Richard Lourie: Time to Release Khodorkovsky

Here’s an excerpt from the latest Richard Lourie column in the Moscow Times:

It is now in Russia’s interest to release former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky from prison. That wasn’t always the case. Early on, the benefits outweighed the costs. Khodorkovsky was punished for his hubris. He dared to meddle in politics even though he was explicitly warned by then-President Vladimir Putin himself not to do this. This set a firm example for the other oligarchs, and they have taken it to heart. And Khodorkovsky’s major oil company passed into Kremlin-friendly hands. But things have changed in the five years since Khodorkovsky was arrested on Oct. 25, 2003. At the time, few were moved — billionaires don’t get much sympathy. People assumed that French novelist Honore de Balzac’s dictum applied: “Behind every fortune there’s a crime.” But while Khodorkovsky behaved manfully in prison and elicited respect, his fortune dwindled. Russia also changed in the interim, becoming the odd hybrid it is today. Though social freedoms have remained fairly robust, the holy trinity of democracy — free media, opposition parties and independent judiciary — was reduced to the bare minimum. Though Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has recently founded a new political party, chances are it will remain marginal. Nor is any significant shift in media freedom likely. Russians will have to get by with the Internet, Ekho Moskvy radio and a few small-circulation newspapers. The judicial system is the only point where any change of substance can occur. Though there are other worthy candidates for release, it is Khodorkovsky who has become the symbol of Russia’s compromised judiciary. Politically and economically, that symbol has become too expensive to maintain.