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.

This is the culture that not only brought Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, to power but has permeated Russia for twelve years. The siloviki, former or active FSB agents, are ubiquitous and at some estimates they dominate at least 60 percent of any positions of power. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of FSB under Putin, and Putin's longtime deputy chief of staff, himself a former KGB agent, Igor Sechin are considered to be the real string pullers in Moscow today. The recent unearthing of Russian spies in the United States should not surprise anybody. In the prevalent Russian frame of mind there is no mystery that agents would be everywhere, including the United States. Their presence is what counts; their actual function is secondary, a question that came up at the time of the spy revelations.

After a Russian court in August 2008 rejected Khodorkovsky’s request for parole, he was supposed to be freed in 2011, following the serving of his entire sentence. But in what can only be described as sadism, rumors about new charges have been circulating in Moscow from the beginning of his arrest. The timing was supposed to coincide exactly before his potential release to affect maximum continuous stay in prison. With the snail-pace moving Russian justice, two years before the would-be release was just about the right time for the desired outcome.  The Prosecutor General's office did not disappoint, bringing the new charges in February 2009.

The indictment alleged that Khodorkovsky schemed with a group of investors at his company Yukos to steal from a Siberian oil company 3.6 billion rubles ($102 million).  The outrageousness of the charge, other than the obvious rationale of the sham proceedings, is that the prosecutor seems not to even know how an integrated oil company works. The alleged victim was a wholly owned subsidiary of Yukos. It would be the same if the headquarters of an American oil company were to be accused of taking the profits of their Texas subsidiary.

But, politics and policy aside and internal Russian shenanigans non-withstanding, it is the indecency towards a man that should bring revolting feelings among all people, irrespective of nationality or ideology.

There was some tepid reaction to Khodorkovsky’s conviction from Washington and some other Western capitals, but the reaction was true to the tenor of today, flaccid. Understandably, Russia’s response was a terse “back off”.