Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Robert Amsterdam White Paper. A Traveling Circus Show

    Tetiana Derkach

    The Religion in Ukraine outlet launches a series of reports as part of the inquiry into a prominent defender of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Robert Amsterdam. We will take a closer look at this person, exploring his background, previous cases, and the way he usually does business.

    Disclaimer. The report shares the author’s own impressions and judgments based on the analysis of the two dozen cases on which Robert Amsterdam worked, as well as over a hundred open sources from around the world, including Ukraine, the US, Canada, the UK, France, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Czechia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon, and South Sudan. The author also sifted through hundreds of comments under dozens of social media posts, as well as numerous interviews and comments by Mr Amsterdam himself.

    Ukrainians had been largely unaware of Robert Amsterdam until 2023, when he emerged as a legal defender for Vadym Novinsky, a sanctioned oligarch who holds dual Ukrainian and Russian citizenship, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that remains in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate. Eccentric and vibrant in the media space, Mr Amsterdam quickly came into public focus, immediately going all in against the Ukrainian government that he claims is an as a brazen violator of believers’ rights.

    It remains unclear exactly what legal services Mr Amsterdam provides to the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and at what capacity, but what he does publicly has absolutely nothing to do with the noble legal profession with all of its sophisticated ethical nuances. His performances would be more relevant for a one man’s show in a traveling circus, involving a range of exciting tricks. He would simultaneously throw darts, whisper a cobra, swallow fire, and juggle but once his tricks fail to enthrall the audience and boos start coming his way, a Joker pops up on stage, threatening to sue the angry audience, warning spectators of an international tribunal. His hyperactive stunts confuse thinkers while attracting media fast food consumers.

    You can be as skeptical or scornful as you like about this peculiar genre, but the sad fact is that it also pays quite very well. In fact, Mr Amsterdam has been championing this specific market for several decades already. The problem is that, in order to stay fit for the job, such lawyers (as Amsterdam refers to himself) often turn a blind eye to their clients’ reputation, as well as to the circumstances and context of their cases. And this Canadian man has worked with many of those.

    So, who is Robert Amsterdam?

    The official biography of this gentleman looks quite respectable, describing him as an exceptional international crisis manager, offering a unique interdisciplinary approach to solving complex issues, given his vast experience in management and legal fields. He is said to have represented the interests of acclaimed clients in commercial, corporate, and political affairs at the international level, been engaged in protecting victims of political repressions from persecution and unjust sanctions, fighting against human rights violations, and contributing as a columnist to various media outlets, etc. Some media even refer to him as an outstanding adviser to “billionaires and presidents”.

    His educational background, noted on the website, also looks quite credible – a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Carleton University in Ottawa (1973-1976) and a Bachelor of Laws from Queens University in Kingston (1976-1979).

    But behind this respectability hides a multi-faceted personality with a rather non-trivial life path. Amsterdam’s biographers noted that he was a non-conformist, a rebel as a teenager, participated in anti-government protests and supported radical activists like Howard “Abbie” Hoffman. He was even suspended from school for penning an article about the latter in a student newspaper, according to The Jerusalem Post. The Canadian Lawyer outlet wrote: “In grade 11, he staged a walkout and shutdown of Woodroffe High School, then a march to and 24-hour protest outside the U.S. Embassy, all to protest the American government conducting underground nuclear weapons testing in Amchitka Island.”

    According to The Toronto Star, after graduation, his father enrolled Robert in political science summer classes at Carleton University, including courses in Chinese and Russian communism. Robert Amsterdam said his first bachelor’s degree was related to studies of the Soviet space, and among his teachers was, a famous Ukrainian, Professor Bohdan Bociurkiw. Indeed, in 1971, political scholar Bohdan Bociurkiw founded at Carelton University the Institute of East European Studies, and it does offer a Bachelor of Arts program. This is in line with what is stated on Amsterdam’s personal LinkedIn page saying that Mr Amsterdam received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton.

    Although Mr Amsterdam didn’t do well on his LSAT, he squeezed his way into Queens University in Kingston in 1976. But, according to the biographers of this restless figure, he had other important things on his mind rather than studies. Instead, he spent most of his time running an import-export business to Nigeria, at a time when the country was in economic and political turmoil as a result of falling oil prices and a military coup.

    Some sources note that Mr Amsterdam received a law degree from Carleton University in Ottawa, but this is an error.

    Also, one of Amsterdam’s official pages states he completed his LLM in American Law from George Mason University. But on most of the sites that this silver-haired gentleman runs, such an episode of his education is never mentioned.

    Nevertheless, our character did seal a spot under the sun in the legal field – not least thanks to his business partners who are engaged in actually painstaking legal work. Today, Amsterdam is a member of the Canadian and International Bar Associations. As stated on the Amsterdam&Partners website, Amsterdam was granted a solicitor certificate in the UK.

