Russian Justice Under Putin, Again

Detesting cruel and unusual punishment, preventing double jeopardy, and imposing statutes of limitations are basic tenets of the legal systems of democracies. A judiciary that is independent from the government has generated such strong adherence in the modern world that even murderous Cambodia’s Pol Pot, or ruthlessly cruel Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, or the Myanmar military junta, or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi have often invoked it. It was not them persecuting their enemies and opposition. It was their judiciary that was handling their crimes.

None of these niceties seem to bother Russia today after twelve years of Putinocracy. There is not even a disguised attempt to spray a semblance of perfume at the obvious stench.

In late December, during the week between Western and Russian Christmas when ultimate cruelty can be mixed with power politics, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, already wasting away in a Siberian prison and a few months before his ostensible release, was convicted to another six-year jail term. The new conviction was based on new embezzlement and grand theft charges which somehow were discovered well into his jail term.

Khodorkovsky, at one time Russia’s richest and most successful businessman, was arrested in 2003 and sentenced in 2005 to eight years of hard labor on fraud and tax evasion charges. The charges against him were considered by many both inside and outside of Russia a sham. For starters, Yukos alleged tax bill was larger than the entire income of the company.

The Khodorkovsky and Yukos affair more than any other showed the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The taking over of Yukos was called the “swindle of the year” by none other than Putin’s own economic advisor Andrei Illarionov.

U.S. President George W. Bush, mired then in the quagmire of Iraq, and having looked Putin “in the eye” four years earlier, kept largely silent. The same went for most European leaders loath to bite the hand that feeds them with energy. That would of course not be the reaction at an earlier era.

Russia, shortly thereafter, went on to re-Sovietize its oil and gas industry, which today is run entirely either as a state enterprise or by Kremlin cronies. In the process, Russia became one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In Transparency International’s latest rankings, Russia is 146 out of 180 countries, tied with Zimbabwe and below Nigeria and Uganda.

Some suggested that the attack on Khodorkovsky had been motivated by his own political ambitions or that a prominent oligarch got his just comeuppance after the wild days of the Yeltsin privatizations. The reasons are much simpler. In a KGB/FSB infested government, any move towards modernity and difference is considered as unforgivable hubris. All must beware that swift and horrible punishment is lurking. This is no different than the Stalin era and Lavrenty Beria’s implementation.