of the UK Court of Appeal, condemning Deripaska for manipulation of the Russian courts and administrative system for his commercial advantage? The Clarke ruling, issued in July of 2008, has been reported in both Russian and English; as have the anathemas Deripaska has charged against Michael Cherney (Mikhail Chernoy).

The full text of the High Court judgement is at: http://johnhelmer.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/michael-cherney-v-oleg-vladimirovich-deripaska.doc

On the issue of the anathemas, Clarke was explicit. “Mr Cherney may be a gangster or the victim of Kompromat. Mr Deripaska may be a spreader of calumnies about Mr Cherney, either true or false. The allegations against Mr Deripaska may be true. For present purposes it is material to note (a) that Mr Cherney has never been convicted of any crime anywhere; (b) that the highest Court in Switzerland has required the Cantonal Court to enter a non suit in relation to the charges against him; (c) that there is evidence in his favour of want of criminality on his part from individuals in very senior positions; but (d) that he is undoubtedly reputed to be a gangster in some of the public press in Russia and that there is hearsay evidence that this view is taken by some security personnel.”

Clarke was also explicit in ruling that in anathematizing Cherney, Deripaska was likely to count on the organs of the Russian state. “It seems to me that there is a significant likelihood of Mr Cherney being prosecuted if he returns and a real possibility that Mr Deripaska might use his influence, or his ability to orchestrate feeling against Mr Cherney, to encourage the authorities to take that course.”

“Given the closeness of the link between the Russian State and Mr Deripaska, the alignment of his interests with those of the State, and the size and importance of Rusal, it seems to me that the Russian State may well regard the question as to who was beneficially entitled to 20% of Rusal and is beneficially entitled to a 13.2% interest in UCR (even if the interest is held on trust for sale), as sufficiently important to justify encouraging the courts to see their way to rejecting Mr Cherney’s claims, if he were to present them in a Russian Court.”

Clarke’s ruling has put unprecedented spotlight on the PR tactics used by Deripaska and Rusal. Regarding evidence of the engagement of an English PR firm called Mirepco, Clarke said he accepted that a campaign had been arranged to blacken Cherney’s public reputation in the UK, making it difficult, or impossible, for him to pursue his court case against Deripaska in London. According to Clark’s recital, “a Project Status Report of 14th September 2007 states, inter alia, that the “desired end result is to ensure that the litigation being undertaken in the UK has no detrimental effect on the impending Initial Public Offering of Rusal in London.

Preventing Cherney from obtaining entry to the UK would obviously assist the case but may not be fatal to his pursuit of it”. Clarke added: “Mr Stewart told me on instructions that Mr Deripaska never commissioned this report, and knew nothing about it at all. But no evidence has been filed that offers any explanation about it or about Mirepco’s activities…. They bear, however, no overt sign of forgery or falsity. On the contrary they seem to me likely to be genuine and a reflection of the assessment of Mr Deripaska and his advisers as to the unlikelihood of Mr Cherney ever litigating in Russia.”

Between the Clarke ruling, and the dismissal of Deripaska’s appeal a year later, on July 31, 2009, a cache of documents has been released on the internet that appear to be private communications between Russians working for Deripaska; the Russian author of a book hostile to Cherney; various Israelis, including private detectives and PR agents; a BBC television correspondent and the go-between he was using to arrange an interview with Deripaska. It is unclear which of these schemes Deripaska authorized and paid for; and what plots were offered to him in the hope of attracting his approval, without success. What they all share is the intention to anathematize Cherney and anyone else standing in Deripaska’s way.

Displaying a helmet on a man’s head and a cigar in his mouth looks a hare-brained way of denigrating business rivals, and making money at a competitor’s expense. But in Russia, it works. If St Cyril of Alexandria hadn’t been canonized already for doing in Nestorius – the celebration of his feast day is June 9 in the Orthodox calendar — there would be a spot for him every publication day, plus the silent ones.

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