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Khodorkovsky trial: a regime in the dock

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The accusations against Khodorkovsky have collapsed now that two senior establishment figures have testified. He may still be found guilty. But the absurdity of this trial is eroding public confidence in Putin’s regime.

Andrei Kolesnikov
7 July 2010

Russians don’t know what to think about the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  They instinctively feel it affects everyone in Russia, but most people have difficulty answering sociologists’ questions about it. The most recent Levada Center survey is no exception.

33% thought that the underlying reason for the trial was political; 20% that it was solely related to commercial activity; 47%  were “don’t knows”.

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in court

In other words people who, if woken up in the middle of the night, would confidently vote for Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party see right through the political games of the present regime. Most people think the legal system is selective.

This is clearly paradoxical. According to another survey by Levada Center, just 3% of Russians believe that they can influence politics in any way. This explains why people are indifferent to voting and do it automatically.  It’s the logic of the social contract: “I’ll give you my vote as long as you don’t ask me for anything else”. But everyone understands everything about Khodorkovsky, and a great deal more besides. The Russian consciousness is as split as it was during the Soviet period:  people accept the existing rules of the game for themselves, but make no attempt to conceal their negative attitude towards them.

Russia exists in two parallel realities. The regime lives in one reality:  it thinks it’s governing the country, when in fact it’s only managing workers in the public sector and pensioners, who depend on money from the state. The rest of the country lives in the other reality:  it makes its own life, often in the informal sector, where there aren’t even any taxes.

Parallel realities and split mindset are also at work in the Khodorkovsky case. On the one hand, there is the formal trial, which allows the upper echelons of government to repeat that in Russia everything is decided by an independent judiciary. On the other hand, the rationale for the second Khodorkovsky-Lebedev trial is obviously political.  Even those that don’t actually know can guess that the head of YUKOS openly opposed Vladimir Putin.  He broke the convention that the oligarchs keep their distance, in reality an agreement confirming loyalty to the new (as it was in the early 00s) regime. So the trial is in revenge for disobedience, and meant as an edifying lesson to all the other oligarchs.

As the assets of YUKOS were redistributed in the interests of the “new” ruling class, Mikhail Khodorkovsky gradually became a hostage of Russia’s modern political and economic system. This logic dictates that he should be kept in prison as long as the people in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle are in power and holding the assets they divided up by seizing control of successful companies.

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Platon Lebedev talks to lawyers

There is a third angle to the problem: the obvious and extreme absurdity of the charges in the second trial. The accused are said to have stolen all the oil they owned, which is not just a legal tangle, but a logical absurdity. Not that this bothers the prosecution, or, indeed, guarantees that the accused will be acquitted. If the outcome of the trial is determined by political expedience, then legal and logical arguments lose their force and significance.

Two high-ranking officials have testified in court.  The former minister for trade and economic development, German Gref, has kept his position in the establishment; the current minister for industry Viktor Khristenko, by no means the least important in the Putin-Medvedev hierarchy, is accustomed to observing the internal rules of the government corporation.   But after their testimony, the grounds for the accusations were not just shaken – they collapsed.  Gref and Khristenko demonstrated in court that millions of tons of oil – 20% of all the oil produced in Russia – cannot be stolen in such a way as to be unnoticed by officials in charge of the economy, privatization and the oil and gas sector, and that when the domestic price of oil is much lower than the export price, this is simply the law of the market. From their testimonies, it followed that what Khodorkovsky did was nothing out of the ordinary – all major businesses in this industry function in the same way.

For both these officials, the reputation of ordinary people proved to be more important that demonstrations of extreme loyalty to Vladimir Putin. Once more, I stress that this changes nothing in the logic of the charge and the possibility of a guilty verdict: the final verdict of the court and logic are fundamentally different things.

What is more, the high level of political apathy among the population means that the accused could well be found guilty. People recognize the absurdity of the trial, but this won’t move them to take to the barricades or to overcome the pernicious instinct to vote automatically.  The habit of a split mindset, split thinking and the ability to live in two realities at once is the guarantee of a normal existence inside Putin’s social matrix. Russians who didn’t choose emigration as a survival strategy are not prepared to sacrifice their relative calm, and at least the illusion of stability, in order to destroy this Mt. Everest of absurdity.

Changing Khodorkovsky’s fate is a task that would be worthy of Dmitry Medvedev. But only if he breaks the unspoken convention with Vladimir Putin, and suddenly decides to break free from the “mainboard” to become a truly independent politician. He is, it seems, not ready for this. Medvedev is just as much a hostage of Putin’s inner circle as Khodorkovsky, but with the difference that, unlike Khodorkovsky, he is trapped in a “golden cage”.

19% of those surveyed by Levada Center believe that the decision has been taken to put Khodorkovsky in jail for the maximum sentence. 50%, as always, don’t know. The rest think that the scales swing between the government “hawks” and “doves” , or that it has actually been decided to leave everything to the discretion of the court. But only 10% believe in an independent court.

The Khodorkovsky trial is contributing to a gradual erosion of  mass public consciousness. Despite the split in their thinking, an increasing number of people are beginning to doubt that the government is up to the job. 

The appearance of big names at the trial as witnesses – from German Gref to former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov – has turned an ordinary record of court proceedings into a historical record. The official history of Russia. And things that are quite unpleasant for the current government have been recorded there. The record of court proceedings is a serious thing.  It is not a textbook of “falsified” history.  It’s an official document. History is being written today as Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s trial unfolds. Whatever the quality and thrust of the final court verdict, the Russian government, with the help of the Khodorkovsky case, is preparing a judgment for itself.  History's verdict

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