Is Mikhail Kasyanov the Latest Putin Victim?

On October 25, 2003, the CEO of the Yukos oil corporation, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested at the airport in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. He never made it back to the relative comforts of European Russia. He was put on trial for tax evasion and sentenced to a lengthy prison term in a Siberian hell hole thousands of miles from his family, and is now facing a second indictment on basically same charges which intend to keep him in jail for the rest of his life (the Russian parliament is in the process of abolishing the remaining protection against double jeopardy).

It's universally agreed in the West that the charges against Khodorkovsky were a sham, a neo-Soviet artifice designed to nullify his nascent efforts to challenge Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency in 2004, just as the election cycle was beginning. As we've previously reported, Khodorkovsky's team is challenging their convictions in the European Court for Human Rights and has enjoyed substantial early success. Khodorkovsky was developing a worldwide reputation for instituting significant transparency reforms in Russia's corporate life, and was starting to talk about doing the same in the halls of government.

In hindsight, Khodorkovsky's arrest can be seen as part of an ongoing pattern of physical attacks on rivals that has persisted throughout Putin's presence in the Kremlin. Indeed, Khodorkovsky might consider himself lucky, in light of the fate of Putin foes like Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, to simply be alive. The Kremlin has not been satisfied with getting Khodorkovksy himself but has gone after his entire Yukos team, so that now one of his executives lies dying of AIDS with the Kremlin refusing to provide treatment to keep him alive. Another executive has been denied access to her children.

And now it seems to be former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's turn.

Kasyanov was named prime minister by Putin himself, shortly after Putin was elected to his first term, having served as acting prime minister while Putin was acting president following Yeltsin's resignation on New Year's Eve 1999. In much the same way that Putin is now using Dmitri Medvedev, his hand-picked successor, to erect a smokescreen of liberalism and undercut foreign criticism, Putin chose Kasyanov for his non-threatening appearance to the West. But he may have been surprised, in much the same way some U.S. Supreme Court nominees have surprised their presidents, as Kasyanov began building a real reputation as a liberal reformer. That could not be tolerated, and he was fired by Putin on February 24, 2004, a few months after Khodorkovsky was arrested. Kasyanov had been outspoken in criticizing the arrest. On the first anniversary of his dismissal, Kasyanov went public in opposition to the regime.

In June 2006 Kasyanov said this about Putin's first term in office:

Separation of powers has been effectively demolished and replaced by the so-called 'Vertical of Power' which is based on the false idea that all the meaningful social and political processes must be kept under control by the state. The Government and the Parliament cannot function any longer without daily instructions. The judiciary is increasingly servile. Independent TV does not exist any more at the federal level and is being quickly uprooted in the regions. Moreover, the state-owned companies and the state itself increase their grip over the electronic and printed media. Responsibility of the regional level of power is totally destroyed by the abolishment direct elections of the governors.

Afterwards, he began a period of active involvement in the public protest movement known as the "March of the Dissenters" which has infamously and repeatedly faced attack and arrest during their public demonstrations in major cities across Russia. As we reported on December 26th, the Kremlin has even gone so far as to draft one of the most prominent young activists, Oleg Kozlovsky, into the army in order to silence him (though it took some time, the MSM has finally started reporting this outrage, with major pieces by the Chicago Tribune on January 16th and Washington Post on January 26th as well as a mention in the Economist on December 28th).

Three other opposition figures associated with the marchers, Boris Nemtsov, Vladmir Bukovsky and Garry Kasparov, have already been forced to drop their bids to challenge Putin (the persecution has become so intense that even the candidate of the Communist Party is talking about withdrawing). The Kremlin actually went so far as to strong-arm all the meeting halls in Moscow to shut their doors when the purported candidates sought venues to hold nominating conventions for their party, a legal requirement for access to the ballot. It had already erected an even more substantial barrier, however, by denying their parties any traction in the recent parliamentary elections; without a presence in parliament, a candidate is forced to gather 2 million signatures in order to have his name placed on the ballot. This, of course, gives the Kremlin perfect vehicle to block a candidate, simply by erecting more roadblocks through intimidation and finding (or manufacturing) defects in the signatures.

On January 16th, though, the implacable Kasyanov submitted his signatures. On January 17th, Russia blogger, journalist and author Mark MacKinnon asked: "Does the Kremlin have the courage - and the barest commitment to democracy - to let him run against their man, Dmitriy Medvedev? Or are we going to see another "falsified signatures" charge in the coming days that will again prove that Russia is not inching towards democracy, but sliding back towards authoritarianism." MacKinnon's book, by the way, is called The New Cold War, and I'll review in a forthcoming installment on this site along with one of the same title by Edward Lucas, the journalist who penned the Economist's report on Kozlovsky, first in the MSM.

On January 23rd, MacKinnon got his answer. The Moscow Times reported: "Prosecutors announced Tuesday that they had opened a criminal investigation into purportedly forged signatures submitted by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in his attempt to register as a candidate in the March 2 presidential election." Kasyanov's name was soon struck from the ballot. The Telegraph said it short and sweet: "Russia's presidential election has been robbed of its last vestiges of credibility after the only candidate who openly dared to criticise Vladimir Putin was barred from running." Blogger (and Khodorkovsky attorney) Robert Amsterdam sighed: "The things we are asked to believe in Russia today..."

One may well ask why the Russian authorities aren't content to simply disqualify Kasyanov from running. Why do they need to go that extra mile, and menace him with prison, especially when he had no realistic chance of even being competitive, much less winning the election? Probably for the same reason Nikita Krushchev wasn't content to simply raise his voice at the UN, but felt compelled to remove his shoe.

In 1946, George Kennan wrote to U.S. President Harry Truman:

At the bottom of the Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within.

Though we in the West may fill our heads with talk of Russia's "energy superpower" status and gape slack-jawed at Putin's public opinion numbers, the Russians themselves know better. They know that the average Russian man doesn't live to see his sixtieth year and works for an average wage of less than $4 per hour. They know, as Russian leaders have always known, that you can't be to careful or you might be the next Nicholas II.

Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin's Russia.