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The Lucidity of Authoritarian Justice

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In a week that has been jam-packed with news and opinion on the meaning of the guilty verdict and harsh sentence handed down to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I am struck by the extraordinary clarity of these latest events.  There have been few other moments over the past seven years and two trials of this legal embarrassment which have so lucidly expressed what Vladimir Putin wants vs. what the law demands, and laid bare the roots of authoritarian justice.  Almost as important as the outcome was the particularly outrageous way it was carried out.  As journalist Julia Ioffe pointed out, the verdict illustrates the “large and growing arrogant impudence” of the Putin system, where the logic of street thugs is institutionalized at the highest level of politics:  “Any sign of compromise is weakness, and any sign of weakness starts the countdown to your demise. How do you show strength and leadership in today’s Russia? Be brazen, be rude, be ruthless.”


I cannot overstate the importance of this as a wake-up call toobservers of Russia.  Not to the obvious farce of the trial, but ratherto the farce of their analysis concerning Dmitry Medvedev’s lip serviceto legal nihilism, anti-corruption, and modernization.  Will the rulingparty be forced to innovate another empty Cipher to receive all theprojections of those willing to imagine that change is underway?  Orperhaps we can drop all those willful fictions and begin recognizing thebasic contours of the dictatorship right under our noses?

Whatbegan as an uncontrolled accident, turned into a theft, turned into aworld-class political persecution, the Khodorkovsky affair has provenRussia’s willingness to fall into the Beijing consensus with respect toissues of human rights and rule of law, emphasizing super-sovereigntyand non-interference above institutional frameworks and universality ofrights.  This orientation has been developing long before the calls for a new economic architecture in Munich, and long before Russia happily joined the boycott of the Nobel Prize for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Ever the playground bully, Russia angrily rejected Western criticism of the verdict and sentence, which unlike the first trial, was absolutely deafening in its authority, from Obama & Hillary to Merkel to AI and HRW.  It hardly sounded professional or official for the Foreign Ministry to state “We are counting on everyone to mind his own business — both at home and in the international arena.”  Only a few days later, Sergey Lavrov was dispatched to again remind the international community how annoyed they are by criticism of their legal failings.

That’s not to say that the Russian leadership doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks about their conduct.  They care deeply, as evidenced by the deliberate delay of the verdict and sentence to the peak of the holidays to minimize media attention.

There is no lack of awareness that Putin’s thuggish posturing and arbitrary instrumentalization of the legal system has its economic costs.  Medvedev’s modernization and anti-corruption drive may have been stillborn, but it doesn’t take a math genius to see that Russia is the only BRIC country to experience capital outflows, instead of massive FDI, to the tune of $30 billion for 2010.  Even state-controlled VTB Capital acknowledged that the Khodorkovsky verdict would likely damage the investment environment in Russia, although Steve LeVine doesn’t see the parallel between lawlessness and decreasing business – however the examples he describes (General Electric, big oil), aren’t exactly creating the base for new economic diversification, and exist because of, not in spite of, lawless conditions, as so few others are willing to do business there.  Further, any “promise” in Russia that assets won’t be seized or shares won’t be at least partially raided cannot be trusted by even the most naive investor.

However all the discussion of the business potential of a show trial economy is beside the point, and distracts from the fundamental meaning of these events.  Forget about Khodorkovsky the individual, forget about Yukos, and even forget about Magnitsky, Politkovskaya, Markelov, Estemirova, and so many others.  It’s all so much bigger than the few dozen famous victims of a lawless regime.  It’s a sign of a political system where promises, obligations, agreements, and deals do not have meaning as they are not really ever enforced.  This week Vladimir Putin sent a clear message to the country’s most powerful criminals, the most deeply corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, the cruelest, most hawkish members of the siloviki, and the most violent extremists roaming the streets.  The law is ours and for us, my friends, and we shall suffer no burdens of accountability.

As Andrei Sakharov was known to comment, the way in which a government treats its own citizens is a strong sign of how it will conduct itself in foreign relations.  As such, it’s incumbent upon Russia’s allies and competitors to revisit the political reality, not the liberal fictions, and give our various resets a rethink.