Russian justice: don’t cross the Leader!

On 27 December Mikhail Khodorkovsky was found guilty of money laundering and probably faces another long stretch in prison. 4 days earlier retired colonel Vladimir Kvachkov was suddenly arrested. Examining these two, and one other, apparently dissimilar cases, Dmitry Travin finds that the threads lead back to Prime Minister Putin and perceived challenges to his power and/or interests.

On the evening of 23 December Vladimir Kvachkov, a retired colonel from the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff, was suddenly arrested in Moscow.  He is charged with plotting armed rebellion aimed at the violent overthrow of the state.  This seemingly insignificant event (he is, after all, only a retired colonel, rather than a general or a marshal) has evoked considerable interest in Russia, because for the last 5 years Kvachkov has been at the centre of a huge scandal.

Give us the person, we’ll find the crime

In 2005 he was accused of planning an attempt on the life of a well known Russian politican, one of the key reformers of the 90s. This was Anatolii Chubais, who was at the time the head of United Energy Systems (UES), a large state corporation second only to Gazprom in its significance for the Russian economy. The attempt was bold and openly defiant: Chubais' car was fired on from a grenade launcher.

Putin

Vladimir Putin decided long ago that Khodorkovsky was a criminal and his personal enemy.

Kvachkov's case dragged on for a long time, but in September 2010 he was acquitted by a jury. Many observers were doubtful about the acquittal, as the prosecution had offered some very convincing proof of guilt and the retired colonel himself made no secret of his hatred for Chubais and the political and economic changes associated with his name.  Naturally an appeal was lodged, but on 22 December the Supreme Court overturned it, leaving the verdict to stand. The next day Kvachkov was arrested on another charge.

There is no doubt that the aim of the rapid re-arrest was to make a point. The authorities were demonstrating to the whole country that anyone they consider guilty will go to prison whatever the decision of the court. More precisely, if the accused is not sent down on one article of the Criminal Code, then another article will be found for him. The Russians even have an old joke, a sad joke, to the effect that something can always be found to pin on anyone.

There is almost no doubt that the only person who could push through the decision to re-arrest Kvachkov is the Prime Minister and effective leader of the country – Vladimir Putin.

Who killed Petersburg's Vice-Governor?

Another interesting case, is that of Yuri Shutov. It is not too well known even in Russia, though some time ago it was being widely discussed in Petersburg, where Shutov committed his crimes and Putin started his political career.

In 1991 Shutov was one of the assistants to a very well known politician of the time, Anatolii Sobchak, who was head of Leningrad City Council. Another assistant was Vladimir Putin. There is no doubt that they knew each other well and that they were already at loggerheads then.

Soon Shutov was dismissed from his post and became a relentless opponent of Sobchak. He published a book called «The Heart of a Dog» (echoing the title of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, which was hugely popular in Russia at the time), containing a very unflattering portrait of Sobchak.

Putin on the other hand became a very close associate of Sobchak, who was by then mayor of Petersburg. During his official trips abroad or when he was on holiday, he left Putin in charge. That was obviously when Putin started regarding Sobchak's team of officials as his own. One of the members of that team was Mikhail Manevich, who was head of the City Property Management Committee.

In August 1997 Manevich was already Vice-Governor of St Petersburg, when he was gunned down by a sniper in the centre of the city. The case has never been solved. But in February 1999, when Putin was head of the Federal Security Service, Yuri Shutov was suddenly arrested. In 2006 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the organisation of several murders. Manevich's was not one of them: it had not proved possible to establish a link between Shutov and the shots fired in August 1997. But on the day sentence was pronounced, I received a telephone call from the representative of an extremely influential figure. He told me that Shutov had been sent down primarily for the Manevich killing and that I as a journalist could make this clear to my readers and radio audience.

I assume that at that time the authorities had no doubts whatsoever that it was Shutov who organised the murder of the Vice-Governor, although no formal proof of this was laid before the court. The killing of such an important figure as the Vice-Governor was regarded as a direct challenge to the authorities, and personally to Putin, who was at that time President of Russia. What's more, Manevich was a key figure in Putin's team, possibly even a personal friend. So it's hardly surprising that one way or another Shutov ended up in prison for life.

Putin probably felt exactly the same about the defiant attempt on the life of Chubais, a very high-ranking official and Putin's personal choice for the head of UES. The logic behind the actions taken against Shutov and Kvachkov is clearly one and the same. What is curious is that in November 1999, when the district court in Petersburg had decided there were grounds for concluding that Shutov had been wrongfully arrested in February, he was once more taken into custody, this time by the Special Rapid Response Detachment, actually in the courtroom. So with Shutov they didn't even wait until the next day, as they had with Kvachkov.

