THE ARREST OF MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY: RUSSIA IN A NEW POLITICAL REALITY

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From the perspective of the press, the arrest of YUKOS chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been something akin to a border mark on the field of Russian politics. It’s possible to argue about the events prior to this arrest, to make various comments on what happened and what the key people involved said, and speculate on what might have developed had things gone differently. Back then, the subjunctive mood could still be used; the whole situation somehow didn’t seem all that serious (despite the many attacks on the business community by the security and law enforcement agencies); everything bore a common imprint of election campaign demagoguery. This period of time was viewed by the media as “relatively non-carnivorous” (a description once used for the Brezhnev era as compared to the Stalin era), and events were reported by each newspaper in the appropriate tone for that part of the political spectrum to which the newspaper belonged.

Some papers (mainly those from the pool of publications controlled by Boris Berezovsky) had long predicted a new era of totalitarianism for Russia, where the secret services would be omnipotent and everyone else would be stripped of their rights and silenced. Other papers took a more conciliatory approach, trying to discern a grain of rational thinking and concern for the nation in the actions of the authorities.

In short, there was no unanimity. However, unanimity – along with obvious and intense confusion – has appeared as a spontaneous, involuntary response to the latest events. After some initial confusion, all the papers spoke out with one voice: a new and different era is beginning – or rather, life according to new rules.

Of course, the rules didn’t change in an instant; but something had to play the role of a semaphore capable of signalling that the end of an era is complete, and from now on we are living in a fundamentally different kind of country.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper, usually restrained and loyalist, commented on October 27 as follows: “The arrest of Khodorkovsky, one of the few true cult figures in Russian business, means that the regime has decided to cross the Rubicon in its relations with business and society.”

According to Vremya Novostei, the real point here is neither the arrest of one particular magnate nor the charges against him: “The real issue lies elsewhere. From now on, the regime will not be compromising with anyone. Even the most substantial and influential individuals will simply be swept off the board by force.”

The point is not the radical decisions made by specific officials from the Prosecutor General’s Office, but a consciously-chosen political agenda: “It is precisely the forcible method of resolving conflict situations that is now being presented to the public as the natural, justified method.”

Of course, the business community was categorically disinclined to give up hoping that the president would intervene, notes Vremya Novostei, citing an appeal issued on October 25 by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE), the Russian Association of Enterprise Organizations (OPORA), and the Business Russia movement.

The appeal said: “The recent escalation in the actions of the authorities and law enforcement agencies towards the Russian business community has drastically worsened the atmosphere in society. At present, the Russian business community does not have confidence in the current law enforcement system and its leaders… The crude errors of the authorities have set the nation back several years, and undermined confidence in their declarations about the revision of privatization results being unacceptable.” (Cited in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.)

The appeal also proposed a solution: “The situation can only be turned around if President Vladimir Putin states his position clearly and unequivocally.” And yet the business leaders were obviously having some bad premonitions: the appeal emphasized that the president’s reluctance to intervene in the situation “would make the deterioration of the economic climate irreversible, and turn Russia into an unfavorable country for business development.”

The business leaders delegated Anatoly Chubais to express their consolidated point of view – which he did in a live interview on the Rossiya television channel: “This confrontation could be large enough to involve the whole of society, and it would be difficult to stop. As the YUKOS affair develops, I am seeing the business community draw away from the authorities, and the intelligentsia move into opposition; and this could be very costly for Russia.” (Cited in Vremya Novostei.)

According to Chubais, head of Russian Joint Energy Systems, the president ought to have no less interest than the business community in resolving this situation: “An abnormal state of affairs, with society ceasing to trust the government and the president, could provoke an extreme confrontation between presidential candidates, with the authorities supporting one candidate and the nation supporting another.” Then again, in Chubais’s opinion, such a situation could only arise in 2008, not 2004.

On the other hand, says Vremya Novostei, “if the regime continues to act so resolutely and harshly, then by the presidential election of 2008 there might be nobody left to confront.”

