Verdict Postponed in High-Profile Russian Oligarch’s Case


Last week, instead of announcing the verdict of the most recent case
against two imprisoned Russian businessmen, the presiding judge postponed the decision until December
27th. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian billionaire who has been in jail
since 2003, was set to be released next year but now faces up to 7 more
years behind bars for supposedly stealing his company’s oil. The Wire previously covered his unlikely transition to hero-figure here.

Khodorkovsky’s
original conviction and jail sentence was speculated to be politically
motivated, as the former oligarch had used his wealth to fund human
rights groups and political parties in opposition of Vladimir Putin and
the KGB. The judge’s delay has sparked questions of now Russian Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin’s hand in the case, Khodorkovsky’s place in
Russian culture, and whether or not the verdict should influence the
US’s position on the START treaty.

  • Putin Pressures the
    Court
      Putin held a phone-in question and answer session the day after
    the judge announced that the court’s decision in the Khodorkovsky case
    would be postponed. When asked about the case, Putin commented “a thief
    must stay in jail,” apparently quoting a popular, Soviet-era film. The
    Economist’s A.O.
    notes that the timing and nature of Putin’s comment made it sound like “an instruction to the judge”–i.e. to extend the Khodorkovsky’s sentence.
    A.O. suggests:

Mr Putin may have intervened simply to show
that he can. He made mockery of the Russian court system by quoting
from a Soviet-era comedy in which a character shouts: “Our court is the
most humane court in the world”. Think for yourselves, Mr Putin
suggested: Bernard Madoff had “received a 150-year prison term for a
similar crime in the United States. I think we are a lot more liberal”.
Mr Putin also (again) charged Mr Khodorkovsky with murder, so a third
criminal case against him can not be ruled out.

  • Russia’s Future in the Judge’s Hands  Russian author Boris Akunin
    writes in The Guardian that the Khodorkovsky case exemplifies the two “competing forces in Russia.” These forces are the aristocracy, those
    who “have striven for noble, high-minded actions and an idealistic
    school of thought,” and the arrest-ocracy, whose “guiding principle
    over the years was based on arrest: the denial of freedom and the
    silencing of free speech.” The judges verdict in the Khodorkovsky case
    and its the subsequent sentence, “will not just decide the fate of two
    people,” Akunin argues. “It will determine whether Russia will be
    dominated by an ‘aristocratic’ or ‘arrestocratic’ dynamic into the
    second decade of the 21st century. It will determine the direction the
    country will take: forwards and upwards, or once again downwards.”
  • The
    New Russian Dissident?
      The Russian prison system has a history of
    fostering and producing some of the country’s greatest writers from its
    political dissenters. Though not a writer, but rather a business man,
    Mikhail Khodorkovsky, David Remnick
    writes at The New Yorker, “hardly set out to be a moral example,” but “has been elevated by his
    persecutors.” Reminick explains that “many Russians still see him as a
    robber baron who got his comeuppance, but some have recognized his
    trials for what they are–absurdist acts of injustice no more
    respectable than the railroading of Josef Brodsky.” He contends that Khodorkovsky’s plight is another example of the
    Russian government’s corrupt influence over the court system and like
    Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and Sakharov before him, the imprisoned
    businessman, who writes articles and gives interviews from prison, has
    become a voice for democracy.
  • What Should This Case Mean for US-Russia Relations?  The White House has been promoting the passage of the START Treaty,
    an agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear warheads and launching
    systems by both sides. In a Senate discussion of the Treaty, Senator John McCain
    brought up the impending extension of Khodorkovsky’s current
    imprisonment has a reason to question the Russian government’s
    trustworthiness. He proclaimed:

To be sure, this Treaty
should be considered on its merits to our national security, but it is
only reasonable to ask: If Russian officials demonstrate such a blatant
disregard for the rights and legal obligations owed to one of their own
citizens, how will they treat us – and the legal obligations, be it
this Treaty or any other, that they owe to us? What’s worse, the sad
case of Mikhail Khordokovsky now looks like one of more modest offenses
of the corrupt officials ruling Russia today.

  • Is Putin Playing Us?  The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl
    proposes that the judge’s postponement of the verdict was ordered by
    Putin as an effort to limit the influence that the court’s expected
    extension of Khodorovsky’s sentence will have over U.S. senators voting
    on the START Treaty. McCain’s comments above prove some Senator’s
    hesitance in dealing with the Russian government based on the
    Khodorkovsky case, and Diehl points out that the Russian prime minister
    is aware of this as well as the fact that Obama is pushing for the
    treaty to pass this week. “Most experts believe that as a substantive
    matter, the treaty offers considerably more benefit to Russia than to
    the United States,” Diehl points out. “It would modestly reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads
    to 1,550 in each country, while also limiting launching systems to 800
    on each side. Russia is already headed below those levels, treaty or
    no; by obliging the United States to make parallel cuts, Moscow
    maintains the fiction that it remains a strategic equal of Washington.”

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