September 15, 2019

Hiding in Beverly Hills

Why would a wealthy Russian businessman with ties to his country’s notorious ultranationalist party known for its anti-American and anti-Semitic positions flee to Beverly Hills?

Ashot Egiazaryan, the fugitive Russian who can afford to go just about anywhere, isn’t talking. 

Last November, the Duma, Russia’s parliament, stripped him of his immunity, and state prosecutors opened a criminal case against him on charges that he defrauded business partners in a multimillion-dollar real estate deal that went south.

Egiazaryan has been placed on the Russian federal and international wanted list, according to Forbes’ Russian edition, which reported that he is wanted for fraud and is traveling on an invalid Russian passport. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Egiazaryan’s attempts to compare his case to that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos Oil Co., are flat wrong, according to prominent Russian human rights watchdogs, including the Memorial Human Rights Center and the Moscow Helsinki Group, as well as lawyers for Khodorkovsky, who is widely believed to have been jailed for his outspoken criticism of the Putin government.

Egiazaryan claims he is fleeing persecution, but the real reason appears to be that he is fleeing prosecution. His lawyers are reportedly seeking political asylum for their client.

In a recent piece published on the Web site of Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, a number of prominent Russian opposition leaders and civil society activists have rejected political motivation as a reason for Egiazaryan’s criminal prosecution.

Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin who recently spent two weeks in jail for organizing an anti-government protest, said, “I have never heard about Egiazaryan ever being involved in politics. … I think he will have a very hard time proving his political refugee’s credentials.” Yuri Shmidt, a prominent human rights lawyer who represented Khodorkovsky, expressed his incredulity at the parallels that have been drawn between the plight of his client and that of Egiazaryan, calling them “blasphemous.”

To be eligible for asylum, an applicant must be able to demonstrate that he has suffered persecution in the past or could fear future persecution by the Russian government or by a group Moscow is either unwilling or unable to control, because of his political opinion, race, nationality, religion or membership in a particular social group.

None of those conditions appears to apply to Egiazaryan. Since 1999, he has been a prominent financial backer and member of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), headed by his friend Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky, who is infamous for his outspoken anti-American and anti-Semitic attacks, faces no such risk of persecution for his reprehensible views. In fact, he remains the vice chair of the Duma and continues to speak out freely on any and all subjects — often repugnant — without threat of retribution by the state. 

Under U.S. law, escaping prosecution for a felony or convictions and arrests for serious crimes would likely render an application statutorily ineligible for asylum.

Jewish groups in American and Russia have repeatedly condemned the LDPR and its leader as anti-Semitic and have urged Americans, as a form of protest, to avoid any meetings with members of Zhirinovsky’s party who may visit the United States.

Zhirinovsky denies his party is anti-Semitic, while blaming the Jews for sparking both the Bolshevik revolution and World War II, provoking the Holocaust and masterminding 9/11. 

The Zhirinovsky-Egiazaryan party’s racism and bigotry has contributed significantly to Russia’s growing climate of ethnically based intolerance and xenophobia. Anti-Semitism remains pernicious and insidious, as the recent scandal with Christian Dior’s John Galliano has demonstrated so vividly. The fashion label must be commended for the swiftness with which it condemned its bigoted designer’s rant and distanced itself from him. The U.S. government must likewise put anti-Semites worldwide on notice:  You are not welcome in this country.

Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a U.S.-based international nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and xenophobia and to promoting democracy and rule of law in post-communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.