Putin decided long ago that Khodorkovsky was a criminal. Typically, the more doubts are voiced in society about the grounds for the charge of economic crimes, the more Putin in his interaction with the people is starting to emphasise other arguments. In an answer to a woman during his recent live TV question and answer session, he stated that he was confident Khodorkovsky had been involved in several murders.

Dmitri Travin

A personal enemy of the leader

In this context there is another important criminal case, which is relevant and topical: YUKOS and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The analogy with the Kvachkov case is not as obvious as in the Shutov case, but the operational logic remains the same.

Khodorkovsky's political significance has been much discussed, but in actual fact doesn't amount to much. Even the best case scenario would not have afforded him much chance of becoming a sufficiently weighty political figure to challenge Putin. What is unquestionable, however, is that there was a dramatic clash between the interests of Putin and those of Khodorkovsky.

In February 2003 at a meeting the members of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE) had with Putin, Khodorkovsky made very obvious hints about the corruption rife in the President's closest circle. Putin's response to this was extremely hard-hitting: to judge by this clash, he started regarding Khodorkovsky's actions as a personal challenge to his authority and Khodorkovsky as his personal enemy. Shutov and Kvachkov didn't challenge the power of the Kremlin either, but what their actions were completely unacceptable to Putin.

It seems to me that this can be the only explanation for the unbelievably relentless persecution of Khodorkovsky. He has already been in prison for 7 years on the first charge, though many Russian experts consider his guilt is unproven; others with some justification maintain that in the 90s practically all big businessmen in Russia got away with similar abuses, including those who were in favour with the authorities. On 27 December the court in Moscow found Khodorkovsky guilty on charges of money laundering, which means he could have up to another 7 years in prison.

Putin decided long ago that Khodorkovsky was a criminal. Typically, the more doubts are voiced in society about the grounds for the charge of economic crimes, the more Putin in his interaction with the people is starting to emphasise other arguments. In an answer to a woman during his recent live TV question and answer session, he stated that he was confident Khodorkovsky had been involved in several murders. This logic is very similar to the logic of the Kvachkov and Shutov cases. If it's not a grenade launcher, then it's rebellion. If not Manevich, then there are other murder victims. The most important thing is to get the criminal inside. That's the main end – the means can be justified.

Thieves belong in prison

Three such different people as the hard-bitten nationalist Kvachkov, the big businessman and advocate of democracy Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the provincial opportunist Yuri Shutov, of no particular political affiliation, have all suffered identical treatment at the hands of the authorities. To all intents and purposes political views have nothing to do with these three stories. They're all about something else. The personal position of the Russian political leader.

Khodorkovsky courtroom

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's political significance has been much discussed, but in actual fact doesn't amount to much. Even the best case scenario would not have afforded him much chance of becoming a sufficiently weighty political figure to challenge Putin.

Putin is very fond of the well known saying from the cult Russian film of Soviet times «The place for the rendezvous cannot be changed». In this film the Russian policeman and CID captain (played by Vladimir Vysotsky, a hugely popular actor of the time) says «A thief belongs in prison». This is his justification for setting up a trap for the suspect. He knows the man is a criminal, so he rides roughshod over the presumption of innocence. If he can't get the criminal one way, he'll get him another.

During the Q and A session on TV mentioned above, Putin quoted this line from the film.  He makes almost no secret of his approach to the adminstration of justice. He considers he is completely justified in this, in spite of the fact that in the film this approach brings the main hero very close to making a mistake and convicting an innocent man.

Putin pays no attention to this part of the film and, to judge by his popularity, the overwhelming majority of the Russian people share his approach to justice.

About the author

Dmitri Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies

Read On

For a New Russia: The Mayor of St. Petersburg's Own Story of the Struggle for Justice and Democracy, by Anatoly Sobchak, Free Press, 1991, 191 pages

Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Scribner; First Edition edition 2005, 464 pages

Putin's Russia (Revised Edition), Paperback, by Lilia Shevtsova (Author), Antonina W. Bouis (Translator), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005, 457 pages

After Putin's Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain, Fourth Edition, Paperback, by Stephen K. Wegren (Editor), Dale R. Herspring (Editor), Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; 4 edition, 2009, 330 pages

The Truth About Putin and Medvedev, by Amy Knight, New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 8, May 15, 2008

Putin. Russia's Choice, by Richard Sakwa, Routledge 2007, 400 pages

More On

A country that tolerates a situation where the bureaucratic and law enforcement machine in its own interests and not at all in the interests of the country holds tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of talented entrepreneurs, managers, and ordinary people in prison, instead of, and together with, criminals, is a sick country.

A state that destroys its own best companies that were ready to become global champions; a state that holds its own citizens in contempt, a state that trusts only bureaucrats and the security services, is a sick state.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Final Trial Speech