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Obama and Medvedev Should Address Rule of Law

medvedobama040109.jpgAriel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation has an interesting op/ed in the Washington Times arguing for greater attention to rule of law, which in all likelihood will not make its way onto the busy agenda for the meeting today between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev.  Cohen was also recently the editor of a major paper about U.S.-Russia relations.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will meet Wednesday on the sidelines at the Group of 20 summit. Ironically, that’s one day after the trial of former Russian oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky opens in Moscow. This trial symbolizes the deterioration of the rule of law in Russia.

While the two leaders – both former law professors – will have their hands full with economic and security matters, the rule of law also should figure prominently on their bilateral agenda. A healthy legal system is necessary to protect the rights of foreign and domestic investors and to facilitate the development of civil society and human rights.(…)

The 2003-05 Yukos case was a watershed. The most successful and transparent Russian oil company was taken over under the pretext of multibillion-ruble tax arrears. Yet many government officials clearly stated that its owner, Mr. Khodorkovsky, was perceived as a political threat because of his support of liberal political parties and civil society.

The persecution of Yukos undermined the notion of justice being universal because it selectively targeted a politically inconvenient opponent. Loyal Russian oligarchs – though involved in unsavory business practices – were not prosecuted. The oligarchs and politicians quickly got the message that, in the words of the Borg in “Star Trek,” “Resistance is futile.”

After the Yukos affair, Russian and Western oil companies came under tremendous pressure from the Russian government, which used the state bureaucracy to renegotiate earlier contracts or to boot competitors out of the country. The victims included Exxon, Shell, British Petroleum, Hermitage Capital and the Russian companies Rusneft and Mechel.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was sentenced in 2005 and was eligible for parole last year. Instead, on Tuesday, he and his partner Platon Lebedev will face a new trial – and a new rap sheet. The trial is widely believed to be a political vendetta.

This may be a chance for Mr. Medvedev, who spoke with concern about Russia’s “legal nihilism,” to act. As the kangaroo court gets under way, some Russian experts hope Mr. Medvedev may order an impartial trial or pardon Mr. Khodorkovsky. If, however, the West fails to save Mr. Khodorkovsky and Mr. Lebedev from life sentences, it would also surrender the chance for a more law-abiding state to the “siloviki” power brokers.

Photo: Traditional Russian nesting dolls called “matryoshka” (matreshka) with the images of US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedevsit on display in Moscow on March 30, 2009. President Dmitry Medvedevheads to the G20 summit promoting a makeover of the global economicorder designed to win Russia respect and keep major economies,America’s in particular, in check. (Getty Images)