Writing in The Age, Associate Professor Judith Armstrong, a fellow of the Contemporary Europe Research Centre, and former head of the Russian department at the University of Melbourne, explains how easy it is to be popular if you are willing to kill all your critics.
Russians call for change to the country’s political system at their peril, writes Judith Armstrong.
THIS week could have heralded a significant month in Russia. According to the country’s own law, October 2 might have been the day for the release of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since fraudulent allegations were led against him by the Russian Government in 2003.
Russian law allows for parole after half a sentence has been served, but in Khodorkovsky’s case, new charges have been laid ensuring that this will not happen. The new trial is expected to be held up until after the parliamentary elections in December and the presidential elections in March, but Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he might take over the prime ministership ensures that little will change.
Canadian international human rights lawyer Robert Amsterdam, in Sydney during APEC to warn against the potential use of Australian uranium for military purposes, or its onwards sale to countries such as Iran, remains one of Khodorkovsky’s defence team despite being arrested in Moscow and summarily expelled from the country.
He remains convinced of his client’s innocence, even though the reputation of the oligarchs, most of whom are now dispersed, may not be totally edifying. They were regarded by the Russian people as rapacious, self-serving and overweeningly successful; from the Government’s point of view, they were just too powerful and independent.
Tony Jones, interviewing Amsterdam on Lateline in June this year, twice used the words “robber baron” of the former oil magnate, as though this said it all. But Khodorkovsky’s extraordinary career, ranging from everyday origins to chief executive of the second-biggest oil company in the world, is predicated on factors the West can hardly imagine: things such as the psychology of moral and political formation under a totalitarian system, the challenges inherent in setting up almost from the beginning a democratic rule of law, and the embryonic ethics of business development and profit-making in an incipient market society.
In the early 1990s, many astute young Russians were able to amass money, assets and unforeseen power through their business acumen and ability to serve the new political elite. They did not need to break any laws to soar through the Soviet ceiling for the simple reason that business codes, let alone ethics, barely existed at the time; it was more useful for Khodorkovsky to study the political system and work it from the inside.
He acquired his first wealth by importing jeans, brandy and computers, allegedly laundering some of the profits through the Russian mafia. Not only did the then president and former KGB chief Yuri Andropov turn a blind eye to his and his comrades’ activities, some commentators claim that KGB protection was readily available for new private businessmen opening up a market, black or grey.
Within a short time, Khodorkovsky and a group of like-minded individuals had started one of the first private banks, Menatep, one of whose operations was the transfer of payments to Chernobyl victims. By 1997 Khodorkovsky was the owner of Yukos, Russia’s second-biggest oil company, bought from the Government four years before when it was running at a huge loss. Under his management, the value of Yukos shot up to $US6.8 billion.
It would go even higher after 1999, the year that Khodorkovsky consciously elected not to break any accepted ethical principle — a different matter from working within Russian law. His decision may have been prompted by the realisation that Russian methods were not acceptable to the West, but that likelihood does not rule out the possibility of a genuine moral turnaround. He began to support educational initiatives, encourage legal aid groups, and fund non-partisan think tanks, making no secret of his desire to promote democracy and civil society. He expressed his preference for a constitution that would grant more power to the parliament and less to the president, and a multi-party system rather than Putin’s centralised government. In the early 2000s, he poured money into the liberal causes he championed, including the Russian Booker Prize.
In October 2003, he was suddenly arrested and imprisoned; when he came to trial two years later, it was to face trumped-up charges and six further years in a remote Siberian prison. Last December and early this year, more charges were produced, preventing any possibility of parole. The new accusations have been described by The Washington Post as “magnificently implausible”, but they serve the Government’s purpose of freezing and taking over Yukos’ remaining assets, which are still considerable. No wonder the White Paper written by Amsterdam and his law partner is entitled The Abuse of State Authority in the Russian Federation, or that he used his visit to Australia last month to highlight the plight of his client as well as the dangers of selling uranium to an unpredictable buyer.