Serge Schmemann: The case against and for Khodorkovsky

sergeschmemann101808.jpgI am very grateful for the support of IHT editor Serge Schmemann for the terrible and unjust plight of my client, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The case against and for Khodorkovsky By Serge Schmemann Sunday, October 19, 2008 This month marks five years since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was seized in his private plane at the Novosibirsk airport. He was subsequently convicted of fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to eight years in labor camp, and his oil company, Yukos, was dismantled and sold off to Kremlin loyalists. Now 45, Khodorkovsky was denied parole in August on the grounds that he had not been attending sewing classes at his labor camp in the Russian Far East. Earlier this month, his lawyers said he was put in solitary confinement for 12 days for giving a written interview to the Russian edition of Esquire magazine.

The interviewer was Grigory Chkhartishvili, who, under the pen name Boris Akunin, is one of the most popular writers in Russia today. He said many people asked him why he was making a fuss about an oligarch who, after all, didn’t get fabulously rich by always obeying the law.This was why, Chkhartishvili said: “It was specifically on the Yukos case that we lost the independence of the judiciary – an institution without which a democratic society can not exist. That means this is precisely the point to which we have to return.” He add that “if we restore justice and legality in the case of Khodorkovsky, this will also help all the rest of the victims” of Russia’s authoritarian government.The argument may be a difficult one for many Russians to understand, given that the men who made obscene fortunes in the first post-Soviet years are generally perceived to be guilty almost by definition.In fact, it remains unclear why then-President Vladimir Putin turned so viciously on Khodorkovsky. One theory is that Putin saw Khodorkovsky, who was putting considerable funds into political parties, as a serious rival, and that the arrest was a signal to all oligarchs to stay clear of politics. Another theory is that Khodorkovsky had personally defied Putin at some meeting; yet another is that the Kremlin wanted to stop Khodorkovsky from bringing Western companies in as Yukos partners.The point is that nobody in Russia seems to believe that the real reason Khodorkovsky was imprisoned were the crimes of which he was formally accused. His fall is perceived to have been a political hit job by the Kremlin.For Chkhartishvili, the arrest marked the point at which the liberals of the first post-Soviet years who had tried, however poorly, to instill a rule of law were finally pushed aside by “siloviki,” the secret service and army chiefs who now rule by raw power (“sila”).What struck me in Chkhartishvili’s argument was that if Khodorkovsky is indeed a symbol of the lost rule of law, then he in effect is the first “dissident” of the Putin era. Obedience to the law, after all, was the fundamental demand of all the courageous dissidents of the last decade of Soviet dictatorship demanded.The most prominent of these was the Helsinki Group, which included Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky. They did not challenge the legitimacy or the institutions of the Soviet Union; they simply insisted that it obey the human-rights clauses of the Helsinki Final Act that the Kremlin had signed. In effect, they insisted that the Soviet Union obey its own laws – on emigration, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.Soviet rulers responded brutally, imprisoning (usually for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”) or exiling all the members of the group. But the more the Kremlin openly set itself above the law, the weaker it became. Soon came the day when the dissidents of the last Soviet years became the heroes of the first post-Soviet years.The parallels with the present should not be exaggerated. Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union by a long shot; Russians have inestimably more freedoms now than they did then (Khodorkovsky’s interview can be read freely in Russia). And Khodorkovsky is hardly a human-rights crusader of the mold of Sakharov, though in his last years at Yukos he moved the company toward high levels of transparency and accountability.But so long as Khodorkovsky is kept in a labor camp and denied parole for not sewing properly, he remains a powerful symbol of the lack of independence of Russia’s prosecutors and judges. And so long as they are not independent, Russia will be denied the effective judiciary it desperately needs to combat corruption, referee markets and otherwise serve to create and protect a civil society.There was some hope when Dmitry Medvedev succeeded Putin as president that he would live up to his declared commitment to the rule of law and a crackdown on corruption. So far he’s done nothing to support those hopes.As president, Medvedev is within his rights to pardon Khodorkovsky. That might not be in a class with letting Sakharov return from his exile in Gorky, but it would be a very welcome signal.