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Russia’s Energy Hostages

Con Coughlin has a column in the Telegraph today, which argues that “before Mr Medvedev gets too carried away riding roughshod over Western interests, whether by obstructing Georgia’s attempts to join Nato and the EU, or assisting Iran’s nuclear programme, he would do well to understand that Russia needs the West more than the West needs Russia.” The author also mentions Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and suggests that if given the chance, this is exactly how the Russians would prefer to solve the TNK-BP problem. However Coughlin makes a couple factual errors that I have seen widely re-produced in the media. He writes that Khodorkovsky currently “earns a meagre 43 pence a day working in the prison’s concrete factory.” This is simply not true – he is not sewing mittens, sewing slippers, packing mittens and/or slippers, nor mixing concrete – he is being held in the pre-trial investigative isolator in Chita (the SIZO). The pretrial facility has no labor program, and Khodorkovsky hasn’t been involved in these types of activities since December 2006 when he was held in Krasnokamensk. Excerpt:

Russia’s prison camps may have improved since Alexander Solzhenitsyn penned The Gulag Archipelago, but they are no holiday camp. Temperatures regularly fall to -33C in winter, and violence is an ever-present feature of the grim daily routine. Khodorkovsky was recently slashed across the face by a fellow inmate.

The official Kremlin reason for his presence there is that Mr Khodorkovsky, who formerly headed Yukos, Russia’s largest oil company, is serving an eight-year jail sentence for fraud and tax evasion. But no one in Russia believes that.Khorodovsky’s real crime is that he stood up to the Kremlin’s bully-boy tactics when Vladimir Putin decided he wanted, for political reasons, to take control of the country’s vast energy resources.When Khodorkovsky started informing the outside world of the Kremlin’s contempt for the rule of law, he found himself hauled before the courts and dispatched to Siberia.There is little doubt that this would be the Kremlin’s preferred method for resolving the dispute between BP and its Russian partners over who calls the shots in their joint venture to develop oil and gas fields.