As most everyone who was paying attention knows, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted yesterday on embezzlement charges. Sentencing has yet to take place, but the most he could get is 14 years on top of the time he’s already served, and I’ve seen suggestions the sentence will be 6 more years. Nobody really expected anything other than the guilty verdict that was issued, so it’s not a shock. However, here’s the odd thing about it – the western position appears to be that if Russia wishes to …let’s see, how did the New York Times put it? Oh, yes: “…take even modest steps toward establishing a real rule of law”, the court would issue a short or suspended sentence.
Let’s pause a moment to ponder that. The best way for Russia to convince its western critics that it has taken real steps toward establishing the rule of law would be to let a lawbreaker off with a slap on the wrist, or just not punish him. Justice, western-style.
Is Khodorkovsky really a lawbreaker? I think everyone agrees he is. Oh, some sources suggest his trial is “politically motivated” or that his really big crime was daring to cross Putin, but I haven’t seen anyone suggest he’s innocent. Well, except him, of course, since that was his plea in his original trial. Actually, to be completely accurate, 4% of Russians thought he was innocent. Interestingly, at least to me, most Russians opined at the time that the main point in a democratic process was the equality of all people in the eyes of the law. They believed the privatization of state assets in the 90’s under Yeltsin (and Boris Nemtsov) was unfair, which is a bit of an understatement. Most interestingly, Russians at the time tended to “see the YUKOS case as having a positive effect as the first step towards law and order, in particular, in the economy”. Oh, I don’t mean we should pay any attention to what Russians think exemplifies progress of the rule of law in their own country; everybody knows that’s for westerners to decide. But still. Interesting.
Anyway, even though the conviction wasn’t a surprise, and the sentencing seems to be the real cliffhanger here, I was encouraged by the authors at Shanghai Blueprints and RussiaWatching to do something on it. So here we are. I wandered over to La Russophobe to see what the reaction (spoiler alert – she didn’t like it) was, and was surprised to find her reference piece is from the Christian Science Monitor. Not only that, it’s so over-the-top and foamy that I actually thought she had written it herself. Well, that and the trademark sloppiness, such as being off by four years on the 2014 Olympics at Sochi. If I had to guess – and I do – I’d say the author is Fred Weir or Olga Podolskaya; or both, since they often work together, as they did on this nonsense. Who started the war in Georgia, they speculated. “Most of the world accepts key elements of the Russian version”, we were told then, “and very few contradict it”. Really? Is that how you remember it, that most of the world just took Russia’s word for it? It’s not surprising that I found that article on La Russophobe’s site, or that Weir and Podolskaya are frequent team features there.
So I guess I should have known La Russophobe didn’t write it, in spite of the venomous tone. If at no other point, I would have clued in here; “…America’s most important long-term interest in Russia lies in helping that country adopt Western civic values. (That’s what the cold war was all about)”. Again, really? That’s what the Cold War was all about? Helping Russia adopt Western civic values? Who believes that; show of hands? And are we to believe the cause of helping Russia adopt Western civic values is endorsed by La Russophobe, who regularly refers to Russians as pigs , animals and barbarians? Listen up, pigs; La Russophobe does it all out of love, and wants you to just adopt Western civic values!
Well, that was an amusing little diversion – oh, my ribs. But back to Khodorkovsky. All seem to agree he was a charter member of the Russian oligarchy, and all seem to agree they were and are criminals (at least, the ones still in Russia are criminals. Boris Berzovsky, for example, isn’t a criminal now because, even though he did do some criminal things while in Russia, he lives in England now, and says bad things about Putin). Therefore, there’s not so much discussion over why Khodorkovsky was arrested as there is over why all the rest were not arrested as well. Some say it’s because Putin laid it out for the oligarchs – stay out of politics, and yer can keep the swag, Ahrrrr. I doubt it was expressed quite like that, but it’s true that most of the oligarchs got to keep their ill-gotten gains. It’s also true that Khodorkovsky was warned a couple of times before his arrest that his behaviour was getting out of hand. Some of that was his financing of opposition parties, and his use of his vast wealth to attempt to redraw the Russian political map. However, I can’t see that as much of a crime from a western standpoint; wealthy people meddling in politics is as American as Mom and apple pie. Ever hear of George Soros? Well, okay, he’s not a very good example, because he supports Democrats, and that makes him a criminal in a lot of American eyes. All right; how about T. Boone Pickens? He makes a hobby out of interfering in politics, and he’s not a criminal. In fact, I can see America embracing Khodorkovsky as a hero for meddling in politics; it’s just what rich people who want to get a lot richer do. And few dispute that Khodorkovsky was more interested in getting rich than actually being in politics himself – in fact, Yeltsin offered him a place in government as a reward for his support, back in 1996. But Khodorkovsky declined in favour of the Banking Council.
But here’s another motive for Khodorkovsky’s arrest, as well as for Western embrace of Khodorkovsky as a favourite son and all-round hard-done-by political prisoner. Khodorkovsky’s second attempt at a merger of YUKOS and SIBNEFT (owned by Roman Abromovich, whom Russophobes like Julia Ioffe never tire of reviling as an oligarch) would have seen Khodorkovsky swap his shares in the new company (YUKSI) for Chevron-Texaco shares, giving the American company access to Russian oilfields. Not that the state never permits such transactions, but it likes to maintain control over who has access to national assets. Most governments would allow that was reasonable.
And if you really want to connect the dots to the arrest, there’s the classic eXile article by Mark Ames (thanks, Giuseppe), laying out the timeline from start to finish as Khodorkovsky went from getting a little impatient with the government to outright stepping on his own dick. Taken together, these pieces of the whole come together in a picture of a man who thought he was above the law, because he had been for so long – smart, rich, connected and used to getting his own way.
There’s probably a lot to the suggestion that he was singled out for punishment when many others got off free. So what? He showed every sign of intending to co-opt a national asset for his own personal benefit, and dared the country’s leaders to stop him. They did. Personally, I tend to think that financial crimes like embezzlement are not really criminal acts on the scale of, say, murder or armed robbery. But that’s not up to me; it’s up to the rule of law in the country where it occurred. The funny part is, the west keeps bitching that there is no rule of law in Russia – then complains when somebody whose game they appreciate is taken down just because he’s a criminal.
Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia, and absolutely ruthless when he chose to be. Are you telling me he couldn’t get off if he were actually innocent? Can anyone show conclusively that there’s no case against him? His platoon of lawyers has certainly tried. It’s not like the trial took place in secret; plenty of westerners followed it avidly. The judge will have to summarize the evidence prior to sentencing. But if there is no evidence, it should never have gotten around to the sentencing part. If there is no evidence, or if the evidence is all fabricated, western Khodorkovsky-watchers would scream the place down. As far as I’ve seen, reaction to the conviction is fairly subdued, except for hysterical screechy sites like La Russophobe.
This will be peddled – especially if the sentence is near the maximum – as a black day for the rule of law in Russia. But I think it’s something quite different. And if Khodorkovsky really did that much for Russia while he was still free, you’d think Russians’ shouts for him to be freed would be impossible to ignore – both Putin and Medvedev have shown themselves to be sensitive enough to public opinion as to merit its being cultivated. Hear any shouts?