And then the president did respond. His response sent the business community into shock. By way of answering the appeal, Vladimir Putin ordered business leaders and the media to stop the “speculations and hysteria” over the YUKOS affair, and instructed state officials to launch a system-wide war on corruption.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented: “Essentially, he gave the security and law enforcement agencies carte blanche – to act as they see fit, using all available ways and means.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this essentially amounts to a declaration that in Russia “the law enforcement agencies are presumed to be always in the right – with all the consequences this entails for civil society.”

The president was clearly angry, says Tatiana Malkina in Vremya Novostei, “since he expressed himself crudely, as if to say: no, we won’t bargain over your Khodorkovsky (and we’ll finish him off in the toilet).”

Whether the president was angry “with himself, or the zealous prosecutors, or Khodorkovsky, or Khodorkovsky’s comrades among Russia’s business elite” – that’s not the important point here, says Malkina. What’s important is that for the first time in several years, the “sluggish, vague balance between government, society, and business” has been demonstratively disrupted. “It had rested on everyone’s tacit, publicly unspoken understanding that disturbing the skeletons in the closets of others would only mean more trouble for yourself, since once the process started, far too many skeletons would be revealed.”

Now the president has disrupted that tacit agreement. “But this seems to be an ill-considered move,” Malkina concludes.

The Kommersant newspaper notes that the signal received by the business community from the president “isn’t even a signal, but a command: Fall in! Attention! No talking in the ranks!”

Kommersant points out that a fairly substantial part of the public might even be pleased by this: “An oligarch in jail – that is precisely what social justice means for the man in the street.”

This topic is developed by Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, writing in Vremya Novostei.

According to Pavlovsky, those who claim it will be easy to establish the truth if there’s an open trial are hoping in vain: “Now we can see that what is intended is not an open trial, but a show trial like those of the Stalin era. A show trial involves creating a dummy figure of the enemy for the amusement of the worst part of society.”

Pavlovsky says that the weapon being used here is “repressive, totalitarian populism – based on the calculation that people who are living in poverty will forget they are citizens and demand revenge. This is an attempt to infect society with the virus of class vengeance.”

In Kommersant, leading entrepreneur Vladimir Bryntsalov commented: “The oligarchs had been accustomed to run to Yeltsin for help, but Putin is not Yeltsin. He seeks to keep the people happy, not the oligarchs. And the people are happy about this arrest.”

However, two aspects are unclear here. First: how does Bryntsalov know that “the people are happy”? Second: presumably, Bryntsalov is not including himself among the oligarchs. So who is he, then – an ordinary businessman? And is he hoping to “ride out the storm” in that capacity? Is he hoping that the upswing in law enforcement activity won’t affect people like him?

In speaking of the stand the president has taken, Gleb Pavlovsky notes that in his own view, “refusing to engage in dialogue is always a mistake.”

Pavlovsky says that the rule of law, and everyone being equal before the law, undoubtedly represent a correct thesis – “but it must not be used as sophistry.” He points out that this is not a matter of “bargaining over the activities of the law enforcement agencies” (as the president put it), but “normal social mistrust of the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office.” And as long as such mistrust exists, it cannot possibly be ignored.

In its “Direct Speech” column, Kommersant published a selection of opinions from business leaders, politicians, and state officials (current and former), on whether it would be worthwhile to engage in dialogue with the president about the latest events.

Many of them are having premonitions of trouble. These are most succinctly expressed by Mikhail Fedotov, vice-president of the InDem Foundation. In his view, the president has done the correct thing, from the formal standpoint, in refusing to intervene in the actions of investigation agencies: “But can he really believe that the courts and the Prosecutor General’s Office are independent? This is either naivete or a pose.”

Yet Vladimir Putin cannot possibly be described as naive, Fedotov notes. Thus, it looks like the president “is siding with those who set these events in motion.”

If so, then we may assume that “a very large wheel is being turned, and millions will fall victim to it.” This is a question of redistributing property, “of YUKOS changing hands, along with thousands of other companies.” Those in the business community who have realized this are already packing their bags.

