Washington Post: Potemkin Justice

putin5.jpg Post: Mr. Putin “will not lose much sleep” over the State Dept.’s ability to stand behind its strong words on Russia’s lacking rule of law In today’s Washington Post:

Potemkin Justice Mr. Putin’s legal system at work Thursday, February 8, 2007; Page A20 WE WON’T accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of being subtle this week. On Monday, Russian prosecutors leveled charges against a pair of Mr. Putin’s one-time political enemies that are beyond implausible. The outcome from Russia’s pliant legal system is all but inevitable: convictions and more jail time for ex-billionaire Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business partner, Platon Lebedev. Russian prosecutors in Chita, a small Siberian outpost far from reporters and the defendants’ lawyers, accuse the two of laundering an astonishing $20 billion by moving cash from one Yukos subsidiary to another. Mr. Khodorkovsky apparently managed to pull this off at a time when PriceWaterhouseCoopers regularly reviewed Yukos’s books. Yet the two were supposedly moving vast sums of money through the company without anyone noticing — not its bookkeepers, its shareholders or the Russian authorities watching Yukos at the time. Precisely why Mr. Putin wants to keep these two men in jail for another 15 years or so is still up for speculation. Observers of Russian energy politics see it as a way to assist the Kremlin in grabbing the remaining bits of Yukos’s assets inside and outside the country. Human rights advocates note that the two would have been up for parole before this year’s parliamentary elections; a new conviction would ensure that Mr. Khodorkovsky does not rally anti-Kremlin political forces then or in the presidential election next year. Mr. Putin has systematically dismantled the institutions of democracy inside Russia while bullying his neighbors and jailing his opponents. After the new charges were announced, a State Department spokesman said that the proceedings “raise questions about Russia’s commitment to the responsibilities which all democratic, free market countries embrace,” and that American policymakers will discuss the issue with the Kremlin “at an appropriate time and at the appropriate level.” We doubt that Mr. Putin will lose much sleep over that prospect.