Russian Oligarch and Putin Opponent Found Guilty of Embezzlement

Speculations of corrupt government influence over the case reinforced

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The postponed verdict of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's second trial was announced today, finding the former Russian oil tycoon guilty of stealing oil from his own company, Yukos. Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison since 2003, has long been presumed by some to be a victim of one of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's vendettas--Khodorkovsky had been politically active and supported some of Putin's opponents.

Followers of the case found renewed cause for suspicion when the verdict was postponed, and Putin dropped a comment regarding his view of the matter. This and the final judgment--guilty--lead some to wonder whether the court was truly impartial. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that that Khodorkovsky's conviction "raised serious questions about the rule of law in that country," according to The Hill and The Guardian. Other followers of the case react to the most recent news:

  • Obama Needs to Focus on Russia's Human Rights The Christian Science Monitor's Editorial board reacts to Khodorkovsky's conviction today with a question of President Obama's priorities and how they may allow for Russia's controversial actions. The editors suggest that "Putin is able to silence his critics in part because President Obama still prefers to seek Russia's cooperation in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, the war in Afghanistan, and nuclear proliferation. A US desire to 'reset' ties with Moscow, however, should not mean a retreat from pushing human rights." The editors do not believe it is a coincidence that the verdict was postponed until after START had been ratified and most people and news organizations were distracted by the holidays. They make an appeal to the U.S.:
The White House expert on Russia, Michael McFaul, needs to remind Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, that America’s most important long-term interest in Russia lies in helping that country adopt Western civic values. (That’s what the cold war was all about.) In fact, it would be worth reminding the president that he cosponsored a resolution in 2005 as a senator to recognize Khodorkovsky as a political prisoner.
  • Khodorkovsky's Lawyer: 'We Will Appeal' Yuri Schmidt, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's lead defense attorney, takes to The New York Times after the Judge Viktor Danilkin found his client guilty and promptly dismissed all journalists from the courtroom. Schmidt assures supporters that Khodorkovsky will appeal the court decision and expresses hope that President Medvedev may stand up for the businessman's release. He argues:
An end to Mr. Khodorkovsky’s persecution would send a strong signal that change is coming to Russia and that there is hope that the country will develop a legal system worthy of the name. This would be good news for Russian citizens and for foreign investors who hesitate to put their money into an economy where property rights are not secure. It would also be welcomed by other national governments, which have hesitated to trust a country that does not abide by a regime of law.
  • A Predictable Outcome Writing in the Guardian today,  Simon Tisdall is disappointed but not surprised by the proclamation of Khodorkovsky's guilt. "There was never going to be any other result," he contends. "In modern-day Russia, challenging Putin is like standing in front of a tank. Either get out of the way or expect--sooner or later--to be flattened." Tisdall gives examples of other political dissidents who have been speculatively stifled by the Russian government and questions the lack of public opposition. "Whatever else he is, Putin is implacable, relentless and unpitying when dealing with perceived enemies. In this, he follows a long-established Russian leadership tradition, and the public seems to like it, affording him approval ratings of 70% or above."
  • The International Community Should Speak Out Against the Kremlin  The Independent makes a prediction, before the verdict was announced today, of what deeming Khodorkovsky guilty might do to Russia's international reputation. First, the British paper attempts to put Khodorkovsky in perspective, describing him as "a hero to some and a villain to others, in reality the ex-oligarch is a mixture of both--a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the sun in this case being Vladimir Putin, who has ever forgiven the oligarch for his decision to place his fortune at the service of parties opposed to Mr. Putin's rule." The case has received a lot of opposition from world leaders as well as civilians. The Independent looks ahead and urges Britain to take action in the event of a "guilty" verdict:
Outside Russia, many will shrug. The initial predictions, made after Khodorkovsky was first jailed, that foreign investors would shun Russia, seeing the Putin regime as anti-business, have not been borne out. Russia's principal business partners in the West, Germany above all, appear understanding of Russia's so-called "managed" democracy, seeing it as one of the least worst options. If nothing else, they argue, it has given Russia stability.

Britain has less to lose economically from speaking out. We do not have to buy into the myth of Khodorkovsky as a martyr to insist that Russia abide by the standards it has set for itself. If this looks like another verdict written by the Kremlin, we should say so.
  • Medvedev Unable to Insure a Fair Trial G.F. at The Economist suggests that the Russian president's inability to prevent the corruption believed to be behind the Khodorkovsky case shows who is in charge in Russia and who is not. He explains: President Medvedev "has frequently promised to clean up Russia's legal system. Today's verdict is further evidence that he has no real power; that his laudable-sounding words are merely part of the smoke and mirrors obscuring the real operations of the Russian state."

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