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The Meaning of Verdicts

From Cathy Young at Real Clear Politics:

Khodorkovsky’s new trial, which opened last week, is based on charges far more sweeping and more absurd than the first one. He and co-defendant Platon Lebedev are accused of stealing all of the oil pumped by Yukos from 1998 to 2003. (Khodorkovsky claims that the quantity stated in the indictment exceeds the entire amount of oil produced in Russia in that period.) If these charges stand, virtually every other Russian tycoon, including staunch Putin allies, should be in the dock too.

But 2009 is not 2003. When Khodorkovsky was arrested, Putin’s power was in its ascendancy. Today, while Prime Minister Putin still wields tremendous influence, it may be finally on the wane, battered by the economic crisis and by Medvedev’s growing self-assertion. While Medvedev is no “democrat,” he is identified with a more liberal, pro-Western, pro-business Kremlin faction; he has sharply criticized government officials for “terrorizing business” and spoken of the need for judicial independence.

That Khodorkovsky’s second trial is taking place at all is evidenceof Putin’s continued power. Yet this case has also drawn publiccriticism that would have seemed almost unthinkable only a year ago.High-ranking members of Russia’s usually docile parliament havecondemned the new prosecution as unjust and vindictive. The head of theRussian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Alexander Shokhin,has spoken out against it on state television.

The outcome of the case, which could drag on for months, is far fromcertain. But it is increasingly clear that the verdict in this trialwill be a verdict on whether Putin wins or loses – and whether Russia’srecent moves toward liberalization are continued or squashed.