The Price of Dissent in Putin's Russia

Moscow doubles down on its prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky

When the new trial of former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky began in March 2009, many Russian and Western commentators noted that the outcome would be a measure of how strong the Kremlin neo-autocracy is—and how much power is still wielded by its architect, President-turned-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Others put it more bluntly and pessimistically: as long as Putin was in power, Khodorkovsky would never leave prison alive.

So far, at least, the pessimists are proving correct. After a nearly two-year trial, Khodorkovsky, first arrested in 2003 and convicted of tax evasion in 2005, has been not only found guilty (with former business partner Platon Lebedev) on theft and money laundering charges widely viewed as absurd, but given the harsh 14-year sentence requested by the prosecution.

Unlike Soviet-era dissidents who were sent to the gulag on such openly political charges as "slandering the Soviet state," Khodorkovsky is formally accused of acts also recognized as criminal in free societies. This has allowed his persecutors to dismiss Western concerns with sneering references to con men like Ponzi scheme king Bernard Madoff.

But the political nature of the case is evident to everyone from Amnesty International to generally Russia-friendly Western politicians such as German chancellor Angela Merkel to most Russians who pay attention to the case. Khodorkovsky's legal troubles began after he started to use his wealth to finance opposition groups and hint at a possible run for political office. Forget Madoff: for a Western equivalent, imagine that George Soros was suddenly hauled into court on fraud charges in 2004, right after he announced his goal of spending millions to ensure the defeat of George W. Bush.

In the second trial, Khodorkovsky faced charges of "stealing" all the oil pumped by his now-defunct company, Yukos, and defrauding Yukos shareholders by selling oil on the domestic market cheaper than the market price abroad.

Viktor Gerashchenko, the former chairman of the Russian State Bank called as a witness by the defense, referred to these charges as "arrant nonsense." Three other former top government officials testified that the acts incriminated to Khodorkovsky were normal business practices which place with the full knowledge of the authorities. In an ironic twist, the shareholders Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused of mistreating reaped handsome profits under their management, only to see their stock turn worthless when Yukos was destroyed by the state; some of them are now suing the Russian government in European courts.

Most trial watchers described the prosecution's case as farcical. Yet few had any doubt that the trial—a non-jury one, like most trials in Russia—would end in a guilty verdict.

There is a common view that Putin has a strong personal stake in the ex-oilman's incarceration, for multiple reasons: a vendetta against a man who defied him; the symbolism of his triumph over the Russian oligarchs and his ability to keep them docile; even the fact that plundered Yukos assets were redistributed to his cronies. This belief is bolstered by Putin's thin-skinned, vitriolic reaction to mentions of the case. In a nationally televised chat on December 16, he crudely summed up the issue as "a thief should be in jail" and hinted, not for the first time, at Khodorkovsky's involvement in murders with which he has never been charged.

Yet Putin's determination to keep Khodorkovsky behind bars is an expression not only of power but of fear—in the words of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, "acute khodorphobia." The perception that Khodorkovsky will stay in prison as long as Putin stays in power means that Putin cannot allow Khodorkovsky's release without being seen as weakened or even doomed—even if not releasing him has substantial costs as well, including the strain to relations with Western business partners and political allies. Blogger Yegor Kholmogorov compares the Kremlin's situation to that of the hunter in a fable who has caught a bear and can't take him in or let him go—the Russian equivalent of holding a tiger by the tail.

What is the role of President Dmitry Medvedev in all this? Ever since Medvedev took office as Putin's handpicked successor, there has been rampant speculation about whether he would emerge from his mentor's shadow and become a president rather than a puppet. He has talked the good talk of liberalizing and modernizing Russian society, and on occasion taken action such as vetoing particularly illiberal laws (though no one is sure if these are genuine differences with Putin or a good cop/bad cop strategy). While Medvedev is clearly the junior partner in the "tandem," some Russian politics-watchers such as Moscow Times columnist Victor Davidoff believe he could pose a genuine challenge to Putin if substantial pro-liberalization forces in government and industry rally behind him.