The Vedomosti newspaper notes: “In its silence, the security and law enforcement component of the regime does not formulate its ultimate goals. However, judging by the actions of the enforcers, their goal appears to be driving all the truly strong people out of Russia.” This would forever entrench Russia’s reputation “as a kind of gold rush zone: people make their fortunes there, then flee its lawlessness.” The only people to remain in Russia will be “those who understand signals properly, and are prepared to live with the knowledge that they might be arrested at any time.”

Oleg Sysuev, first deputy chairman of the board at Alfa-Bank, told the Kommersant newspaper: “The president has not acknowledged concerns in society over the unlawful circumstances of Khodorkovsky’s arrest, and the situation has become much worse for everyone.” Sysuev went on to express some apprehension that “the ground is being prepared for some kind of authoritarian leader to come to power in 2008, and there will be no point in asking: Who are you?”

Independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov says he is disappointed by the response of Russia’s economic and business elite to the actions of the authorities. He told Vedomosti: “It is long past time to start talking to the regime in the language of ultimatums.”

Of course, the most radical comments of all have come from Boris Berezovsky, as always. He told Vedomosti he is sure that the YUKOS affair will be followed by those who are currently close to the president cracking down on other large corporations, as well as political parties. In Berezovsky’s view, the only way of stopping the repressions that have started is to join forces with the Communists in order to prevent Putin’s re-election in 2004.

In an interview with Moskovskie Novosti shortly before Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Berezovsky was extremely direct.

Berezovsky said: “What is happening in Russia is essentially a creeping counter-revolution by means of a coup d’etat. On paper, we are still living under the Constitution of 1993, but in practice its basic articles have already been revoked. All the foundations of a democratic state laid down in the Russian Constitution – separation of powers, freedom of the press, local government – all have been dismantled.” Now, says Berezovsky, the next step is sure to follow: “A hierarchy in the economy will be created, since all the previous steps are pointless if you don’t have control of the money.”

It should be noted that this move is very difficult, since 80% of property in Russia is in private hands. The main difficulty is that “the current regime, unlike the Communists early last century, cannot make the process ideological by claiming to be redistributing property in favor of the state or the people as a whole.”

Berezovsky emphasizes that these days, “everyone understands that all this is being done in the interests of particular individuals – people in uniform, most often – those who were too late or not strong enough to take part in the initial wave of privatization.”

At the same time, the ease with which “Putin’s colorless horde” (as Berezovsky puts it) is advancing is deceptive.

According to Berezovsky, the main problem of the current regime is not that Putin has an entirely different mindset, but the fact that the Kremlin as a whole is intellectually weak. “If the regime were just a little more intelligent, it couldn’t fail to understand that what it is doing has no prospect of success.”

In Moskovskie Novosti, Berezovsky accuses Putin of betrayal, saying: “That term is not entirely proper in politics; in politics, everything is rational. It means we failed to foresee something, failed to make sure there could be no return to the past.”

Berezovsky is seconded by the Vedomosti newspaper, which argues that the process of consolidating the nation “under Putin” – the process Russia’s business and political elite has been working on for four years – is finally complete. The evidence of that is the reaction of Russian society to the latest events.

Vedomosti says: “In the Russian Federation, all counterweights to the Kremlin have been eliminated: an independent judiciary, the autonomy of the political and business communities. Censorship has beein introduced for television, and self-censorship for most of the print media. The concentration of limitless power in one set of hands devalues the results of practically all the economic and political reforms of Putin’s first four years in office.”

There’s no need for a detailed discussion of the state of the justice system. Vedomosti emphasizes that dozens of investigation measures in the YUKOS case have been carried out “with the demonstrative use of dirty techniques”: searching the offices of a Duma member and a defense attorney, summoning a Duma member and a priest for questioning, questioning suspects without a lawyer present – and none of the complaints by the defense have been upheld.

