Putin’s Al Capone Moment in France

economist.jpgPerhaps expecting some respite from weeks of having his public image battered both in media and in the polls, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived to France this week to do some business for Gazprom (roping in EDF for 10% of South Stream) and to go shopping for a 500 million euro Mistral warship.  Putin has come to regularly expect warm embraces from the French leadership – Jacques Chirac once awarded him the Legion of Honor a few weeks before Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, while Nicolas Sarkozy gave the same prize to Sergey Naryshkin – but this visit turned out to be different.

Following high-level outrage over the death of Hermitage lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, various other assaults against anti-fascist activists and journalists, and a front page story in Le Monde on the ongoing travesty of the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one journalist rightly confronted François Fillon and Putin at the press conference, asking how it was possible that they could smile over such business deals in the face of so many human rights problems.  Whereas Fillon went for the boilerplate evasive answer, Putin let down his guard, lost his usual control, and got provocatively personal with regard to the Khodorkovsky question. 

The AFP has quoted Putin saying the following:  “Take Bernard Madoffin the United States. He got a life sentence and no-one blinked.  (…)As you know, in the 1930s in the United States, Al Capone wasofficially only prosecuted for tax evasion while, in practice, he wasjudged for all the crimes he had committed, in full respect of the law.

It is not often that Putin loses control of his words, but when he does, the result is frightening.  Writing on the Anna Politkovskaya murder in the New York Times, CJ Chivers once listed some of the acid-tongued highlights:  “In 2000, Larry King asked him about what happened to the Kursk, asubmarine that under mysterious circumstances had ended up disabled onthe sea bed with its entire crew dead. “It sank,” Mr. Putin said.  Twoyears later, at a news conference in Brussels, a French reporter askedhim a pointed question about Chechnya. Mr. Putin suggested that thereporter might want to become a radical Islamist, and invited him toMoscow for a circumcision, saying he could recommend a procedure sothat nothing would grow back.

In some respects, the personal attack from the Prime Minister toward Khodorkovsky is nothing new.  For years the Kremlin hasattempted to draw groundless comparisons between the showtrials and high-profile criminal cases (although they used to try to doit with the Enron case instead of Madoff).  I won’t bore the reader bylisting how grossly absurd and groundless these comments are, or howthey serve to distract attention away from the fact that theaccusations are completely incoherent and the evidence non-existent. What is remarkable is that Putin continues to show, beyond the shadowof a doubt, his personal enmity and intervention in this case,demonstrating again and again the depth of political motives which are the core of this case (indeed, it would be difficult to imagine any other political leader undertaking such personal slander toward a defendant).

These comments are not insulting to the defense in the slightest, as such behavior is to be expected from this government.  It is, however, insulting to various international forums and organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the Swiss Federal Tribunal – those who have investigated the details and merits of the case, and found that the state’s prosecution of Khodorkovsky would not stand up in any real rule of law court beyond the reach of telephone justice.  If only Khodorkovsky could have counted upon the fairness and due process of the impartial courts which tried Capone and Madoff, he would be a free man today.

How ironic, that Putin should name Al Capone, the king of the gangsters, and talk about “the full respect of the law” just a week after his government killed a whistle blowing lawyer by denying him medical treatment for his illness.  To be a real gangster in Russia is to be in paradise.  There’s the story of Semyon Mogilevich, an alleged mafia head and player in the corrupt natural gas trade sought by the FBI and international law enforcement, who is let off and freed from his trial.  There is Andrei Lugovoi, sought by Britain for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, enjoying the full protection of the Kremlin and a burgeoning political career.  Yury Budanov, a war criminal convicted of raping and strangling an 18-year-old Chechen girl, is granted early expedited parole a few days before Stanislav Markelov is murdered.  Then there was Vyacheslav K. Ivankov, the head of the Russian mafia, who was extradited back home after years in an American prison on murder charges, only to be acquitted and set free (Ivankov recently died, and received a lavishly attended funeral).  In more positive news, the mafia king Vladimir Barsukov (who was rumored to be linked to Putin) was recently sentenced to 14 years prison – but only after enjoying many years of freedom flaunting his impunity.

Criminals flourish in Russia because it is a criminal state, and this is something that Putin is acutely aware of.  There are elements of the country’s leadership which have made choices to commit crimes, creating an operative methodology which depends upon impunity for their actions at all costs.  Putin knows that there is no case against Khodorkovsky, and he knows that the trial against him is completely bogus.  In pointing to Madoff, Capone, or any other high level criminal, Putin shows this doubt in his own position.  We are being asked to forget about all the inconvenient details such as the theft of Yukos, lack of evidence, torture of witnesses, and incomprehensible political charges, and we are asked to just believe that somehow the defendent deserves more than six years in the gulag simply because he was a successful man during hard times.

It is a rhetorical strategy which was effective for some time inside Russia, thanks to state-controlled television, but it no longer holds even the thinnest credibility after a martyr-making six years in a hard labor camp and a ridiculous second trial aimed at preventing parole.

Putin should rightly face this kind of questioning during every trip he makes out of the country.  One would hope the next time he is confronted on human rights and the Khodorkovsky trial, someone might ask him whether the Fujimori case causes him any sleepless nights.

Artwork above belongs to the Economist, from the cover of the Dec. 14, 2006 edition.