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Mikhail Khodorkovsky: The Consequences of Being Candid

The following is an exclusive English translation of an article published in German magazine Der Spiegel.

Consequences of Being Candid

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is looking at many years of imprisonment from the second trial as well, unless President Medvedev is serious about the rule of law.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky was still an oligarch wielding influence and with political ambitions, he received an invitation to the Kremlin, along with the other richest of the rich. On this day in February 2003 a long road of suffering began. This road took him to a penal colony on the Chinese border and might now be lengthened by several years in a second show trial.

In that February meeting a dozen oligarchs sat at an oval table and framed President Putin, their president, who wanted to push back the political influence of the magnates and strengthen the state. The TV cameras were rolling and broadcast every word.


Khodorkovsky was selected to say a few words. Two high-levelbureaucrats had encouraged him to be candid. Alexander Voloshin wasthen in charge of Kremlin administration, and Dmitry Medvedev, nowpresident, was his proxy. The two of them pursued their own interestsand used Khodorkovsky in one of the many opaque power plays within theKremlin to weaken their opponent. They were concerned with IgorSetchin, one of Putin’s most trusted aides.

Khodorkovsky realized their hopes. He talked about dirty oil deals,denounced corrupt bureaucrats and although he did not name names,everyone knew who he was talking about. The TV recordings show how paleKhodorkovsky looked, his voice shook, sometimes he stumbled over hiswords as he said Russia was a corrupt country and intimated that thecamarilla surrounding the president was also involved. It was a strangeperformance, as though Khodorkovsky guessed that things would not gowell for him.

Khodorkovsky, who had build up the most modern oil company inRussia, could hardly harm Setchin. Today he is the proxy for the PrimeMinister, named Vladimir Putin, and unofficially the number three manin the country. Khodorkovsky fell hard and Setchin was one of thebeneficiaries; today he is also chairman of the board at Rosneft, oneof the state’s oil giants, which took over a large part of thedismantled Khodorkovsky company Yukos.

Khodorkovsky was taken into custody on October 25, 2003 andsentenced to eight years in a penal colony in Krasnokamensk, Siberia.Now Putin’s regime is pushing for a renewed sentence. Khodorkovsky isin court again, together with his previous business partner PlatonLebedev, for embezzlement and money laundering of approximately 20billion euro. The trumped up charges could mean two decades in prison.He is 45 years old now, so perhaps he could regain his freedom as anageing man.

Dmitry Medvedev contributed to Khodorkovsky’s fall. A while ago hedeclared the rule of law to be one of his main goals for Russia. “Ifthe second process ends like the first, all good intentions will bediscredited. Then Medvedev will be covered in filth from head to footand be hostage to the Kremlin hawks,” writes the daily newspaper”Moskowski Komsomolez.” There is no lack of irony that Medvedev’sspeaker’s husband is a columnist of the paper, which often allowscritique of the regime and sells 2.6 million copies.

Khodorkovsky is still a symbol of the regime’s arbitrariness and theintrigues within the Kremlin. There is a battle for power surroundingKhodorkovsky between Putin’s followers and Medvedev’s followers,between the less dogmatic Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov, aschoolfriend of Medvedev’s, and the Chief Detective AlexanderBastrykin, a schoolfriend of Putin’s.

President Medvedev obviously wants to gain some distance from Putinwithin domestic policy. He invited the editor in chief of theinvestigative newspaper “Novaya Gaseta” to the Kremin after the fourthmurder of a journalist, which would never have happened under Putin.After anti-Putin rallies in eastern Russia, Medvedev protected policegenerals that had refused to handle the demonstrators with violence.Putin wanted to dismiss them. The president appointed Irina Jassina, acritic of the government, to the Council for Human Rights. She was headof the Khodorkovsky foundation “Open Russia.” The first council meetingwith Medvedev is to take place on April 10. “We will not discuss onlyKhodorkovsky, but we will also discuss his case,” Jassina announced toSPIEGEL.

Khodorkovsky will state his position on the charges this week. Hislawyers want to defend him differently this time, compared with 2003.They plan to “depoliticize the process, and show the legal absurdity ofthe new accusations.” They hope that the charges collapse orKhodorkovsky can fall under an amnesty.

Ironically, the famous prisoner seems to be standing in his own way.He declared via his lawyers that he did not want to take steps toregain his oil company Yukos after gaining his freedom, and declaredMedvedev to be “Russia’s legitimate president,” but he could not resisttaking a stab at his old enemy Putin. “I see him as a historicalfigure. There was such a president. Now he is no longer president.” Butthe deciding power in Moscow he remains.

MATTHIAS SCHEPP