The Khodorkovsky case could have been Medvedev's declaration of independence—especially considering that, in the past, he has spoken out against overly harsh sentences for white-collar crimes. Some hoped against hope, especially when, days after Putin's venomous remarks about Khodorkovsky, Medvedev stated in a TV interview that public officials should refrain from commenting on the case while the verdict was still pending. For now, these hopes—even for a lighter sentence—have been dashed. But the story is not over. Davidoff and some other commentators believe there is a distinct possibility that Medvedev will pardon Khodorkovsky and Lebedev before next year's Russian presidential election, thus throwing the gauntlet down to Putin.

The alternative is that Khodorkovsky stays in prison until at least 2017 (his 14-year sentence is running concurrently with the one he is serving now) and possibly faces a third trial, while Putin returns as president for at last twelve more years. If that happens, then, as Grani.ru columnist and Hudson Institute fellow Adrian Piontkovsky has written, Putin has handed down a life sentence to Khodorkovsky, himself, and Russia. And Khodorkovsky, who openly laughed at some particularly absurd passages in the judge's lengthy decision and regularly sent out Twitter updates through his attorney, may be the freest of the three.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Putin on the Ritz!

  • Tim||

    You're dead to me.

  • ||

    But my song will live on in your mind. . .forever.

  • Taco||

    Mine will live longer!

  • Colin||

    Khodorkovsky, like every other oligarch in Russia, is a criminal. He was just stupid enough to piss off the wrong people; or, to be exact, the wrong person.

    Don't make him out to be Sakharov.

  • ||

    And you think you have it SSOOOO much better here!!!!

    Thanks to us at the government you stupid americans are just as bad off as the Russians!! You just can't see it, you just can't get our illusion of living in a better place out of your heads; you're too busy singing "land of the free."

    http://youareproperty.blogspot.....ality.html

  • ||

    What do expect from Poop, uh I mean Putin? The guy's ex-KGB. He would use the same reign of terror that Stalin used in the 1930s if he thought he could get away with it.

  • BakedPenguin||

    And Putin's ready to shoot the ceiling, because it defied him as well.

  • Brett L||

    I like how Russian cops/soldiers wear the ski masks even on the target range. Train how you play, I guess.

  • Dobby||

    Vladimir will have to shut his ears in the oven door for this.

  • ||

    Are those Amish earmuffs?

  • Tim||

    I thought that Putin's cameo as Dobie the House Elf in the latest Harry Potter was a real tear jerker. Too bad Dobie didn't have that little Makharov or that witch would never have knifed him.

  • ||

    Really, I wish he'd just name himself tsar and get it over with.

    Tsar Vlad the Inhaler.

  • Tim||

    Still beats anything in the Soviet Union's 70 odd years of terror.

  • ||

    I don't dispute that, but Stalin did look upon Ivan The Terrible as a role-model.

  • Bee Tagger||

    Turns out, when you remove Group A thinks this, but Group B thinks this, but here's how they're both a little bit wrong and a little bit right from the Cathy Young formula, you end up with a book report.

  • ||

    ok to putin to presidential shooting but Sarah Palin cannot seasonaly (ancestral) hunting?
    ah!, continuing CASTRODADE PSYCOPOLICE VISION ON PEOPLE LIKE ME, suspected underage "Dust" nickname, steve don't mentione his name, blond,crazy "tough", paralegal permission like carlos's gay preds, physsical violence threats, dayly... minimum talking, unfriendly... well sleeping-eating bho-eyers sodomic prision-schools paralegals to physsical fight me (severe backinjuried), dadecoyote lourdesmartinez (singlename, mayor-attnygral protected) ruling my family, judge predrasa, cptn noel, offcr dominic... dade doctors... had my sister tortured, and took on Stockholmsyndrome to 7-11's manager ahsan, who "won her over bho's strategist amy's brother brian, I saw ahsan ordering police, ignoring castrocoyote lourdezmartinez too, same "burden" as the rest of my real bloodline family...
    Now, as a Teaparty Pioneer Volunteer, I understand how proud it is to be behind enemy lines laborly slaved:
    -$2/hour, 10 dayly, dadegaypredatorial police also uses carlos richards says "what's wrong with paying me sublaborly, push me, humilliate, and paralegaly attent against my life?...
    I have news for you...

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    I am interested in subscribing to your newsletter.

  • Geotpf||

    I recommend you resume taking your medication.

    Seriously, can anybody translate WTF he just said?

