Yukos case: Robert Amsterdam, a "soviet style" propagandist
In 2003, Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was indicted for fraud by the Russian government and his oil empire Yukos accused of significant tax evasion.
Both were put on trial and destroyed. Beneath official accusations of corruption and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to jail because of his growing political ambitions. His company was dismantled, and its most productive asset, Yugansneftegaz, eventually merged into the Russian public oil company Rosneft.
From its very beginning, the Yukos case has been an intense battle of communication between the Russian government and Khodorkovsky’s friends. Both sides have set up well-organized public relations operations to make their case to the general public.
Stanislav Belkovsky: the weapon against Khodorkovsky
Initially, the move against Mikhail Khodorkovsky needed to be accepted by the Russian people: the Russian government needed to bypass Khodorkovsky’s vast network and resources, and communicate directly to the Russian people.
For this, they turned to one of the shadiest and most controversial communications expert in Russia, Stanislav Belkovsky. Belkovsky was thus asked to shape a strategy to prepare Russian public opinion to Khodorkovsky’s arrest.It is worth noting that Belkovsky has a long track record of betraying everyone he has ever worked for, except maybe for his mentor and protector, Russian oligarch and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Berezovsky.
Indeed, it is under Berezovsky’s protection that Belkovsky created his communication agency, Politech, and made numerous contacts among Russian senior officials and businessmen. Until 2002, he even closely worked for one of them: Mikhail Khodorkovsky!”
Belkovsky, who is nicknamed the “spider” in Russia, launched during the summer 2002 violent and direct attacks against Khodorkovsky, aimed at legitimating future proceedings against him and Yukos.To do this, Belkovsky created a conservative think-tank, named the Council on National Strategy (CNS), with a dozen of the most well-known Russian political analysts.
In September, the CNS spread rumours indicating that Yukos was financing the Russian Communist Party: this was the first step in the company’s destabilization campaign.
In May 2003, Belkovsky’s think-tank published a report entitled “The State and the Oligarchy”. This report, deliberately built on rumours and false statements, was the most head-on accusation against Khodorkovsky. It began a chain reaction.
The report, which notably predicted a putsch from the oligarchs, pointed the finger at Khodorkovsky. Because of its very serious accusations, the report was largely broadcasted and commented in the Russian media. It became the starting point of the attacks against Yukos.
Soon everybody forgot the source of the news, but not the news itself: Belkovsky’s aggressive and relatively unsophisticated strategy worked perfectly. Subsequently, Russians enthusiastically supported the legal proceedings against Khodorkovsky.
Robert Amsterdam: the Yukos empire strikes back,
It took a while for the Yukos team to find its bearings (Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 8 years in jail and his assets were seized), but they fought back with a vengeance by saturating the public relation field, especially outside Russia where several actors had much to lose with the dismantlement of Yukos (particularly ExxonMobil, with whom Yukos had planned to merge).
Their counter-offensive was similar to that of Belkovsky and was (and still is) shaped by an American-Canadian lawyer, Robert Amsterdam. Although he is not a communication professional, Amsterdam has, in just a few years’ time, proved that he is a PR genius – though his skills as a lawyer have so far proven to be sub-par.
Indeed, since being recruited by Khodorkovsky, Amsterdam has acted more as a lobbyist than as an actual lawyer. Amsterdam was even described by the Wall Street Journal (surely not a fan of the Russian government jailing Khodorkovsky) as a “Soviet-style propagandist” with respect to the methods he has used to defend his client.
One of those consists of animating a blog, robertamsterdam.com, launched in 2006 and initially dedicated to the Yukos case. Now this blog has expanded to broader issues concerning Russian politics: Amsterdam’s site publishes any piece that is negative toward Russia or Vladimir Putin.
This blog, as well as half a dozen of mirror blogs linked to Amsterdam but where he does not officially appear, are run by the New York-based online communication firm K Social Media Consulting, a leader in viral communication (they have also worked with Rolls Royce and Lockheed Martin).
Amsterdam’s team systematically generates excellent web rankings to any article negative toward Russian government, therefore offering them an enhanced visibility and accessibility.As a matter of fact, anyone searching the web on Russian politics has a great chance to come across Amsterdam blog pages first, therefore ensuring a rather partisan view of Russia.
This is a smart way to communicate, using the most the internet has to offer. Yet it is also a bit problematic from a moral point of view.
Let us be honest, in another time or place this would have been called straight-up propaganda or mass manipulation. A lot of people even wonder if his intrusive blogging and lobbying activities do not breach his legal duties as a lawyer– but so far this has not stopped him.
The worst part is that this strategy is, to me, exceptionally counter-productive (at least if you have your client’s interest in mind).
Indeed, so long as Amsterdam’s team keeps raising Khodorkovsky as a symbol, Russia will keep him jailed… as a symbol.
From my perspective, it seems that Amsterdam is less concerned about getting his client out of jail than by turning him into a cause célèbre, thus ensuring his own fame. If I were Khodorkovsky, I would fire Amsterdam– but perhaps Khodorkovsky is being misled.
There are also many rumours on Amsterdam’s possible links to the CIA, which would take advantage of Amsterdam’s position to broadcast discriminative information about the Russian government. I do not know if these rumours are true, but they would certainly explain a lot…