A Bizarre Trial Stirs Western Concerns About Russia
CNBC Senior Economics Reporter
The government of Russia will underscore its place as one of the world's most bizarre when it begins Monday the trial of Sergei Magnitsky.
It is not bizarre by Russian standards that Mr. Magnitsky was an attorney imprisoned essentially for defending his client, American investor Bill Browder.
It is not even the most bizarre part of the case that the 37-year-old Magnitsky was allegedly tortured in prison and Russia appears to know who did it and has refused to prosecute. This has led the U.S. to pass a law banning travel of corrupt Russian officials to America and a strange response from Russia banning U.S. adoptions of Russian babies.
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What is truly bizarre about the trial is that Mr. Magnitsky is dead, and has been dead since 2009, the result of wounds sustained in prison, human rights groups say. The trial would be the first posthumous trial in the history of Russia — there is no record of even one of the famous Stalin show trials being prosecuted against a dead man.
What is also strange is that the fallout from the Magnitsky trial appears to be aggravating Western concerns at the World Economic Forum in Davos about state-sponsored corruption that the Russian government has at least publicly said it's trying to counter.
Indeed, Russians showed up in force in Davos, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the Magnitsky trial begins after the annual conclave ends, probably for fear it would embarrass the visiting Russian officials. It is worth remembering that Davos became the famous meeting that it is today in large measure because it was the place in the early 1990s where Westerners and Russians were eager to meet each other in the first efforts to integrate the recently collapsed Soviet Union into the world.
But gone are the throngs that surrounded the Russians in the 1990s as Western executives and officials clamored to meet them and explore business opportunities. Gone are the well-attended panels about Russian reforms. Several executives privately say now Russia is no longer worth the trouble, even as the economy there grows. At a dinner in Davos, frequent Russian critic George Soros labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin as "repressive" and said he expects the economy there to weaken. He called on Europe to follow the U.S. lead and adopt tough laws against travel of Russian officials deemed to violate human rights.
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As a sign of lack of interest in Russia at Davos, a speech by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was about one-third empty. Medvedev addressed the Magnitsky affair, saying, "He was a corporate lawyer or an accountant, and he just stood for the interests of the people who hired him. He is not a truth seeker and truth fighter. But of course, we feel sorry for him because he died in prison."
At a private dinner, one Russian offered that the West has two choices when it comes to Russia: Engage it and wait for slow, gradual change, or ostracize it and criticize the country, which would force Russia inward and lead to harsher outcomes.
Asked if there was a third option — that Russia would itself reform its human rights, democratic and freedom of the press abuses — the Russian replied categorically, "No."
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