  • Brett L||

    My guess is uploaded lobsters attempting to interface old versions of Russian Windows with Google translator.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    For some reason, reading that post makes me think of Tool's "Rosetta Stoned."

  • Jonah The Whale||

    HHjam is unraveling the conspiracy theories. Pay close attention.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Seriously, can anybody translate WTF he just said?

    I speak several dialects of Schizophrenic. (and Jive too.)

    Translation:
    Dear gentlemen,

    I find it a tad hypocritical and sexist that the media doesn't criticize Vladmir Putin for enjoying shooting sports, while heaping scorn on Sarah Palin for participating in hunting, an activity that her ancestors also engaged in.

    Currently, the Castro-Dade County Police continue to harass me through unwarranted observation. One such observer is a yellow-haired minor who goes by the name of "Steve," who has been physically threatening to me in the past. Furthermore, the police look the other way when thugs, who happen to be homosexual, to threaten me daily in an unfriendly and taciturn manner. Also, certain paralegals, who enjoy both eating and sleeping and enjoy prisons and schools where sodomy occurs, have assaulted me severely injuring my back. These paralegals are ideologically aligned with President Obama and Bill Ayers.

    Dade County's Lourdes Martinez, whose last name has been protected by the mayor and attorney-general, displays undue influence over my relationship with my family. Even more disturbing is the fact that Judge Predrasa, Captain Noel, Officer Dominic, and several Dade County doctors had my sister and Ahsan, a manager at a local 7-11 tortured.

    Poor Ahsan was tortured so badly that she now suffers from "Stockholm Syndrome," sympathizing with President Obama's strategist Amy's brother Brian! I observed Ahsan ordering police around, and ignoring Castro County's Lourdes Martinez as well; which is the same burden my true family must endure.

    As a Volunteer for the "Tea Party Pioneers," I understand how proud one must feel to be "behind enemy lines," employed with wages that are only slightly-better than slave-labor. I currently only earn 2 dollars an hour, and I work 10 hours a day. Furthermore, I am regularly harassed at work by Dade County police officers, who happen to be homosexual. These officers taunt me by asking what is wrong with paying me below minimum wage, physically assaulting and humiliating me, and using frivolous litigation against me?

    I have news for you...

  • Jen||

    Thanks for clearing that up. But how did he know that we paralegals enjoy prisons and schools where sodomy occurs?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    That's why they're after Mr. Carlos Richards. He knows too much!

  • Spoonman.||

    Wow.

  • Old Mexican||

    Don't forget to take your Thorazine. It's that time, ya know...

  • Spartacus||

    Hey, my students have discovered Hit & Run!!

  • JOhnny MAckson||

    It makes a lot of sense when you think about it, dude. LOL

    Jess
    www.privacy-4-u.com

  • Cyto||

    Best robo-post ever....

  • Anonymous Coward||

    herp-a-derp, you say?

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    In Russia, we wear hearing protection upside-down.

  • Bee Tagger||

    In Russia, the hearing protection is to protect the loud noise from your ears.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    I admit it; I lol'd

  • tea partier||

    me too to be honest.

  • ||

    In Soviet Russia, hearing protects YOU!

  • ||

    The Russians keep on voting for these guys, they can be partially excused because the government owns all the media. However the Russians really like to pick nasty leaders.

  • ||

    In Soviet Russia, the State owns the press...

  • BakedPenguin||

    How do you know the Russians keep voting for them? If they voted for someone else, do you honestly believe Putin would step down? Do you really believe Lukaschenko got 80% of the last vote in Belarus?

  • Predicador||

    Do you really believe Lukaschenko got 80% of the last vote in Belarus?


    Even Belarussian "opposition" are not challenging this. What they are unhappy with is that they weren't given "equal opportunity".

  • ||

    Seriously, can anybody translate WTF he just said?

    "My art belongs to Dada!"

  • Robert||

    I linked to Vladimir Putin Action Comics. Enjoy.

