In another typically excellent piece of analysis, Russia’s leading liberal pundit, Yevgeny Kiselyov, in his Moscow Times column, explains why Russia and the world would be much better off if jailed oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky stayed in prison. We think Khodorkovsky would be better off too, and staying in prison would be appropriate pennance for his outrageous recent attempt at collaboration with the Kremlin, leaving Khodorkovsky himself better off as well.
Kiselyov points out that the charges against Khodorkovsky this time are not only redundant, they are ludicrous on their face, alleing “that he stole all of the oil Yukos extracted while he was the company’s chief shareholder from 1998 to 2003. As ridiculous as it may sound, the prosecution claims that Khodorkovsky stole 350 million tons of oil — from himself, effectively.”
If Khodorkovsky is sent back to Siberia for life on charges that barbaric, it will seriously undermine the Kremlin’s crediblity on a permanent basis. Nothing is more in the interests of the Russian people than that. Khodorkovsky should beg for conviction. On his knees.
In recent years, the Putin administration has sought the extradition of former Yukos employees who fled to a host of European countries, from Britain to Cyprus. All of the court proceedings in those countries ended with the same verdict: a refusal to extradite on the grounds that the charges were politically motivated and that the former Yukos managers would face persecution if returned to Russia.
In other words, even without the new conviction the world’s civilized nations are already condemning Russia as a banana republic whose justice system simply cannot be trusted, and refusing to soil themselves by affiliating with it in any way. This process must continue. Khodorkovsky must stay in prison to maximize the speed at which it does so.
A conviction will also undermine Medvedev personally. Kiselyov writes:
One year ago, Medvedev’s speeches and public statements about the great value of freedom inspired hopes in liberal circles that a political thaw was in the making. One year later, however, those hopes appear to have been only naive dreams. Far from being able to even slightly modernize or democratize Putin’s rigid power vertical system, Medvedev has shown in his first year in office that he lacks independence and legitimacy.
One year ago, the fate of Khodorkovsky and his colleagues was seen as the main test for Medvedev’s professed liberalism and independence as a leader, but today it seems that Medvedev has failed that test. He has shown no mercy or leniency to any of the Yukos defendants. If Medvedev had the political will or clout, he could have granted Khodorkovsky amnesty, particularly since he has already served over half of his prison term.
The Kremlin’s desire to keep Khodorkovsky locked up extends to Medvedev as well. It is important to remember that Medvedev was the head of Putin’s presidential administration in 2004 and 2005 — a critical period in the Yukos affair when the Federal Tax Service besieged Yukos, Rosneft effectively expropriated Yuganskneftegaz, and the authorities brought criminal charges against Khodorkovsky. Medvedev had to have played some role in all of that, so he also has reasons to fear setting Khodorkovsky free
If Khodorkovsky stays in prison, it shows the Kremlin is afraid of him. Afraid that he will expose its outrageous misconduct in prosecuting him, afraid he will challenge their legitimacy and take power. The image of the Kremlin’s weakness is one that must continue, and an imprisoned Khodorkovsky is one of the best possible ways to assure that it does.
Releasing Khodorkovsky would be a naked propaganda ploy by the Kremlin, designed to defuse the human rights movement and derail the democracy movement. Kiselyov analogizes it to the release of Andrei Sakharov from exile by Mikhail Gorbachev:
Those who still harbor hope that Medvedev will liberalize Russia should consider whether he has serious intentions of reforming the political system. I recall when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided in December 1986 to allow dissident Andrei Sakharov to return to Moscow from his forced internal exile in Gorky. As much as I respect Gorbachev, I am convinced he did not take this step because he was such a great democrat and liberal, but because he wanted to send a clear signal to the world. “This regime is changing,” he effectively declared. “The old Soviet Union is becoming a thing of the past.”
But Russia’s current regime has shown no desire to change. Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov publicly said as much recently. For his part, Medvedev made a small but significant statement in an interview with Spanish journalists earlier this week. He said, “Overcoming the crisis and developing democratic institutions are two different things and they should not be confused.”
So it is very clear that Mr. Khodorkovsky can serve his country best by remaining in prison — particularly in light of his disgusting attempt to curry the Kremlin’s favor by begging for parole likea supplicant.
We hope he stays there just as long as Putin remains in power.