The YUKOS verdict: freedom for Mikhail Khodorkovsky


The announcement of the verdict and sentence in the YUKOS case drew an entirely predictable response from the press – and it was all the more stormy because no one had really expected such a lengthy prison term: nine years.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta described it as “an absolute record for charges other than murder or manslaughter.” As Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted, “longer sentences are only issued for convictions on terrorism or murder charges.”

According to Izvestia, “such a harsh sentence for what we might provisionally describe as economic crimes is greatly reminiscent of the Soviet-era trials of money-changers and people who engaged in ‘illegal’ private enterprise.”

And besides, Izvestia adds, straight after the sentence was announced, Prosecutor General’s Office spokeswoman Natalia Vishniakova “confirmed that in effect, everything is only just getting started”: Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will soon face new charges that could increase their prison terms to 20-30 years, according to various media estimates.

Izvestia was one of several papers to publish Khdorkovsky’s final statement, made after the verdict and sentencing, as well as some figures connected with the case. Khodorkovsky’s personal fortune amounted to $15.2 billion at the time of his arrest; it has now shrunk to $2.2 billion. The court has now ruled that 17,397,400,619 rubles of this sum is subject to confiscation. Moreover, according to Izvestia, the YUKOS case investigation lasted 154 days, the trial lasted 381 days, and the case materials ran to 390 volumes.

The Izvestia newspaper’s tendency to give exact data and forthright assessments has not passed unnoticed. The Interfax news agency reported on June 2 that the Gazprom-Media holding company is preparing to acquire Izvestia. Gazprom-Media spokesman Anton Sergeev told Interfax that talks are close to completion, and an official announcement about the deal should be made soon.

What’s more, according to the website, Sergeev “denied reports that in acquiring Izvestia, Gazprom-Media plans to replace chief editor Vladimir Borodin with Oleg Kuzin,” currently chief editor of the Tribuna newspaper. The fact that this point is being underscored isn’t surprising, if we recall that the last change of chief editor at Izvestia happened after the Beslan school hostage-taking: Raf Shakirov was dismissed for what the newspaper’s owners viewed as over-emotional coverage of the terrorist attack.

With its characteristic pragmatism, the Kommersant newspaper acquaints its readers with the prison conditions awaiting Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

Kommersant reports: “On arrival at the prison, inmate Khodorkovsky will be assigned to a detachment with regular prison conditions: the inmates live in dormitories that resemble regular barracks, and they are free to move around the premises, in accordance with daily schedules. Their monthly spending is restricted to three times the minimum monthly wage (2,160 rubles). They are allowed six parcels, six packages, six long meetings, and six short meetings per year. They may make phone calls (no longer than 15 minutes each) with permission from the prison administration.” What’s more, “good behavior” for the first six months can lead to an inmate being transferred to “a detachment with relaxed conditions” – no restrictions on spending, twice as many packages, and six long meetings. Inmates may apply for parole after serving half of their sentences.

Moreover, says Kommersant, in his capacity as a “professional manager” Khodorkovsky might well be employed doing “administrative work” in prison – as a roster officer, a dispatcher, or in charge of a club or a library. In that case, he could earn 700 to 1,500 rubles a month.

Kommersant asked some political figures, Duma members, and lawyers to estimate when Khodorkovsky might be released from jail.

The gloomiest reply came from Boris Nemtsov: “Now I’m just praying that he comes out alive. As for when – that’s a secondary matter.”

This assessment is somewhat similar to what Platon Lebedev told his lawyer, Yevgeny Baru. The lawyer told the Gazeta newspaper that his client fears “further provocations” from “biased enforcers of the law.” According to Lebedev, “in order to conceal the traces of their own crimes and abuse of power, they would even go as far as physically eliminating Mikhail and myself.” Baru did not explain why Lebedev has reached such a conclusion: “Since he is saying it, however, he must have some grounds for that.”

YUKOS co-owner Leonid Nevzlin took a similar tone in an interview with Gazeta; as everyone knows, Nevzlin is now living in Israel. Nevzlin described the sentence as “cruel and immoral – neither Khodorkovsky nor Lebedev deserve such a sentence.” According to Nevzlin, it is “aimed at destroying these individuals.” He adds: “And our complete physical destruction is Putin’s goal. This is dangerous for those who have remained in Russia. I’m glad I left. I feel sorry for the guys.”

Meanwhile, Motherland (Rodina) party leader Dmitri Rogozin told Kommersant that Khodorkovsky might be released “once there is no longer the slightest chance of him running for president in 2008.” Then “a signal will be given, and messengers will approach the Kremlin, and the Kremlin will stage a triumph of liberalism.”