  • ||

    Heroic Mulatto|1.7.11 @ 1:54PM|#
    Seriously, can anybody translate WTF he just said?
    MMMM, I DON'T have time for neolibtic govbailedout IMBECILE "DEBATING" BLOGUING, I don't even have time for checkspells, grrammar, I'm not even A Tparty jet...
    Just imagine, you imbecile bhoblogger, me, having not DADE police psycology (EXPL OF MY JOB: castrogovnets on FIU COMBO, police trainer, recluiting, santuary area, castrocoyotes ruling over Tparty volunteers, HARRY, READ!!...
    can you imagine, just, my scripts, edited, checkspelling, grammar...
    I wasn't even borned on the USA, English is not my native language, I studied Swedish on Stocholm, 4 times the English clases, MORE time, than College... I dream on Swedish... I studied on Scandinavia more daylyclass (SOCIAL) STUDIES, CULTURE, EUROPA, ECONOMY, FREEDOM... INTELLECT... PEACE, 1st WORLD, IMPORTANCE OF THE
    W A R O N T E R R O R, BUSH's MAIN STANDS (ABORTION, COYOTEINVASION, TAXES, DEFENSE, the traditional enemy: russia, china, etc, comunism, and now their sons the mideast suicider bomber, aclu, acorn, bho's PEOPLE HE APPOINTED CZARS, TEAMS, MAOs, CHEs... gay molesting soldiers... preds airport checking , not to MUSLIM SUSPECIOS CULTURE... race, etc...)
    again, heroic s(beep)t, go blog on castroblog granma, ah!, you have drivebymedia, in land, neolibticals... from Morgov...
    Hey, why don't some friendly may edit my scripts... yes, I don't have time for neolibtic debating s(beep)t
    Comming up:
    Free terror reportS... Heroic Mulatto|1.7.11 @ 1:54PM|#
    Seriously, can anybody translate WTF he just said?
    MMMM, I DON'T have time for neolibtic govbailedout IMBECILE "DEBATING" BLOGUING, I don't even have time for checkspells, grrammar, I'm not even A Tparty jet...
    Just imagine, you imbecile bhoblogger, me, having not DADE police psycology (EXPL OF MY JOB: castrogovnets on FIU COMBO, police trainer, recluiting, santuary area, castrocoyotes ruling over Tparty volunteers, HARRY, READ!!...
    can you imagine, just, my scripts, edited, checkspelling, grammar...
    I wasn't even borned on the USA, English is not my native language, I studied Swedish on Stocholm, 4 times the English clases, MORE time, than College... I dream on Swedish... I studied on Scandinavia more daylyclass (SOCIAL) STUDIES, CULTURE, EUROPA, ECONOMY, FREEDOM... INTELLECT... PEACE, 1st WORLD, IMPORTANCE OF THE
    W A R O N T E R R O R, BUSH's MAIN STANDS (ABORTION, COYOTEINVASION, TAXES, DEFENSE, the traditional enemy: russia, china, etc, comunism, and now their sons the mideast suicider bomber, aclu, acorn, bho's PEOPLE HE APPOINTED CZARS, TEAMS, MAOs, CHEs... gay molesting soldiers... preds airport checking , not to MUSLIM SUSPECIOS CULTURE... race, etc...)
    again, heroic s(beep)t, go blog on castroblog granma, ah!, you have drivebymedia, in land, neolibticals... from Morgov...
    Hey, why don't some friendly may edit my scripts... yes, I don't have time for neolibtic debating s(beep)t
    Comming up:
    Free terror reportS...

  • ||

    of course, you imbecile, pluss, I don't blog 4u

  • ||

    of course, you imbecile, pluss, I don't blog 4u
    BRETT, YOU BARELY UNDERSTAND...

  • ||

    hey barely surprised rAPE, unheroic bho, are you listening to jam "machick bangs, machick(en) good ma chick(en)cando"stuffs" yachick wishes do"...
    no, thanks.
    By the way, bho, fidel's falling, all of your kind, omnipulents, as tedpalpatine kennedy, ocurred while I realized no "ordinary bailedout (bombings) bloggers... I remember that, very fast, I, I blogged: fidel... what are you doing tonight"... and... I think like by 4pm... a caribean balrog, from Morgov, as neolibtic congre$$ickpark remaining at the toilet... awaits, for another flush...

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  • Predicador||

    for a Western equivalent, imagine that George Soros was suddenly hauled into court on fraud charges in 2004


    The fact it hasn't happened is an obvious weakness of the Western society.

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