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Die Welt Interview with Robert Amsterdam

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“The case goes far beyond Khodorkovsky’s fate”

Interviewer: Daniel-C. Schmidt

Originally published in German in Die Welt, 13 March 2009

Defense lawyer Robert Amsterdam discusses the proceedings against the ex-Yukos head and the power demands of the Russian elite

Berlin – Last week the second trial against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-head of Yukos oil company began. He has been in prison since 2003, and was already sentenced to eight years behind bars. Now he is once again being accused of fraud, defalcation, and money laundering into the billions. His lawyer Robert R. Amsterdam believes this is a show trial: “The case is very clearly politically motivated.”

Mr. Amsterdam, how is Mikhail Khodorkovsky doing?

He has been living in poor conditions in a Siberian prison for five and a half years. Now he is in Moscow, at least closer to his family. That helps him. He is very strong and determined to prove his innocence.

Your client was by no means an angel. He had a lot of luck in the90’s when the Soviet Union collapsed. He was at the right place at theright time. Was he very surprised by the second trial?

Many people told him he would be arrested one day. For Khodorkovskyit was a question of attitude. He did not flee from Russia, because hebelieved in his innocence. The case is incredibly important, far beyondKhodorkovsky’s fate. He shows the way today’s Russian elite think.

Does the trial reflect the fear or the strength of the Russian elite?

I have yet to hear anyone speak about the strength of the system.This is about fear and greed. Germany can also learn a lot from theseproceedings. The Siloviki, the political wing of the secret services,control most of the resources. German companies do business with thesepeople when they deal in energy. There are many elite in Russia, andGermany must deal with the right ones.

What would happen otherwise?

The gas conflict with the Ukraine showed that there are people whoare not interested in a reliable energy supply. In Germany taxes arepaid to keep the system running. The income of the Russian governmentcomes from the profits off of these natural resources. Who controlsthem controls the government.

Russian President Medvedev talks of “legal nihilism” in his country.

When Medvedev says that and a trial like this still takes place, it is not meaningless.

A call for help from Medvedev?

Maybe just honesty. When someone from the Russian elite addresses the truth, for me he is not just a Putin marionette.

Is Medvedev’s regime then not to be equated with Putin’s?

I don’t share that view. If you ask if they are good friends, if they work together, I will say yes.

Does Medvedev need Prime Minister Putin?

Putin has an unbelievable amount of power in many ministries, as well as key organizations and companies in the country.

Political murder on public streets, a restricted press, marginalizedopposition – are these all signs of Russia’s backslide into old Soviettimes?

The Soviet Union had a certain coherency through the communistparty. That doesn’t exist anymore. The only common ideology at thefront lines seems to be greed. Greed, driven by nationalism.

Could Medvedev be Russia’s big chance?

What I say is that with him there is someone who talks about thelacking rule of law. That is much more positive than five years ago.

Is the renewed trial against your client a consequence of the worsened economic situation in Russia?

In a system lacking transparency it is difficult to identify theexact underlying reasons. One could assume that every administration isafraid of losing power and will try to divert attention away from suchproblems. Whether through a military conflict, a gas conflict or atrial against Khodorkovsky.

Do you feel positive about the outcome of the proceedings?

I am not at liberty to discuss my view of the trial outcome. Russianjustice system and optimism from a defense attorney just don’t fit welltogether.

Photo: Former Yukos natural oil giant CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, arrives at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 4, 2009. The new trial of Khodorkovsky,the iconic victim of a court system that critics say former PresidentVladimir Putin used as a political tool, will also test the statedcommitment to the rule of law by Putin’s protege and successor,President Dmitry Medvedev. (AP Photo)