Following the libel claim brought in the High Court in London by businessman Alexey Gubarev against ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele in connection with the sensational claims made about him in the Trump Dossier which Christopher Steele compiled, comes news of another libel claim, this time brought in a court in the State of Massachusetts by Russia’s Alfa-Bank against Buzzfeed, the media publication which first published the Trump Dossier back in January.
The particulars of claim issued in the action says that the allegations made in the Trump Dossier concerning Alfa-Bank and three of its shareholders – Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven and German Khan – are not only grossly defamatory but by Buzzfeed’s own admission are wholly unverified. The particulars of claim also points out that Alfa-Bank’s name is repeatedly mis-spelled throughout the Trump Dossier as “Alpha Bank”.
Apparently Buzzfeed’s defence to this claim is not that the allegations in the Trump Dossier about Alfa-Bank, Fridman, Aven or Khan are true. Since by Buzzfeed’s own admission the allegations are unverified Buzzfeed is in no position to say that they are true. It is that publication of the Trump Dossier, including its unverified contents, is in the public interest.
Whether Buzzfeed will succeed in its public interest defence remains to be seen. I would however say that the allegations in the Trump Dossier about Alfa-Bank, Fridman, Aven and Khan should in themselves have alerted anyone with a genuine knowledge of Russia to the fact that its claims are untrue.
Alfa-Bank is Russia’s biggest private commercial bank. However the heyday of its influence and that of two of its owners, Fridman and Aven, was in the 1990s, when Aven was a minister of Yegor Gaidar’s pro-Western reformist government of 1991-1992, and when Fridman was one of Russia’s original oligarchs. By contrast in Russia today neither Fridman nor Aven are considered to be close to Putin or the government.
Suffice to say that the Russian liberal journalist Leonid Bershidsky – an opponent of Putin’s – has written an article about Fridman (pictured above) entitled “Not all Russian billionaires are Putin cronies“, whilst the Financial Times has also written an article about Fridman, which contains the following passage
The government wrote to LetterOne on Wednesday saying it had seven days to explain why it should be allowed to retain ownership of the fields and why ministers should not force their sale to a third party. The argument has puzzled many who know Mr Fridman. Always careful to steer clear of politics, he has never been seen as a Kremlin crony. His business empire, centred on Alfa-Bank, Russia’s largest private lender, is a world away from state-owned corporations such as Rosneft, which have flourished under President Vladimir Putin and are now being squeezed by sanctions.
That point was echoed on Wednesday by Victoria Nuland, US assistant secretary of state. Asked in a Congressional hearing whether Mr Fridman might be a potential target for US sanctions, she said the measures are aimed at “Russian public government assets and entities. Mr Fridman runs one of the few remaining private companies in Russia, and, as such, has had his own strong views as a private citizen about appropriate Russian-European relations”.
(bold italics added)
Someone who the arch-neocon Victoria Nuland doesn’t think is close to Putin is most unlikely to be so.
Needless to say if Fridman is simply a businessman – as Leonid Breshidsky, Victoria Nuland and the Financial Times all say – and if he is not close to Putin – as Leonid Bershidsky, Victoria Nuland and the Financial Times also say – then it beggars belief that he would ever have been involved in a convoluted Russian plot to meddle in the US election so as to swing it to Donald Trump. The fact that Fridman’s name appears in the Trump Dossier in such a context is therefore in itself a strong reason to doubt its truth.
Fridman and Aven did however gain considerable prominence in Russia in the early 1990s, when Fridman was classified as one of the original oligarchs, though he seems to have avoided becoming involved in Russian politics to the degree that some of the others did. Christopher Steele – the compiler of the Trump Dossier – was an MI6 agent in Moscow between 1990 and 1992 ie. at the time when Fridman and Aven were gaining prominence and when Alfa-Bank was set up.
In an earlier discussion of the Trump Dossier I made this point about it
The Trump Dossier’s baroque picture of the Russian decision making process bears some resemblance to the chaotic way the Russian government operated back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when sinister figures like the oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Boris Yeltsin’s bodyguard General Korzhakov wielded vast power outside Russia’s formal state structures. That of course was the period when Christopher Steele, the Trump Dossier’s compiler, was working in Moscow for MI6, and when he formed his ideas about Russia.
In the entirely misjudged prominence the Trump Dossier gives to Fridman, Aven, Khan and Alfa-Bank, and the wholly wrong role it attributes to them, we again see how long out of date ideas about Russia, which seem to have been formed in the 1990s, appear to have shaped its contents.
I would finish by making one frankly mischievous point. The Russian bank whose correct name is Alfa-Bank has its name consistently mis-spelled throughout the Trump Dossier as “Alpha Bank”.
As it happens there actually is a bank in existence called “Alpha Bank”, only it is not a Russian bank but a Greek one. Could someone have mixed the two banks up?