    In general, Amsterdam likes to embellish reality. All of his profiles mention that in 2005 he was named “Lawyer of the Week” by The Times. In fact, “Lawyer of the Week” is neither a title nor an award, but simply a weekly column in the newspaper. It would have been surprising if a British lawyer, who at that time had the Khodorkovsky case in his portfolio, had not been invited to a miniature interview for the weekly column to be given eight simple questions of a biographical nature… Then he exposed his subconscious unhealthy longing for Russia – despite all the troubles that befell him there. When asked what he would be if he were not a lawyer, Robert Amsterdam answered he would be professor or entrepreneur in Moscow or Shanghai.

    “The Unrepentant Marxist”*

    As we can see, Mr Amsterdam has admired left-wing ideas since his younger years. Among his mentors, he mentions the Marxist economist and then the dissident, the Czech Radoslav Selucky, who studied in Leningrad and met with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. “Czech-born and Soviet-trained, he regaled his students with tales about the old Cold War, the art of disinformation, working with Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro, the inner working of the politburos of the countries behind the Iron Curtain,” Robert Amsterdam once said. But today, the latter prefers to exploit only a single excerpt from the biography of Marxist Selucky – his emigration to America due to the suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968, which he supported.

    Canadian Lawyer cites the fact that at the age of 17, Amsterdam, together with his mother, who was undergoing treatment in the-then Czechoslovakia, traveled across Eastern Europe and regularly visited the USSR. Admitting to being a politics nutcase, Amsterdam said he seized great opportunity to spend a summer behind the Iron Curtain. The Jerusalem Post offers details of his memories: Already at the age of 17, says Mr Amsterdam, he was declared persona non grata in Czechoslovakia. The charge was discussing politics with dissidents – or perhaps security agents posing as such. According to the Czech publication Lidové noviny, this happened precisely because of Mr Amsterdam’s contacts with Selucky, but at that time they could not meet in the Czech Republic – only in Canada.

    Surprisingly, being declared, as he himself assures, persona non grata in one of the countries of the socialist camp, in 1975, Bob Amsterdam managed to cross into the USSR. Then he first visited Kyiv and the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra shrine, which at that time served as a museum while the monastery remained shut down. In those years, it was unlikely that foreigners with views critical of the Soviet government could be allowed into the Soviet Union. And it is unlikely that a young man with Marxist-anarchist mush in his mind could be imbued with Orthodox spirituality in a museum set up in an atheistic state.

    But even then, he almost got into trouble: Mr Amsterdam still remembers vividly the time he planned to travel to Kishinev, Moldova, to try to get into a trial involving Soviet Jews (along with meeting a beautiful woman and drinking the country’s wine). American consular officials in Leningrad — now Saint Petersburg — tried to stop him by telling him they would no longer protect him, “which only excited me all the more,” Amsterdam said.

    As Lidové noviny writes, Mr Amsterdam admitted that he “studied Marxism not only in Canada, where he was at the university, but also in Moscow, where he was for training. He regularly read the official Chinese Communist daily and wanted to travel to Beijing in the 1970s.” However, no information was obtained to support the report of his studies in Moscow.

    In the same year, Amsterdam found himself in Nigeria. One report claimed that while on a beach in Nigeria in 1975, Amsterdam accidentally came across the crucified bodies of political opponents of the regime.

    The Jerusalem Post also writes about Bob Amsterdam’s Marxist youth: “Back then he was a committed Marxist, devouring books on dialectical materialism. At college in Ottawa, he chose Marxist studies as a major before opting to study law at Queen’s University in Kingston.”

    Even if today Amsterdam does not profess Marxism, these passions of youth did not just pass as they left deep scars on his professional outlook.

    *The title of one of the posts on the blog of Robert Amsterdam (author’s note)

     How Amsterdam runs his business

    Because he is not licensed to practice law in national venues, he hires local lawyers, preferably with a specific profile and reputation: “I want someone who doesn’t speak English. I want someone who is not internationally connected to other foreigners … I want to know what’s happening on the ground. I want an old criminal lawyer. I often tell my clients, if he has a full set of teeth, I don’t want him.”

    Bob Amsterdam terribly dislikes being called a lobbyist or “PR hacker”, seeing such descriptions as those devaluing his stormy, or “unique”, activity, as he refers to it.

    But wherever he would get into spotlight, this is precisely how observers describe his work. Wherever he appears, Mr Amsterdam operates by the same scheme. His defense tactics have not changed for decades. It seems that the guy loves to be on stage, but all he can offer the shocked audience is some worn out puns to his own original soundtrack. Some, however, still offer him a hefty pay. That doesn’t mean though that he will necessarily deliver.

