Verdict Postponed in High-Profile Russian Oligarch's Case

Meanwhile, Putin plays policeman. Here's what the judge's decision could mean for Russia and the U.S.

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Last week, instead of announcing the verdict of the most recent case against two imprisoned Russian businessmen, the presiding judge postponed the decision until December 27th. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian billionaire who has been in jail since 2003, was set to be released next year but now faces up to 7 more years behind bars for supposedly stealing his company's oil. The Wire previously covered his unlikely transition to hero-figure here.

Khodorkovsky's original conviction and jail sentence was speculated to be politically motivated, as the former oligarch had used his wealth to fund human rights groups and political parties in opposition of Vladimir Putin and the KGB. The judge's delay has sparked questions of now Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hand in the case, Khodorkovsky's place in Russian culture, and whether or not the verdict should influence the US's position on the START treaty.

  • Putin Pressures the Court  Putin held a phone-in question and answer session the day after the judge announced that the court’s decision in the Khodorkovsky case would be postponed. When asked about the case, Putin commented "a thief must stay in jail," apparently quoting a popular, Soviet-era film. The Economist's A.O. notes that the timing and nature of Putin's comment made it sound like "an instruction to the judge"--i.e. to extend the Khodorkovsky’s sentence. A.O. suggests:
Mr Putin may have intervened simply to show that he can. He made mockery of the Russian court system by quoting from a Soviet-era comedy in which a character shouts: "Our court is the most humane court in the world". Think for yourselves, Mr Putin suggested: Bernard Madoff had "received a 150-year prison term for a similar crime in the United States. I think we are a lot more liberal". Mr Putin also (again) charged Mr Khodorkovsky with murder, so a third criminal case against him can not be ruled out.
  • Russia's Future in the Judge's Hands  Russian author Boris Akunin writes in The Guardian that the Khodorkovsky case exemplifies the two "competing forces in Russia." These forces are the aristocracy, those who "have striven for noble, high-minded actions and an idealistic school of thought," and the arrest-ocracy, whose "guiding principle over the years was based on arrest: the denial of freedom and the silencing of free speech." The judges verdict in the Khodorkovsky case and its the subsequent sentence, "will not just decide the fate of two people," Akunin argues. "It will determine whether Russia will be dominated by an 'aristocratic' or 'arrestocratic' dynamic into the second decade of the 21st century. It will determine the direction the country will take: forwards and upwards, or once again downwards."
  • The New Russian Dissident?  The Russian prison system has a history of fostering and producing some of the country's greatest writers from its political dissenters. Though not a writer, but rather a business man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, David Remnick writes at The New Yorker, "hardly set out to be a moral example," but "has been elevated by his persecutors." Reminick explains that "many Russians still see him as a robber baron who got his comeuppance, but some have recognized his trials for what they are--absurdist acts of injustice no more respectable than the railroading of Josef Brodsky." He contends that Khodorkovsky's plight is another example of the Russian government's corrupt influence over the court system and like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and Sakharov before him, the imprisoned businessman, who writes articles and gives interviews from prison, has become a voice for democracy.
  • What Should This Case Mean for US-Russia Relations?  The White House has been promoting the passage of the START Treaty, an agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear warheads and launching systems by both sides. In a Senate discussion of the Treaty, Senator John McCain brought up the impending extension of Khodorkovsky's current imprisonment has a reason to question the Russian government’s trustworthiness. He proclaimed:
To be sure, this Treaty should be considered on its merits to our national security, but it is only reasonable to ask: If Russian officials demonstrate such a blatant disregard for the rights and legal obligations owed to one of their own citizens, how will they treat us – and the legal obligations, be it this Treaty or any other, that they owe to us? What’s worse, the sad case of Mikhail Khordokovsky now looks like one of more modest offenses of the corrupt officials ruling Russia today.
  • Is Putin Playing Us?  The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl proposes that the judge's postponement of the verdict was ordered by Putin as an effort to limit the influence that the court's expected extension of Khodorovsky's sentence will have over U.S. senators voting on the START Treaty. McCain's comments above prove some Senator’s hesitance in dealing with the Russian government based on the Khodorkovsky case, and Diehl points out that the Russian prime minister is aware of this as well as the fact that Obama is pushing for the treaty to pass this week. "Most experts believe that as a substantive matter, the treaty offers considerably more benefit to Russia than to the United States," Diehl points out. "It would modestly reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 in each country, while also limiting launching systems to 800 on each side. Russia is already headed below those levels, treaty or no; by obliging the United States to make parallel cuts, Moscow maintains the fiction that it remains a strategic equal of Washington."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.