Khodorkovsky trial: a test for the president

The sacking of Moscow mayor Luzhkov and the continuing debacle of Khodorkovsky's second trial could be seen as tests for the Russian President. Will Medvedev pass muster? Mikhail Zygar considers the options.

Mikhail Zygar
29 October 2010

In his article «Rivalry for Moscow», published on 1 September in Moskovsky Komsomolets, the little-known author Yuri Kovelitsin suggested two criteria for judging whether President Medvedev had betrayed his spiritual father Vladimir Putin. The first test was Luzhkov. If Medvedev were to sack him, this would be betrayal.

The second test was the YUKOS affair. «Early release for Khodorkovsky would symbolise a break with the policy of keeping a tight hold on anyone desirous of converting possessions into power», Kovelitsin wrote. By «early» he meant, of course, releasing Khodorkovsky next year, at the end of his 8-year sentence. The world «early» could also be taken to mean «before the end of Medvedev's presidential term».

Khodorkovsky II trial

Mikhail Zygar: Khodorkovsky's release can hardly be said to present any danger at all to the present regime

Now we know that Yuri Kovelitsin doesn't exist. The article was written at Luzhkov's dictation by Nurali Latypov, a former participant in the TV game show «What? Where? When?» It was his article, rather than Luzhkov's «The Test of Khimki», that became one of the main catalysts for the sacking of the Mayor.
So Dmitry Medvedev passed the first «Kovelitsin» test. Everyone seems to have forgotten about the second.

But the time for that is coming closer. Last week the prosecution demanded 14 years [another 7 years, ed] for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. This week the accused and their defence counsels will address the court. Then Judge Danilkin will retire for a couple of months to formulate his judgement. This will be made known by the New Year. It would be more logical if the announcement were made on 31 December or, even better, on 2 or 3 January, which would suit the communications policy of the party and the government very well.

What decisions will be available to Judge Danilkin? His test has only three possible answers.  If he finds him not guilty, then Khodorkovsky will be granted «early» release (to quote Luzhkov-Kovelitsin). If this were to happen, the sky would come tumbling down to earth.  Though, knowing Medvedev's liberal leanings, we can't completely rule it out. He did, after all, suspend the construction of the motorway through Khimki Forest!

The second option would be to give him a shorter sentence than counsel for the prosecution Lakhtin, Shokhin and Ibragimova are seeking, i.e 10 years, rather than 14. In that event there would be a new president at the time of his release. But the president would be at the very beginning of his term. We don't know who it will be, so let's call him P. President P will have plenty of time to decide what to do about the problem of Khodorkovsky the politician – he won't have to sort the situation out in a hurry just before the next elections.

Finally, and this is the third option:  if Judge Danilkin agrees with the prosecution, Khodorkovsky's sentence will end in 2017, which will be just before the next presidential election campaign.

Something tells me the judge will choose the second option – on compassionate grounds, of course.

But as we can't know Judge Danilkin's decision in advance, we can only fantasise about how it will all turn out. Let's consider the first option. What consequences could this have, other than the sky tumbling down?
Soon after October 2011 (when Khodorkovsky could theoretically be released) there will be Duma elections. Will any registered party include Khodorkovsky in its list of candidates?  There are two possible answers to this questions (United Russia and LDPR not included).

Firstly, the Communist Party (CPRF). One of their deputies, Viktor Ilyukhin, said a year ago in the Duma (I think it was) that «Recent developments in the Khodorkovsky case are a disgrace to the Russian judiciary, which is effectively carrying out the orders of the former president. This is revenge, not justice». Will Gennadi Zyuganov agree with him? Zyuganov, who has spent years rigorously purging party ranks of any potentially competent politicians to prevent the younger generation getting into the party leadership. Obviously not, and we will content ourselves with this hypothesis as the sole reason.

Why is democracy better than dictatorship? Because freedom is better than un-freedom? Why is it bad to lie and to do bad things? Because you need to love thy neighbor? Why do you have to defend the Motherland, save another person, sacrificing your own life? After all, there won’t be anything “afterwards”! Or, maybe, there will?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Interview with Boris Akunin, Esquire

The second possibility would be «Fair Russia». Its best known member, Gennadi Gudkov, said a year ago that «at the height of the economic crisis and rampant crime the (second) Khodorkovsky trial is perceived by the general public as somewhat unconvincing». Could there really be a threesome – Mironov, Khodorkovsky and Gudkov? Especially if we remember the horror that engulfed Sergei Mironov himself and his party when he said in an interview with Vladimir Pozner 6 months ago that he was against Putin.

OK – let's leave the Duma elections out of it. Then there are the presidential. Will the Nemtsov, Milov, Kasyanov, Ryzhkov foursome put Khodorkovsky forward as a single candidate for the opposition?

If they did, would Vladimir Churov register Khodorkovsky as a candidate?

How many signatures would there be to an open letter on the internet in support of Khodorkovsky's registration? Oh, lots! How many people would come to an unlicensed demonstration at the Central Election Commission? Hmm…

This would be a very interesting test and not just for Medvedev, but for society as a whole.

But what would actually change? Khodorkovsky would give more interviews, but he does quite a lot of that now. He would be able to take part in public politics. How much more public can he be than now? During his trial he at least had the opportunity to debate with German Gref and Viktor Khristenko in front of journalists. 

In other words Khodorkovsky's release can hardly be said to present any danger at all to the present regime. He can no longer buy up all the Duma opposition parties, as he did in 2003, because there aren't any. He won't be able to build a private pipeline to China, thus destroying the state monopoly Transneft's right to own all Russian pipelines: the pipeline he conceived in 1999 has already been built by Igor Sechin and Rosneft. So there's no threat. There is nothing worthwhile that Khodorkovsky will only be able to do when he's released and can't do from behind bars. I'm not including the opportunity to see his family every day, as this is something you would wish for every Russian prisoner, irrespective of his status.

By the way, there are officials whose sole job is to frighten their superiors by warning them that the sky might come tumbling down. The above mentioned Yuri Kovelitsin, for instance, used the bugbear of a «coloured revolution» if Luzhkov were sacked. Luzhkov was, after all, the last bastion holding Moscow back from a «coloured revolution». No one listened to Kovelitsin. But the people who have been professionally scaring Putin and Mededev with talk of a «coloured revolution» for a year or two have considerable authority. This will be a very important test for every employee of the Kremlin or the White House.

Khodorkovsky Lebedev

The prosecution demanded 14 years for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev

Let's not forget that the probability Judge Danilkin will choose option 1 is so small as to be insignificant.

If Khodorkovsky stays in prison, we get an extra option. When Russia has a new president (whom we've called just P), and Khodorkovsky has been in prison for more than 10 years, the West may start regarding him as a Russian Nelson Mandela. Then he might get the Nobel Peace Prize.

I actually know the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee which awards this prize. He is a former Prime Minister called Thorbjorn Jagland. I've interviewed him several times and have never managed to publish anything, because his disconnected and pretentious verbiage could simply not be cobbled into a text. He will not take any risks. He took the risk of giving the Nobel Prize to Obama. In the future he might risk giving it to Medvedev or Putin. So that option doesn't look very likely either.

But this has little to do us, Russian politics or Russian society. We have our own tests which we are doomed to fail – or, indeed, to pass.

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