Sentences to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev do not count as much as political ramifications of the YUKOS affair.

For an observer who by some miracle is completely unaware of Russian realities the matter of Mikhail Khodorkovsky may look purely economical. A business component of the whole affair is considerable indeed. Moreover, it will not be a gross exaggeration to assume that were it not for the fact that YUKOS was the wealthiest and most successful company in the country, Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev would have been free now. Their imprisonment certainly helped the interested parties to commandeer the best assets of the company. It is clear as well that what remains of the company is also attractive enough and that manipulations with the remaining assets will therefore continue.

There is, however, mercantile interest of the presidential inner circle and there is Vladimir Putin’s personal animosity towards Khodorkovsky. There was a time when owner of the most successful business venture in Russia tried to talk to the president in the manner he would with owners of the businesses that caught his fancy. Putin took offense, and as far as Putin is concerned, offending the president is no better than offending the state itself. From Putin’s point of view, Khodorkovsky posed a threat to the very foundation of Russian statehood and, what was worse, had the capacity to turn this threat into a reality.

Confrontation between the businessman and the president became public in February 2003, when Khodorkovsky demanded curtailment of corruption from Putin and Putin in his turn advised Khodorkovsky to mind his taxes. Political technologists’ reports on the forthcoming oligarchic coup that would elevate Khodorkovsky to the Kremlin appeared at a later date. Still, they were quite consistent with Putin’s picture of the world at large.

One year and seven months after Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment, analysts are seriously contemplating his chances of becoming leader of anti-Putin opposition upon his release from jail. These speculations are not entirely groundless. Unlike many others, Khodorkovsky does not look broken by imprisonment (even the article he had Vedomosti published a year ago was taken as an attempt at atonement by only some observers, others took it as a herald of the author’s future in politics). Men like that usually avenge their offenders.

Putin must be aware of that. It follows that he needs to keep Khodorkovsky locked up as long as possible.

It is clear already that Khodorkovsky will remain in prison pending his complete correction or replacement of the regime. It stands to reason to expect him to spend the next several years in Moscow because Putin knows better than to leave him without a watchful eye. It is common knowledge after all that a colony is less safe than a prison.

The authorities have at their disposal numerous means of leaving Khodorkovsky behind bars. First, he will remain in prison at least until the autumn in any case – until the sentence comes into effect. Following that, a prisoner is usually sent to a colony of the federal region where he is under arrest. And yet, the Prosecutor General’s Office came up with new charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev last December (money laundering by a gang of the funds obtained illegitimately, Article 174.1, Part 4 of the Criminal Code, punishable by between 10 and 15 years imprisonment and a fine up to 1 million roubles). There is nothing to prevent it from pressing these new charges as soon as the verdict is read aloud and extending Khodorkovsky’s stay in the detention cell for another year or so that the investigation will take. (He may be moved from Matrosskaya Tishina to a less comfortable detention cell like the Presnya Transit Prison).

The authorities may be counted on to come up with something new after that.

All of that leads to a simple conclusion that riding a white horse into the Kremlin is something Khodorkovsky may forget about for the next several years. In fact, it is unlikely even afterwards. Few regain the former political heights after time served. Ruslan Khasbulatov and Alexander Rutskoi did not become people’s heroes even though the latter was elected the Kursk governor. Former acting prosecutor general, Aleksei Ilyushenko, never returned to big-time politics after two years in a detention cell on charges of bribery.

Regardless, however, of what awaits Khodorkovsky himself, his criminal case is already a fact of political life. It was fashionable in the early 1990’s to ask politicians where they had been on August 19, 1991. These days, a different question is more important. “Where were you in May 2005, when Khodorkovsky was standing trial?” Answer to the question may consolidate the politicians divided until now by petty discord like over the procedure of formation of a democratic party or over who will become its leader. Because what the question actually implies is “What is your opinion of the state built by Putin?”

There are people in Russia who consider the case of Khodorkovsky unjust and unfair. There are the wealthy who know all too well that they could be in Khodorkovsky’s shoes. These people are prepared to invest not only in the United Russia election campaign. It is clear therefore that Khodorkovsky’s trial will become one of the trump cards of anti-Putin opposition if it appeared in the country for the next election.

Rhetoric of this opposition will treat the YUKOS affair as one of the symptoms of “curtailment of democracy” in Russia. In fact, the YUKOS affair is already being used by ex-premier Mikhail Kasianov who promised to unite “Liberals on the right flank with Social Democrats on the left” at his press conference last Thursday. Objecting to imprisonment of men charged with economic crimes when he was the premier, Kasianov called Khodorkovsky’s trial a farce.

Disappointed in the Yabloko and Union of Right Forces, liberally-minded Russians may close their ranks around the former prime minister. Even whoever thinks that there is something to jail Khodorkovsky for understands that he is being jailed for different reasons altogether.