According to Vedomosti, perestroika in politics comes down to the fact that political parties have been transformed into “leading reins, held not even by the president himself, but officials from his administration.”

The first Russian capitalist who decided to make his company transparent and openly declare his “political investments” is now in the Matrosskaya Tishina jail.

Vedomosti concludes: “Vladimir Putin is entering a new political cycle as the complete master of the country.”

Now, following the surrender of his opponents, “only a miracle can prevent Putin’s authoritarianism from developing into tyranny.”

Novaya Gazeta observer Yulia Latynina says: “A coup has taken place in Russia. The law enforcement agencies have seized power.” On the surface, this coup took the form of Khodorkovsky the oligarch being arrested; but at the same time, says Latynina, there was a less obvious loss of power by President Putin.

In the past, Putin “pitted the Yeltsin-era oligarchs and the newcomers from St. Petersburg against each other – and as a result, he was fully informed of what was going on in Russia.” Now the full range of information will clearly be lost. Latynina says that the president will soon be getting his information from the same source as everyone else – the “Vesti” television program: “From this source, the president will learn of the workers sending him greetings and the ministers following his orders.” But losing information means losing power.

As the papers have noted, by siding with one of the two clans in confrontation, the president has made his choice. Yet at the same time, by giving up the system of political counterbalances, he has become a hostage to the situation: “Like a plane that’s lost one wing, the regime has become uncontrollable. And losing control means losing power.”

Now that the security and law enforcement agencies have made their intentions clear, capital will “rush out of the country”, in Latynina’s words. In fact, this is already happening: capital outflow amounted to $8.2 billion in the third quarter of this year, compared to $7.4 billion for the whole of 2002. The outlook is clear: Russia will become poorer, and social problems will increase.

Yulia Latynina says: “In a rich country, it is possible to be a president. In a country that’s sinking into poverty, it is only possible to be a dictator.”

A dictator, in turn, is no more than “a hostage to his own corrupt bureaucracy” – “a person with less rights than anyone else, except those who have been jailed on his orders.”

In short, says Latynina, if we define “power” as the ability to jail anyone at all, then the president will certainly retain that power. But if we define “power” as the ability to manage the country, then he has clearly lost it.

In Rossiskaya Gazeta, Leonid Radzikhovsky sums up the debate by saying that over the past few years Russia has lost everyone who might be capable of saying no to the regime.

As Radzikhovsky puts it, the television channels generally “smile and keep silent.” Political parties “mutter to themselves about ‘the people being destroyed’, but they keep bowing, and bowing, and bowing.” Similar behavior may be observed among regional leaders, oligarchs, politicians, and many others.

“The list can be continued for some time, but in general, everyone has long since understood how things are,” says Radzikhovsky. “The first shoots of civil society in Russia have been finished off – as we can clearly see from the current ‘elections.'”

However, sooner or later, “the scythe mowing down civil society” was bound to “strike a rock.” In Radzikhovsky’s view, that rock was Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “And we have heard the grinding noise produced by that collision.”

Khodorkovsky was opposing the regime – for some sort of “boyish” reasons of his own, as Radzikhovsky puts it; he wasn’t creating civil society single-handed, of course. But still, Khodorkovsky and his Open Russia Foundation provided some grounds to hope that “civil society was feasible, at least to some extent, and had not been entirely finished off. A small window remained open!”

Radzikhovsky says that if this “small window” is now closed and barred, Russia will see the restoration of its customary system of authoritarian rule. “It’s a system that has existed in Russia for a thousand years; sometimes it has been justified, more frequently it has been madness; but it’s a system that essentially stopped evolving in 1917. Bringing back such a regime now would mean national catastrophe.”

Russia really is an astonishing country. The threat of national catastrophe arises spontaneously in Russia – from nothing, basically. It wasn’t so long ago that political observers were complaining of a lack of any vivid political events or figures, and of the total absence of issues in the upcoming election campaigns, both parliamentary and presidential.

Now those complaints seem like something from long ago, in a different life.

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