Mario Vargas Llosa: Khodorkovsky in Siberia

Yesterday the acclaimed author and highly regarded political commentator Mario Vargas Llosa published a long and powerful opinion column in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Spain’s largest daily newspaper, El Pais. Mr. Vargas Llosa makes reference to previous statements of support from French intellectual Andre Glucksmann, Elena Bonner and Anna Politkovskaya. Below is our translation of the article, which speaks for itself. Read the original Spanish version here. Khodorkovsky in Siberia By Mario Vargas Llosa, El Pais, Feb. 24, 2008, page 43 The former boss of the oil company Yukos is suffering a hard sentence for his chimerical aspiration to participate in Russian politics as a critic and democratic opponent of the new czar, Vladimir Putin.

With the way the primaries are going, it is quite possible that the candidates for the presidency of the United States will be the Senators Barack Obama, for the Democratic Party, and John McCain for the Republicans. And, if it goes this way, no doubt that the controversies of the campaign will become feverish, given the discrepancies they maintain over the war in Iraq, economic policy, social security and many other topics. But at least in one area their views coincide completely, and it is sure that no matter who ends up as the winner, their good service will be applied to ensure that the Russian government will cease, or at least soften, the brutality with which they are persecuting the former owner of the oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now buried away in a Siberian prison.I confess that until recently I didn’t have the slightest sympathy for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, about whose case I knew very little, who associated in a vague manner with former communist bureaucrats in the Yeltsin era, who sold themselves assets from the industries they used to manage under the masquerade of privatization, turning themselves into millionaires overnight.But an article by Andre Glucksmann in Le Monde, which made reference to statements about the case by two of the greatest Russian democracy champions, Elena Bonner Sakharov and the assassinated journalist Anna Politkovskaya, caught my ear and prompted me to investigate further. Now I believe that those three have got it right, and that the punishments and the abuses of justice of which the former owner of Yukos has been victim to have nothing to do with the economic offenses that he could have committed in his business activities, which for a time made him Russia’s most wealthy man, but rather have to do with the support he gave to democratic institutions and parties, to human rights organizations, and his attempts to introduce in his businesses Western-style methods of openness and transparency, and, above all, his aspiration – chimerical given the situation of the country – to participate in Russian politics as a critic and opponent of the new czar, Vladimir Putin.His story his novel-esque. Born in 1963, he was a Komsomol (young communists) leader while he was studying engineering. During perestroika he began doing business, first opening a cafeteria and then later a computer and luxury merchandise importing business. His earnings allowed him to open a small bank in 1998 which, thanks to his efforts and to his political influence, grew rapidly. In 1995, he purchased Yukos for some $350 million. Two years later, the value had multiplied to $9 billion. It was the era of the orgy of huge privatizations in the dying USSR, and who could doubt that this operation only could have been possible thanks to maneuvers and privileges of a political nature.However, if the origins of the enormous fortunes he accumulated through his businesses are suspicious, and perhaps delinquent, like all of those great fortunes which cropped up in Russia overnight in the chaos of the transition from the Soviet Union to today’s Russia, all of the testimonies that I have consulted indicate that Khodorkovsky, after taking over Yukos, introduced modern management, publishing rigorous financial reporting, revealing the names of the shareholders, paying taxes, and distributing dividends. These practices allowed him to develop close relationships with large Western companies, with whom he initiated joint operations. When he was arrested, he was negotiating a merger between Yukos and Exxon Mobile.At the same time, he began to finance press organs and independent information centers, foundations dedicated to human rights, political organizations of democratic and liberal character, and made it known – and this was no doubt his capital crime – he intended to participate in activist politics in opposition of Putin, whose decisions and ukases against businessmen he openly criticized. Although some of these businessmen, such as Boris Berezovsky, anticipated what was coming and fled to the exterior, Khodorkovsky made it known that he would not abandon Russia because he had nothing to reproach from a legal standpoint.And so he stayed. Months before the 2004 elections in which he had wanted to participate, he was arrested in October of 2003, accused of fraud and having evaded a billion dollars in taxes. In May 2005, after a show trial in which the defense lawyers were harassed by the authorities and often impeded from even attending the court sessions, they sentenced him to eight years in prison. Sent to Siberia and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, he was victim of a strange homicide attempt by another prisoner, who tried to stab him with a knife in the neck. When he had served half his sentence and, according to Russian law, would be eligible for conditional parole, this was denied and the prosecutor rushed to bring new charges again, this time for misappropriation and money laundering, charges for which he could be sentenced to 22 more years in prison.Meanwhile Putin’s government had seized Yukos, running the most prosperous Russian oil company in the country to the brink of extinction, with the goal of concentrating all control over energy into the hands of the state, as the principal instrument of influence and coercion that Putin holds against particular neighbors and Europe in general. Russia’s richest man was not reduced to extreme poverty, of course, but his astronomical fortune simply disintegrated, and with it, the private sector of the Russian economy shrank considerably.The situation for Khodorkovsky in the Siberian prison in Chita where he languishes, where at least international pressure was able to save him, perhaps leaving behind the bones, is located close to the border with Mongolia and the conditions for prisoners are very hard. The harassment of his lawyers is systemic and the visitation permits have been reduced to one hour. One of the reasons wielded by the judges to deny him parole was attributed to his failure to hold his hands together behind his back during one of his walks in the prison. So far, all of the institutional and government protests – among them Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Bush, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to the U.S. Senate and the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights and innumerable lawyers’ associations and human rights institutions – have been useless.The Khodorkovsky case illustrates very well the tragic contemporary history of the country. Following 70 years of dictatorial authoritarianism and state-controlled economy, the communist system plummeted due to internal implosion, and passed on not to liberty but rather to debauchery and anarchy. In this situation of institutional chaos, disintegration of public order and economic collapse, mafias and gangsters proliferated, corruption became generalized, vertiginous fortunes were amassed, and quality of life, already mediocre or very low for the majority of citizens, worsened while at the same time the disappearance of order and public security created favorable conditions for a new authoritarianism. This is what brought Vladimir Putin and his thread of old friends from the most efficient (and most repulsive) leftover from the former USSR: the KGB, the political police. The inexperience and disorder in which the Russian people were living led them to see to the new autocracy as their savior and accepted with blessing the new regime.In the new Russia of Vladimir Putin, capitalism has not died – far from it. There are many businessmen doing big deals. But under the condition of being docile and working in close complicity with the political power, which now is, like in all authoritarian societies, the source of success and failure for a company, something that depends on the privileges conceded by the powers and not the favor of the consuming public. And to make sure no one forgets, and more importantly, to make sure no one attempts this form of insanity that is the desire to act freely or participate in politics, there is the foolishness of Khodorkovsky, freezing at 40 degrees below zero, sleeping on a wooden board and undoubtedly asking himself why the hell Russian reality – communist or capitalist – looks so similar to Dostoevsky’s nightmares.