Time to End the Nightmares for Businesses

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The annual ceremony for the Andrei Sakharov Prize for journalism, which was held on Dec. 14, was unusual this year. Peter Vins, the award's founder and a U.S. businessman born in the Soviet Union, was absent.

Vins is a remarkable person. He comes from a well-known family of dissidents that Sakharov helped free from the gulag in 1979, during Leonid Brezhnev's rule. Vins returned to Russia in 1994 and established the VinLund logistics and shipping company. He founded the award for investigative reporters in 2001 in memory of Sakharov, to whom he owes his freedom. The award's recipients include murdered Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

In September 2007, agents from the Interior Ministry's Economic Crimes Department for Moscow's Northern Administrative District searched the VinLund offices and assaulted three employees. Sakharov Prize jury members wrote to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, requesting that he investigate the matter. In October 2007, the prosecutor for Moscow's Northern Administrative District informed Vins that no evidence of any wrongdoing by his company had been found.

In July 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev called on law enforcement agencies to stop "nightmarizing" the business community with endless inspections and raids. That phrase immediately made Medvedev a hero for businesspeople who hoped the president's authority would protect them from abuses of power by law enforcement agencies.

Then, in September 2008, agents from the Interior Ministry's Economic Crimes Department -- this time from Moscow's Western Administrative District -- searched VinLund headquarters once again. They didn't assault any employees this time, but this latest inspection, which nearly paralyzed the company, was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Vins responded with an open letter to Medvedev. It read: "I have worked as a private businessperson since 1994 and have paid hundreds of millions of rubles in taxes during that time. Honorable Mr. President, such actions against small businesses occur daily in this country. We just want to work and feed our families. I am tired, as are my employees, and the whole country is fed up with the abuses of power by bureaucrats. For God's sake, help us!"

On Dec. 1, when Vins was present at a meeting to decide on the recipient of the next Sakharov Prize, he shared his thoughts with the judges, including myself. "This is not political repression," he said. "The authorities have let it be known that if I pay off the police, my problems will end. But I won't pay them a cent."

On Dec. 11, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin met with representatives of regulatory agencies and reminded them again of Medvedev's call to stop "nightmarizing" businesses by urging them to curtail the heavy-handed inspections.

The Sakharov Prize awards ceremony took place on Dec. 14. Jury chairman and Glasnost Defense Foundation president Alexei Simonov told the audience that he had spoken with Vins by telephone. "He is in Switzerland," Simonov said, "and he thinks it would be better for him not to make an appearance in Russia right now." The prize was, therefore, given without the founding member present. This year's winner was Tamara Proskuryakova, an investigative journalist from the small city of Kamyshin, in the Volgograd region. For many years now, she has been investigating abuses by the authorities there and the so-called "businessmen" whom they protect.

If I were Medvedev or Naryshkin, I would make an example of the Vins case by bringing charges against those who are "nightmarizing" his business. If the country's leaders can't back up their promises with firm action, they shouldn't be making them in the first place.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.