    The main thing that catches the eye: Mr Amsterdam is very ambitious about selecting foes for his clients. He is interested in presenting his work as a messianic struggle against “authoritarian governments” and “criminal regimes”, even if his clients have fallen into local inter-elite feuds or been caught on fraud. If there are no other counterarguments, he employs loud accusations of politically motivated harassment or oppression of his clients. He is used to playing demagoguery, undermining and devaluing opponents, for example by declaring the governments in his clients’ home countries as illegitimate or criminal. The impression is that he would prefer that dictatorships and authoritarian regimes never cease to exist – just to be able to demonstrate his fighting skills.

    Mr Amsterdam is an adrenaline-infused cocktail of narcissism, self-promotion, and self-confidence. Adolescent fascination with Marxism explains his advocacy of various revolutionary and opposition movements in countries with an unstable political landscape. Not only the countries of Africa and Asia, but now also Ukraine have become victims of Amsterdam’s informational nihilism. The UK has also come under his attack for imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs incorporated into the Russian political system of the Putin regime: “We (the UK – ed.) abandoned human rights in favour of going after people who we label oligarchs…” It appears to be a promotional offer for ultra-wealthy clients to use Amsterdam’s specific sanctions relief services wherever he is licensed to practice law.

    One of Mr Amsterdam’s favorite pastimes is to create multi-page appeals and petitions and intimidate opponents with these Talmuds, too difficult for an average person to digest (and even more so to fact-check this waste paper). The lawyer does not shy away from vulgar epithets toward his critics, whom he brands “schmucks”.

    “Amsterdam’s clients are hopeless cases,” say his opponents. In fact, he does not hide that he is interested not so much in the result as in the process itself: “If anyone thinks I go into these cases thinking, ‘I will free this person in six months,’ they’re crazy. We go into them knowing there is a political dispute and we’re going to do everything we can to mitigate the situation.” He just likes to “rule the universe” – to put pressure on governments, make a fuss in the press, jump toward the “bullets” of criticism, fire back, provoke local authorities to counterattack up to the point of banning him from entering the country (as was the case in Russia and Thailand). This is the same case when “any scandal works, except for the obituary.”

    Wearing an expensive suit with a tie, Mr Amsterdam misleads everyone: he would most harmoniously look like his teenage idol and counterculture symbol Abbie Hoffman. Rober Amsterdam’s specific ideas about human rights (or rather, about their protection) hurt clients more than they help them. As the Czech press writes about Amsterdam, he sometimes slams politicians right in the forehead, regardless of the interests of his clients. An analysis of his cases suggests that clients are amused in his destructive abilities. The Canadian “crusader” (as his colleagues refer to him) does not synchronize the circumstances of his cases with legislative requirements, but rethinks the legislation itself, opting for juggling it as he wishes.

    Oddly enough, he takes criticism very painfully, demanding apologies and refutations for every bad look he gets. This is very similar to the aggression of Putin’s security forces over some plastic cups thrown at them from the crowd of protesters.

    “Putin’s altar boy”?

    Amsterdam is often accused of cooperating with the Kremlin because of its outright anti-Ukrainian campaign. But the cynical truth is that he really doesn’t like Russia – or Putin – too much. That’s not least (and maybe even primarily) because of the “Yukos case”, his personal professional defeat, which, however, helped him get a higher profile. And he really doesn’t care about the Russian Orthodox Church. He even once demanded that the European Union probe the activities of European energy companies in Russia as sponsoring the destruction of rule of law in Russia.

    The problem is, his “Russophobia” ends where he sees all that money coming from clients who directly or covertly play on Putin’s team. It seems that in the spectacle around the protection of the UOC, Amsterdam is assigned a very limited role pf a battering ram against the Ukrainian government and a source of escalation that never ask himself the question “cui prodest?”. As per the two handshakes rule, Putin should become the main beneficiary of the “rights defending” efforts by Robert Amsterdam, and that’s what his clients want.

    A sucker for self-promotion, Mr Amsterdam easily engages in tactical cooperation with Putin fans like Tucker Carlson, preying on their specific popularity and wide radicalized audiences. Ultimately, it’s only the KGB-conceived Vladimir Putin who will benefit from such tactical alliance as he couldn’t care less about who promotes his goals. The top-notch job though for spies like Putin is making principled opponents flip without them even knowing about it. This is what the KGB has called using someone “in the dark”*.

    *”The process of exploiting by counter-intelligence (intelligence) of any asset without revealing to them the true purpose and essence of this exploitation. The shadow use implies that the person whom counterintelligence (intelligence) uses in its interests is truly oblivious of the goals and consequences of his actions.” (Counterintelligence Digest – Felix Dzerzhinsky Higher Red Flag School of the KGB under the Council of Ministers of the USSR, 1972).

    Should I remind anyone where Putin carved his skills? “He completed retraining courses for the operatives of the State Security Committee (RGB – ed.) in Leningrad (1976) and Moscow (1979) at the F.E. Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB of the USSR”.

    It is surprising that Mr. Amsterdam, sincerely seeing himself as an independent figure free from Russian influence in the “UOC case”, stubbornly fails to realize the role he was assigned by his clients.

    To be continued…