Russian police selectively target media’s ‘pirated’ software

Western companies that venture into Russia ought to remember this police rule: “Everything you say can and will be used against you.” In this particular case–any attempt to bring civilized rules to the Russian market game could, instead, turn into a colossal blow to your image. 

One might think it would be hard to transform a company’s sensible goal of receiving a lawful profit from its product into a corrupt practice. Well, the Russian police are capable of that.

Cases in which police have acted to confiscate allegedly counterfeit goods from Russian vendors are everywhere. One of the most glaring examples is the case of Russian businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who is now forced to hide in London because of a politicized criminal indictment. The reason for his persecution is simple: Unlike many others, Chichvarkin refused to pay “bonuses” to the police. As a result, police confiscated his company’s merchandise–mobile phones by well-known manufacturers, to be precise. Those phones later turned out to have been properly licensed, but it was too late–the police had already sold them through dummy firms. To cover up the truth, police opened a criminal case against the businessman they had just robbed.

Most frequently, though, Russian law enforcement exploits the strict licensing rules of the global company Microsoft to settle private scores. Police harassment ranges from arranging political persecution of inconvenient individuals and organizations, to opening criminal cases that carry real prison terms for the convicted. The pretext for the harassment is the alleged use of pirated software. Whether the software is indeed pirated or not is determined by so-called “experts” commissioned by the police. Those experts’ determination can hardly be considered unbiased.

As a rule, the defendants in such criminal cases happen to be human rights defenders, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, media outlets, and bloggers deemed inconvenient by authorities on the local level. (Moscow law enforcement is still lagging behind in this regard.) Such was the case for the Samara edition of Novaya Gazeta and its editor-in-chief, Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev. A criminal case was opened against our colleague on the charge that he allegedly used counterfeit Miscrosoft programs in the newsroom. Though the programs were licensed, the “expert” conclusion said they had been pirated. An individual who introduced himself as a Microsoft representative, allegedly defending Microsoft’s interests, later turned out to be a swindler, who–in cahoots with the local police–had tried to extort money from different companies. Novaya Gazeta in Samara was closed for over a year as a result, and the staff was subjected to humiliating searches and politicized prosecution. It just so happened that criminal interests coincided with those of local authorities, who did not like our sharply critical newspaper. Eventually, we were able to reopen the publication, but Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev–who was forced to change jobs–is still fending off all sorts of harassment and worrying about his and his family’s well-being.

Such examples are numerous in Russia. Just wait until some NGO starts an environmental campaign or a campaign in support of free elections–police will soon arrive with a search warrant to check for unlicensed software.

But don’t some media outlets and NGOs in Russia indeed use unlicensed software? Regrettably, yes, particularly in the provinces. But this happens not because they flout the law but because they are poor. Charitable foundations that take care of the sick (doing what should be the state’s job) are reduced to a meager existence and must economize in every possible way. Members of public organizations such as Soldiers’ Mothers–a group that provides legal help to parents of servicemen, who have died or have been abused in the army, or in the North Caucasus wars–literally have to beg in the street for alms in order to buy office supplies.

And while the state does not support such organizations, it allocates record amounts of money for its own political PR. But it is in those organizations that a budding Russian civil society finds its roots. It is in those structures that hundreds of thousands of Russians seek–and find–protection and support. It is exactly those organizations that give some hope for the future of democracy and social justice in Russia. They alone stand against the grave corruption and criminal vengeance of local authorities as well as the frequently bought courts and police, to defend the interests of ordinary citizens.

In the absence of public debate, the nonexistence of opposition in parliament, the lack of free elections, and the de-facto extinction (with few exceptions) of free media, one of the main instruments for those organizations to carry out their work is the Internet. The Internet is the current dwelling place of the political opposition and civil society in Russia. Authorities, in their attempt to preserve their supremacy over society, are very much aware of that. (Mind you, this is true for any authoritarian state today, not only Russia.) This is why they have launched a battle with the Internet dwellers–bloggers, independent media, NGOs, who exist in this space. Civil society, as a rule, loses this battle, and this happens with the silent support of mighty international brands, which–let’s be fair–did nothing wrong after all. They simply defended their rights in a civilized way but did it in an uncivilized country.

Perhaps this is the place to talk about the social responsibility that falls on global companies. Undoubtedly, international businesses such as Microsoft want to deal with a civilized Russia. They, I am convinced, want to work with a Russia where bribery is not the main transaction mechanism and suppression of dissent is not the key occupation of those in power. But this is not today’s Russian reality. So what should western companies–such as Microsoft–do when they arrive in Russia with their business ethics tucked under their arms? Recommendations are hard to make, but still, here are a few.

They must not only rely on the conclusions of the Russian police, prosecutors, and courts but carry out their own investigation every time counterfeit licensing claims are launched in their name. Then and only then must they decide whether they would back the claims or not. Another must-do for such companies is to carefully select who represents them in Russia and to monitor those representatives’ activities to ensure they remain independent from outside influences. And, last but not least, it would be good if companies like Microsoft introduced a pricing curve for their products in countries with dubious regimes: a ministry or a big Russian corporation, for instance, does not have the same means as, say, a human rights organization in the town of Barnaul, which can only afford one used computer.

Understandably, those practices will not be highly profitable for international companies, but they would not only help preserve their image; they could help save someone’s well-being and even life.

(Translated from Russian by Nina Ognianova)

Sergei Sokolov is the deputy editor of the Moscow-based independent twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta.