What the Khodorkovsky trial says about Russia today

By

He has already served seven years behind bars, mostly in Siberia, now he's been given another six. An opponent of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, former oil industry oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (pictured) was found guilty December 27th of theft and money laundering at the end of a second trial. Mediapart editor François Bonnet, a former Moscow correspondent, analyses this defining moment for the future of democratic change in Russia amid a power battle between hardline Putin and reformist President Dmitry Medvedev.

This article is freely available. Check out our subscription offers. Subscribe

 

He has already served seven years behind bars, mostly in Siberia. An opponent of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, former oil industry oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was found guilty on December 27th, at the end of a second trial on charges of theft and money laundering, and has been sentenced to a further six years in jail. In this commentary written before the verdict was announced, Mediapart editor François Bonnet, a veteran commentator on Russian affairs and a former Moscow correspondent for French daily Le Monde, argues that Khodorkovsky's fate represents a defining moment for the future of democratic reform in Russia.

-------------------------

A silent, behind-the-scenes battle has begun in Russia, in which the immediate issue at stake is the future of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This former oligarch, who took control in the 1990s of one of Russia's most important oil production companies, has been imprisoned for the past seven years and is now facing a further 14 years behind bars at the end of a second trial.

But through and beyond the Khodorkovsky case - and what, over the years, it has come to symbolize - lie issues of greater importance, and which are about to be played out in the Khamovnichesky courthouse in Moscow. Can Russia finally be modernised at last? Can it give itself a judicial system worthy of the term? Can Russia move towards becoming a state of law and open itself thus to western society? Or will it remain condemned to live within a regime handed down from the Soviet era that is symbolised by that other leading actor in the Khodorkovsky affair, Vladimir Putin?

La feuille annoncant le report de l'énoncé du jugement; © (dr) La feuille annoncant le report de l'énoncé du jugement; © (dr)

The answer should have been delivered last week, on December 15th, when the judge was due to begin reading out the court's verdicts concerning Khodorkovsky, 47, and his former business partner Platon Lebedev, 54. This was to have been the end of a trial that began in March 2009.

But when Khodorkovsky's parents and the hundred or so supporters accompanying them arrived at the courthouse, they discovered that the announcement of the verdict had been postponed until December 27th.

The message to this effect was written on a piece of paper stuck up with adhesive tape on the courtroom door (see photo, above). No other public explanations were given.

 

The postponement is tantamount to announcing that he will be sentenced, not released. Russia comes to a standstill between December 25th and the Orthodox New Year, which is on January 13th, a period when many newspapers are shut down, foreign correspondents are largely on holiday and the public's attention is turned towards seasonal festivities and family reunions. "Everything has been done to avoid public opinion," said Mikhail Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina.

"The objective is to do everything to ensure that the people involved or otherwise concerned will be unable to react," and Boris Nemtsov, a minister under the former Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, and now an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin's government.

There is little doubt that judge Victor Danilkin and his acolytes will act under orders from above. But the question that has Muscovite commentators lost in conjecture is - orders from who? Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev? The prime minister has held a deep hatred for Khodorkovsky ever since the latter publicly defied him during a meeting between the country's business leaders and Putin, held just months after his election as president in 2000.

Extend your reading on Mediapart Unlimited access to the Journal free contribution in the Club Subscribe

NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS UPDATED MONDAY DECEMBER 27th AFTER THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT MIKHAIL KHORDORKOVSKY AND CO-DEFENDENT PLATON LEBEDEV WERE FOUND GUILTY OF EMBEZZLEMENT (STEALING YUKOS OIL AND LAUNDERING THE PROCEEDS). DELIVERY OF THE FULL VERDICT AND THE SENTENCE MAY TAKE SEVERAL DAYS.

 

The full text of the open letter to Dmitry Medvedev published in the Financial Times and Le Monde on December 14th. 2010 (see page 3 of this article):

 

His Excellency Dmitry Medvedev
President of the Russian Federation

Dear Mr. President

We, the undersigned, believe that Russia can and should be a positive force in shaping the development of our increasingly interconnected world. As a major global power, a bridge between East and West and a country with a long and proud history in virtually every field of human endeavour, Russia can exert tremendous positive influence on the world of tomorrow.

You have in your words demonstrated your understanding that Russia's place in the world depends in large part upon her robust respect for the rule of law and citizens' fundamental human rights. As such, we believe that the conduct of the cases by the Russian judicial institutions of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, as well as investigating of the deaths of Sergey Magnitsky, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, Stanislav Markelov and many others that seek justice in their own home country are of seminal importance in shaping the views of the outside world on Russia's respect for the rule of law.

Actions are now possible to demonstrate that Russia is truly a regime of law today. The proceedings against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, spun out over seven years have been of particular concern to us. The consensus of respected objective observers is that their ongoing persecution is unjust and not truly motivated by law. This has shaken confidence in the Russian legal system and in your strong will to uphold the Russian Constitution. We therefore hope that the manner in which the Khodorkovsky-Lebedev case is decided will strictly adhere to the principles of the rule of law, as enshrined in the Russian Constitution.

As strong supporters of the drive to modernise Russia we cannot stand idly by when rule of law and human values are being so openly abused and compromised. Stable and reliable partnerships with Russia can exist only where our fundamental common values, are shared and applied: where human rights are protected, property rights are secure, and justice prevails over corruption. Ending the persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and others related to the Yukos Affair, and finding justice for Sergey Magnitsky, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, Stanislav Markelov and many other victims that seek justice in Russia, would send positive signals of change and show that Russia is indeed on the path towards modernisation. The world is watching very closely the outcomes of these cases on which so much rests for enhancing confidence in your great country.

Sincerely,

UK

  • Rt Hon David Miliband MP, Former Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2007-2010)
  • Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, Former Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1995-1997)
  • Rt Hon Sir Menzies Campbell MP, Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats UK (2006-2007) & former Foreign Affairs spokesperson (1997-2006)
  • Richard Ottaway MP, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee
  • Chris Bryant MP, Former Minister for Europe (2009-2010) and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Russia Group
  • Terry Gilliam, Screenwriter, film director, animator and actor

France

  • Bernard Kouchner, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs (2007-2010)
  • Hubert Vedrine, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs (1997-2002)
  • Noëlle Lenoir, Former Minister of European Affairs (2002-2004), former member of the French Constitutional Court
  • Jack Lang, Former Minister of Culture, former Minister of Education, Member of French Parliament (PS)
  • Galia Ackermann, Chief Editor of the Russian Service of Radio France International
  • Andre Glucksmann - Academic, writer and philosopher
  • Hervé Mariton, Former Minister of "outre-mer" (2007), MP, member of the UMP (majority party), President of the French-Russian friendship parliamentary Group

Germany

  • Markus Löning, Human Rights Commissioner to the German Government (2010- )
  • Michael Link, Liberal Party (FDP), Spokesperson for European Politics within the German Federal Parliament
  • Ute Granold, Conservative Party (CDU), Member of the Committee on Human Rights within the German Federal Parliament
  • Dr. Ludolf von Wartenberg, former member of the presidential board of the Federation of German Industries (1990-2006)
  • Klaus Naumann, Retired German General, former Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr
  • Marina Schuster, Liberal Party (FDP), Spokesperson for Human Rights and Member of the Committee on Human Rights within the German Federal Parliament

European Parliament

  • Kristiina Ojuland MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe - Estonia), former Foreign Minister of Estonia (2002-2005)
  • Heidi Hautala MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, Finland), Chairwoman of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights
  • Werner Schulz MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, Germany), Vice-Chair Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Co-operation Committee
  • Graham Watson MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe - UK), former Leader of the European Parliament's Liberal Democrat group
  • Rebecca Harms MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance - Germany), Co-Chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
  • Tunne Kelam MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe -Estonia) former Vice-President, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
  • Chris Davies MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, UK), former Leader British Liberal Democrat
  • Frieda Brepoels MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance - Belgium) Member of the Committee of Foreign Affairs and Substitute Member in the Subcommittee Committee on Human Rights
  • Indrek Tarand MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance - Estonia), Chancellor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1994-2002); Adviser to the Prime Minister, special representative of the Government of the Republic of Estonia in Narva (1993)
  • Bart Staes MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, Belgium)
  • George Lyon MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, UK), Deputy Finance Minister, Scottish Government (2005-2007)
  • Renate Weber MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Romania), Former Head of the National Liberal Party delegation
  • Satu Hassi MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance - Finland), Minister for Environment and Development cooperation from April 1999 to May 2002; Chairperson of the Green Parliamentary group 1991-93, 1997 and 2003-2004
  • Franziska Brantner MEP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, Germany), Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs
  • Cristian Silviu Busoi MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Romania)
  • Sławomir Witold Nitras MEP (Group of the European People's Party -Poland)
  • Catherine Bearder MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, UK)
  • Michael Gahler MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Germany)
  • Marian Harkin MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Ireland)
  • Dirk Sterckx MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Belgium)
  • Michael Theurer MEP (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Germany)

Italy

  • Hon. Piero Fassino, Responsible for Foreign affairs of the Partito Democratico and former Minister of the Republic (Undersecretary of State for Foreign affairs in 1996, Minister of International trade in 1998 and Minister of Justice in 2001)
  • Hon. Roberto Rao, Union of Centre-Democrats Party
  • Hon. Ferdinando Adornato, Union of Centre-Democrats Party

USA

  • Richard V. Allen, Former United States National Security Advisor (1981-1982)
  • Leon Aron, American Enterprise Institute
  • Robert Arsenault, International League for Human Rights (1998-)
  • Julie Finley, Former U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE (2005-2009)
  • Felice Gaer & Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights (2001-)
  • Peter D Hannaford, Long-time associate of the late President Ronald Reagan
  • James Harmon, Chairman, Harmon & Co., LLC, former President of the Export
  • Import Bank, United States (1997-2001)
  • Arthur Hartman, Former US Ambassador to France (1977 - 1981) and Soviet Union (1981 - 1987)
  • David J. Kramer, Executive Director, Freedom House, Washington, DC
  • Katrina Lantos Swett, Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice
  • Eugene K. Lawson, Co-founder, US-Russia Business Council (1993-)
  • James P. Moore, Jr., Former United States Assistant Secretary of Commerce (1987-88)
  • Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico, former US Ambassador to the UN (1997-1998) and Energy Secretary (1998-2000)
  • Richard Schiff, Actor
  • Richard N. Swett, Former US ambassador to Denmark (1998-2001) and former U.S. Congressman (1990-1994)
  • Georges Ugeux, Chairman & CEO, Galileo Global Advisors LLC, former head International Group of the New York Stock Exchange

The Netherlands

  • Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, D66 Dutch politician, former undersecretary of state of foreign affairs and a minister of agriculture

Israel

  • Shimon Stein, former Israeli Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany (2001-2007)