Lawyer Larisa Move thinks likewises: “He will remain in jail for as long as the present regime holds power. The Prosecutor General’s Office has no intention of stopping here; Khodorkovsky is facing new charges, after all.”

On the other hand, Viktor Ilyukhin, deputy chairman of the Duma security committee, says the sentence could well be reduced after an appeal. What’s more, Ilyukhin even believes it’s possible that “if the international community finds the sentence unjust, and the threat of sanctions becomes more or less realistic, Putin could even decide to pardon Khodorkovsky.”

Mikhail Buger, deputy chairman of the United Russia faction, wrote the original enquiry to the Prosecutor General’s Office about tax evasion by oil companies; this was followed by the prosecution of Khodorkovsky. Buger’s comment now is brief: “As a rule, such people don’t serve out their full sentences.”

As the Vedomosti newspaper notes, United Russia has been the only party to express satisfaction with the Meshchansky Court’s decision. Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Pekhtin even told Vedomosti: “The YUKOS case proves that Russian society exists within the field of law.”

In contrast to United Russia, the Communist Party (CPRF) views the verdict as yet another demonstration of the double standards used by the authorities. Ivan Melnikov, first deputy chairman of the CPRF Central Committee, told Vedomosti: “The authorities choose to jail some oligarchs, while inviting others to the Kremlin to drink tea and discuss the current situation.”

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky was severed. In an interview with Echo of Moscow Radio, he called for the dismissal of Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov due to the “too-lenient sentence” in the YUKOS case. Zhirinovsky said: “The people have been calling for the death penalty or life imprisonment. Russian citizens will be unhappy about this, of course.”

Meanwhile, the Vremya Novostei newspaper cites poll data provided by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) as indicating that at least half of Russian citizens have no definite opinion about the charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. Vremya Novostei says: “It appears that ordinary citizens aren’t interested in the YUKOS case.”

Besides, according to VTsIOM, “low-income groups are least interested in this topic.” Almost two-thirds of low-income respondents say they are unaware of the verdict, or have no opinion about it; half of them haven’t been following the trial at all. Vremya Novostei comments: “This would appear to disprove the widely-promoted theory about the YUKOS case being a publicity stunt for the benefit of the poorest groups of society, who need to be reassured that the regime is fighting the oligarchs.”

VTsIOM also claims that 35% of respondents say they are entirely satisfied to see Khodorkovsky being punished “with the full force of the law.” Only 16% of respondents show some sympathy for the convicted men.

The figures obtained by the Levada Center polling agency, as reported in the Vedomosti newspaper, present an entirely different picture.

The Levada Center’s polls indicate that if Mikhail Khodorkovsky ran for president, 8.3% of respondents would be prepared to vote for him.

Vedomosti also reports 47% of respondents saying that the Kremlin is simply afraid of Khodorkovsky’s political activity, and that is why it demanded the maximal sentence for him. Moreover, 53% of respondents believe that the Kremlin put pressure on the court; 49% say that selective application of the law is common practice in Russia.

A “presidential rating” of 8.3% is a substantial figure, says Vedomosti. Judging by numerous VTsIOM polls, this indicator “is higher than the figure for any other potential candidate, with the exception of incumbent President Vladimir Putin.”

Vedomosti notes that VTsIOM polls in April showed Putin in the lead, Vladimir Zhirinovsky in second place with 5% support, and Gennadi Zyuganov with 4%, followed by Dmitri Rogozin and Aman Tuleev with 3% each. Khodorkovsky was absent from this ranking – yet now he apparently ranks second, largely thanks to the efforts of the authorities.

Why was Khodorkovsky selected as the target for this attack? Denis Dragunsky tries to answer that question in an article for Novoe Vremya magazine.

“Was it because his tax payment record really does include some irregularities? Perhaps. But the same could be said for any other oligarch – and big business in general, and medium-sized companies, and small business owners, and the self-employed, and all employees.” Besides, given contemporary judicial practice, the list of tax claims can turn out to be practically infinite.

Perhaps Khodorkovsky was selected because he was the richest, “and it’s more profitable and convenient to dismember one very wealthy corporation?”

This reason isn’t convincing either, says Dragunsky: “Some other corporations are only slightly less wealthy, but far less popular.” They could have been broken up “more quickly, and more quietly.”

Was it because Khodorkovsky had started funding political parties? Dragunsky points out that in order to avert any undesirable consequences, it would have sufficed for the Kremlin to have some pre-emptive chats with the leaders of those parties: “Russia’s political parties are well-trained. They would have stopped requesting donations immediately. They wouldn’t even have accepted a phone call from Khodorkovsky.”

