A verdict in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky—formerly Russia’s richest man and the founder of what was once the country’s largest private company, Yukos—is due to be read on December 15. Yet long before November 2, when Judge Viktor Danilkin of the Moscow Khamovnichesky District Court heard the final statements of prosecution and defense, adjourned the trial, and withdrew to his chambers to deliberate, the
Such a disparity of possible outcomes is not due to legal intricacy. Were the case to be decided on the merits, Danilkin could have read a verdict after a lunch break. The state’s case is beyond a sham. It is nothing short of bizarre. “Arrested” in 2007, while serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion and fraud, Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, were charged with stealing 350 million tons of oil from their company’s subsidiaries, of which, as prosecution has admitted, Yukos was a legal owner. Furthermore, it has been established in the course of the trial that Yukos paid taxes on the profit from the sale of the allegedly “embezzled” oil—despite the fact that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been found guilty of, and are serving jail time for, among other things, not paying these very taxes, and Yukos was bankrupted, broken up, and sold at auctions to pay these alleged tax arrears. Another key charge against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev—the supposed theft of shares of Eastern Oil Company (Russian acronym VNK)—is something for which the statute of limitations expired two years ago. Yet while admitting as much in the closing argument, prosecutors still asked the judge to add seven to eight years to the sentence for this alleged crime.
No, law has nothing to do with it. Khodorkovsky’s fate is almost certainly being decided not in Judge Danilkin’s chambers, but in the Kremlin by two people: the openly reactionary prime minister, Vladimir Putin; and his protégé, the haltingly liberal president, Dmitri Medvedev. The diversity of the rumor mill’s forecasts about the verdict reflects the range of
Foreign policy is likely to be Medvedev’s first line of argument for an acquittal or a “light” sentence. Medvedev can vividly imagine the West’s reaction to a harsh verdict in a case that was so blatantly rigged. The
Putin is mindful of the foreign policy fallout, of course, but he is likely to feel that it would be a necessary and acceptable loss, and probably short-lived. The prime minister remembers how incensed and scared the West was when
Yet it is in domestic politics and economics where the verdict’s impact will be the deepest—and where the differences between the prime minister and the president are the most pronounced. First, the trial is deeply personal for Putin. Among other slights, Khodorkovsky reportedly told the then-president, in front of other oligarchs in a Kremlin meeting in February 2003, “Mr. President, your ministers are thieves.” (Many of those present read Khodorkovsky’s fate in the look on Putin’s face). But there is far more than that to Putin’s hatred of Khodorkovsky. From the prime minister’s perspective, Khodorkovsky was, is, and always will be an unrepentant enemy of the regime. Releasing him would be like Gorbachev bringing Sakharov back to
Just as important, Khodorkovsky and Yukos were sabotaging Putin’s economic policy of re-claiming what Lenin used to call “the commanding heights” of the national economy, especially the crown jewels of
For Putin, Russian oil and gas are the foundation of the country’s progress, prosperity, and national security—today and 50 years from now. And it is the Russian state, not people like Khodorkovsky, who is the real owner of
For Medvedev, who has decried the Russian economy as “chronically backward” and “primitive,” precisely because of its dependence on “raw materials,” Khodorkovsky is surely also a symbol—of what he has called “legal nihilism,” the “disdainful attitude toward court and law” and “extra-legal influence on courts’ actions.” (Like Putin, Medvedev is a lawyer; unlike Putin, he actually practiced, serving as a counsel to some of
Even more important, the Khodorkovsky verdict will be closely watched by Medvedev’s core political constituency: the emerging Russian middle class, especially its civic vanguard, the “new protesters,” who turn out from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok to demand that the government respect its own laws, who demonstrate against corruption and unelected regional governors. It is their pain that Medvedev professed to feel when he railed against “nonfreedom” (nesvoboda) and the people’s “defenselessness” in the face of “arbitrariness” from authorities. It is them he has sought to encourage with talk of a law-abiding state and the virtues of “modernization” founded on “humanistic values,” freedom, “responsibility,” and individual success. It is them, he knows, he will betray and deeply disappoint if the Khodorkovsky trial ends on so shamelessly false a note. What would he tell them? What sort of credibility would his vision of a new
And, since “modernization” was by far the most notable plank in his public rhetoric and the idea that most sharply distinguishes him from Putin, what would be left of his putative 2012 presidential electoral platform? What would he be then: a mere foil for Putin’s reelection in 2012—a pitiful prop to make the coronation of Tsar Vladimir I, set to rule for two six-year terms until 2024, look like a competitive race?
Throughout Russian history—from Ivan the Terrible to Peter to Stalin to Brezhnev—a show trial (or a public execution) has been the state’s tool of choice for announcing the end of a political regime and the arrival of a new elite, to tell subjects where the country is headed and to remind them who’s the boss. Prior to the Khodorkovsky affair, the last such political watershed was the trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965 and 1966, which marked the end of Khrushchev’s thaw. Yet Khrushchev was already out of power for over a year then, having been removed by a coup. A guilty verdict and a long sentence for Khodorkovsky will gut Medvedev’s thaw while he is still in office. Khrushchev’s fate appears vastly preferable.
Leon Aron is Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His book about ideas and ideals that inspired and shaped the 1987-1991 Russian revolution will be published by