The Vacation Verdict

notice121510.jpgThe fact that the Dec. 15th verdict of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev was delayed until Dec. 27, smack in between both Christmas holidays and the likely date that the majority of journalists and observers are away from Moscow on holiday, is not at all shocking.  Just about everybody close to the case on the ground had said that this would be the likely outcome – which is a precise reenactment of the 2005 verdict.  In fact, over the course of the seven long years of this travesty, we’ve repeatedly seen the prosecutors and politicians exercise a skillful management of the Western media cycle – announcing all sorts of motions, extensions of detentions, and movements of the prisoners late on Friday afternoons, right before a holiday, or otherwise seizing upon moments of distractions to do the dirty work.

None of this is surprising, shocking, or, unfortunately, even very scandalous at this point, as this is the behavior we have been conditioned to expect from this government in its treatment of political cases in the absence of rule of law.

Instead, two things stand out to me.  For one, I find it breathtaking that there is such open willingness on behalf of the leadership to flaunt these violations of the country’s legal system before the world’s eyes in such an embarrassingly public show.  Judging by a quick look around people’s reactions, precisely no one is foolish enough to think that there is any legitimacy behind the verdict delay, and in fact see right through this sophomoric strategy to bury the story and pretend like it’s not happening.  After the drumbeat calling for their release had grown so vociferously loud over the past number of weeks, from rock stars to former EU foreign ministers to a former Monty Python, the government must have known that this delay would be seen for what is was.  Things are a lot different than back in 2005.

Secondly, there is a sense that the stakes are so much higher this time around, and that the damage caused by yet another rigged verdict on false charges is considerably deeper and more painful than most people realize (Russia may want to note the recent case law under the ICC for filing false criminal cases).  Capital outflows from Russia are probably going to hit $30 billion this year, which is well more than double what anyone expected.  It’s a sign that not even the safest, most loyal businessmen are feeling insecure about their assets, and are moving the money out of the country as fast as possible.

Khodorkovsky’s release, which would cost Vladimir Putin nothing apart from a shred of his swollen pride, would have a major impact on the perception of the business environment.  “If he were paroled or pardoned, the stock market would beecstatic,” said one investor from Citigroup.

However only the most naive think that is still possible – if in fact Medvedev had summoned the courage and internal political support to bet the farm on this case, we would have already heard the positive outcome – as it would have been a big help to push the START treaty through before the lameduck session ends.

There is no hope that the decision will be positive at all for(Khodorkovsky), and I think it will play out for a very long time. Mostprobably the court will find him guilty, but not give him the longestsentence,” Nikolai Petrov of Carnegie Center told Reuters.  “We could even see a final intervention by the president,possibly reducing the sentence further.

Although a number of the local counsel have been diplomatic, suggesting that the judge simply needs more time to figure out how to read his telephone justice verdict, I am inclined to agree with Julia Ioffe’s take:  “What Danilkin really needs istime for the people who are interested in reporting and reading about hispre-fab verdict to be less interested, like when they are skiing in the Alps orsunbathing in Thailand or getting chronically drunk over the holidays. (…) they’ll come back to find that nothing’schanged — that Khodorkovsky is, as always, guilty in perpetuity.

Maybe there is something positive to take away from this, now that Putin’s mask has fallen completely off, and we no longer are forced to go through the motions of pretending anything this government was doing on this trial conformed to minimal standards under the law.  On the other hand, it may be sad for some fans of Medvedev to watch his reform and modernization agenda receive its final death blow.  But really friends, was this project ever alive in the first place?