According to a hit piece on Bloomberg, an article more worthy of a bad Friday afternoon at the Daily Mail than a serious newswire, Eugene Kaspersky, the founder and figurehead of security software company Kaspersky Labs, is in bed with the FSB, the feared Russian security services and successor to the KGB.
Indeed, quite literally, they say he is in the sauna with them – once a week, apparently with his old pals at the agency to which he once belonged.
The implication is that behind the closely cropped beard lurks a shifty, untrustworthy frontman, while the more direct accusation is that Kaspersky Labs turns a blind eye to all the nefarious malware that may or may not be pumped out by the Russian state. Can you trust this shadowy company to analyse your email – your most private communications?
No, is their strongly implied suggestion.
Right and wrong
In one sense, Bloomberg is right: it would be naive to think that Eugene Kaspersky and the company he runs don’t have links with the Russian state that go beyond selling a mega-licence for Total Security for Business at a special price.
It’s a fairly open secret that Russia is basically a mafia-style kleptocracy, complemented by a rapacious public sector that makes up its meagre wages in various types of semi-official extortion. That runs from ordinary policeman ordered out with speed-camera guns with orders to shake down motorists, all the way up to senior managers in the tax office, who set targets for bribes from businesses large and small.
As such, you don’t build a company of Kaspersky’s size without making sure that you stay on the right side of the right people.
Bill Browder, the founder of Hermitage Capital Management, which he set up in Moscow in 1996, found out how it works when corrupt tax officials filed a phony $230m (£155m) tax refund in his company’s name, which they sought to pocket at Russian taxpayers’ expense. Later, perhaps, that fraudulent tax return could be used as a pretext to arrest Browder, shut down the company and sequester the assets.
Browder, though, publicly exposed the fraud, as he had done with many others before. Hermitage trading companies in Russia were seized anyway and its lawyer murdered in prison, too. It was just as well for Browder that he had already been blacklisted as a threat to national security and was therefore operating in London at the time instead.
Indeed, Russia’s billionaires didn’t get to be as rich as Bill Gates on the strength of their immense entrepreneurial acumen alone, or even on the back of a few Derek Trotter-style dodgy deals. Smelting plants and other heavy industrial assets in Siberia weren’t acquired and maintained on goodwill alone in the 1990s, but with muscle connected to the kind of people who weren’t afraid to break a few bones as part of a day’s work.
The fate of the oil empire of ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky proved how important it is to stay on the right side of president Putin and the Russian state. When Khodorkovsky started to pose a direct political threat to the Russian establishment, his companies were seized and the assets distributed to loyal vassals, while he ended up in jail with the threat of new charges to follow up the old ones if he didn’t keep his gob shut.
So, all the while Russia’s billionaire oligarchs uphold the authority of the centralised Russian state, the state will look after them. Indeed, it helped many of them to keep hold of their fortunes in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008-09, for example, when some might otherwise have been wiped out.
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