Could anyone have seriously believed that Khodorkovsky wanted to become president? Dragunsky responds: “I’ll say it straight, with no political correctness: that’s nothing but an anti-Semitic fantasy. And the Kremlin is perfectly well aware of this.”

Or could it have been because of a personal quarrel between Khodorkovsky and Putin? “Yet again, this seems too petty, too unconvincing. And unlikely, besides.”

Dragunsky concludes that it’s impossible to determine why Khodorkovsky in particular, rather than any other oligarch, has been jailed.

But an answer to that question was provided in a Radio Liberty interview with Boris Berezovsky, a long-time opponent of Putin.

“Khodorkovsky poses a danger to Putin and Putin’s regime, for one simple reason: he attempted to be an independent person,” said Berezovsky. “Any independent person is dangerous for the Putin regime, especially a wealthy independent person.”

In Berezovsky’s opinion, the Kremlin set itself three goals in the YUKOS trial.

First goal: “to destroy any and all financial sources not dependent on the Kremlin: in other words, the private sector.”

Second goal, closely linked to the first: “destroying any and all political opponents not dependent on the Kremlin. That’s because everyone in Russia is now well aware that any form of political activity requires funding.” Berezovsky goes on to explain: “All those illusions about democratic politicians not needing money have proved to be no more than childish misconceptions. Everyone now understands that politics, especially big-time politics, requires money.”

And the third goal, the strategic goal: “instilling fear, intimidating people – independent people – thus destroying their independence.”

In Berezovsky’s opinion, all three goals have been achieved.

As Irina Khakamada observes in an article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, nine years for Khodorkovsky signifies the entrenchment of a bureaucratic state and a pervasive climate of fear in Russia.

Khakamada says: “This is a message to the rest of the business community: unless you reach agreement with us, unless you work within our gray economy, the same fate will befall you. If you do reach agreement with us – if you provide the flows of gray money that we require to achieve our political objectives, and fund our political ambitions – then you can live in freedom and comfort.”

At the same time, according to Khakamada, the authorities are sending a message to ordinary citizens: “In response to your calls, the authorities are ensuring that justice is done. The rich are being punished: because they are rich, and you are poor. Thus, the authorities are protecting you from those others – protecting one part of the people from another part of the people.”

It’s the old “divide and rule” principle: with the image of oligarch-as-enemy being promoted, instead of real problems being solved.

In Khakamada’s opinion, “we are essentially talking of a fascist model here, in the broader sense of fascism – not associated with Nazi Germany, but associated with a totalitarian ideology”: the state is everything, the people are nothing.

Meanwhile, according to Vedomosti, the Russian business community hasn’t interpreted Khodorkovsky’s sentence as the organizers of the trial intended. “For almost two years, state officials and prosecutors have insisted that the YUKOS co-owners are on trial for economic crimes, not because they got involved in politics and funded opposition parties, so ‘honest businesspeople’ have nothing to fear. But few have found the state’s arguments convincing.”

Still, many of the executives whom Vedomosti approached for comments declined to give an opinion, explaining that they value their companies.

All the same, there were some who condemned the decision of the authorities, directly and unanonymously.

“Command-administrative law has triumphed,” says Oleg Sysuev, first deputy chairman of the board at Alfa Bank. According to Sysuev, Russia’s chances of becoming a state based on the rule of law have now become completely ephemeral.

“We don’t have an independent judiciary, and that is our nation’s misfortune,” says Alexander Lebedev, co-owner of the National Reserve Corporation.

Artem Bektemirov, co-owner of the 36.6 Pharmacy chain, said straight out that the verdict is politically motivated.

Gennadi Kiriushin, general director of the SMARTS cell-phone company, recalled an old saying: if you don’t get involved in politics, politics will get involved with you. “So we will have to back different politicians.”

Then again, Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, says in an article for Vedomosti that former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has now become “the first significant outside-the-system politician in today’s Russia.” He is fully independent from the Kremlin, “he can make decisions without consulting the presidential administration, without fearing that the Kremlin will punish him for insubordination by taking something away from him; they have already taken away everything except his life and honor.”

And thus, says Belkovsky, “Khodorkovsky now has every chance of becoming a consolidating center for a real opposition in Russia.”

As Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself said after the sentence had been passed: “From now on, the space of my life is the territory of freedom. The prisoners are those who remain slaves to the System.” (Quoted in Novaya Gazeta.)