Khodorkovsky verdict shows Putin still rules
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
LONDON — There was no surprise after all. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian billionaire who ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, was handed the maximum sentence after a 22-month sham trial based on the same facts that had already landed him an eight-year prison term. The former head of oil giant Yukos will remain in jail until 2017. Those who were hoping that Russia might take the opportunity to send the signal that it is getting closer to a rule of law will have to wait — maybe for a long time.
The second trial was remarkable for the lengths the government was prepared to go to make the absurd case that Khodorkovsky and his main associate Platon Lebedev had embezzled all of Yukos’ oil production for six years. This was despite the fact that the company booked revenue, sent oil through state-owned pipelines, and paid taxes on the oil that allegedly disappeared. Of course, in the Yukos case, any pretence that facts matter has long been forgotten. All that remains is the apparent fury of Putin, who once feared that Khodorkovsky might become an opponent.
The current Russian prime minister and former president pulled all the tricks allowed under the sinister legal mores Russia has inherited from Soviet times. He could count on the usual alliance of cowardly and corrupt officials to reach the conclusion he was seeking. The trial’s absurd atmosphere included a prosecutor who could not tell the difference between the production cost of oil and its market price, and a judge who seized on the fact that Yukos published its accounts in English as proof that it wanted to hide something.
Dmitry Medvedev, the current Russian president, who would like a second term, has made a lot of noise about the need for a rule of law in a country where it remains an alien concept. He has pointedly remained silent during the trial and scolded Putin for making comments on the case. If Medvedev wants to show that he’s serious — and not just his mentor’s puppet — he has the power to pardon Khodorkovsky. But don’t hold your breath.