The new, Republican-majority Congress is starting its work with a jaundiced eye on what's going on in Russia. Just a week ago Moscow convicted Mikhail Khodorkovsky for crimes most legal experts believe he did not commit. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov is in jail, albeit only for two weeks, for demonstrating in support of freedom of assembly. But it is the fourteen-year sentence meted out against Khodorkovsky which is particularly telling. It reflects not guilt on the part of the ex-chairman of Russia’s Yukos oil company, but the animus against the man by Russia’s rulers. Even if American companies want to do business in Russia, the verdict and the arrests don't help.
Granted, the 1990s were the years of "Wild West capitalism" in Russia, in which Khodorkovsky participated together with other businessmen, but his real “crime” was trying to liberate his company and himself from his country's system of bribes and political favors that nourishes Moscow’s power brokers. By pushing Yukos to function transparently after it went public, including by paying taxes, he tried to propel his company—and his country—toward Western-style corporate governance.
Yet Judge Viktor Danilkin declared it necessary to “reform [Khodorkovsky] by isolating him from society.” With these words, Danilkin unwittingly convicted the very system he serves of authoritarianism, injustice and corruption. The verdict proved that system to be incapable of self-correction and reform—despite desperate calls for both by its nominal leader, President Dmitry Medvedev.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is reasserting his power while Russia is facing political stagnation. This time, Putin effectively told the judge how to rule on a nationally televised Q&A. “A thief has to sit in jail,” Putin said. And sit for another six and a half years Khodorkovsky will. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still lives under “telephone law”—a system in which punishments are triggered by phone calls from higher ups.
Khodorkovsky’s innocence is manifest, legal experts such as professors Mary Holland and Ethan Burger in the United States and Bill Bowring in the UK, as well as Justice Tamara Morshchakova, formerly of the Russian Constitutional court, agree. State prosecutors’ claim that he “stole” 300 million tons of oil is a physical impossibility. The oil was pumped through the state-owned Transneft pipeline system, logged and accounted for.
Unfortunately, Khodorkovsky’s repeated trials are reminiscent of innumerable tragedies perpetrated by Russia’s rulers and their obedient courts. For three centuries now, Russia has jailed, killed off, driven to suicide or exiled its prominent social and political critics, economists, writers, philosophers and poets such as Aleksandr Radishchev, Aleksandr Gertzen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Gumilev, Osip Mandelstam, and the trio of Nobel Prize winners in the twentieth century: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrey Sakharov and Joseph Brodsky. The founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, exiled two shipfuls of intellectuals and sent others to the concentration camp in Solovki, while his successor Joseph Stalin murdered tens of thousands in the gulag, permanently destroying whole branches of Russia’s sciences and humanities.
A bespectacled former oligarch, Khodorkovsky is neither a poet nor a philosopher. Nor is he a political threat to the current regime. Opinion polls indicate he is not popular with voters, and he has expressed no interest in seeking public office.
So what is the real reason for his second sentence? A mix of the desire to keep Yukos assets in the hands of those who expropriated it without paying compensation and a strong signal to anyone—especially to business tycoons—not to challenge the status quo, especially on the eve of the 2012 presidential election.
Yet many Russian democrats believe that the status quo seems more rotten than ever. A recently leaked Russian Government Accounting Office report exposed $4.5 billion in corruption surrounding the building of the trans-Siberian oil pipeline. Other muckraking exposés reveal multibillion-dollar graft in state procurement, from the Sochi Olympics contracts to military acquisitions.
The opportunity for reform has been missed. So has the chance to improve U.S.-Russian relations. President Barack Obama pleaded Khodorkovsky’s case. The harsh sentence, handed down immediately after the U.S. Senate ratified the New START treaty, seems a deliberate insult. It also offended German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who demanded justice for Khodorkovsky as well.
Already there are reports that the Obama administration may reexamine Russia’s WTO membership. Moreover, Congress is expected to consider legislation calling for punishment of those involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky. The Russian lawyer died in detention after having uncovered alleged corporate and tax crimes that allowed Russian law-enforcement officials to pocket some $230 million. The proposal to name names and curb Western travel for Russian officials involved in odious persecutions, including in the case of Khodorkovsky, may be another way to send a signal to the Kremlin. Without a strong signal from Washington, Khodorkovsky's freedom will be forsaken and his life will be in danger. And all of this will threaten the U.S.-Russian partnership moving forward.