Russian Justice Under Putin, Again

Russian Justice Under Putin, Again

Editor’s note: To honor the memory of Energy Tribune editor Michael J. Economides, we will be republishing some of his best articles this week. This piece was originally published on January 07, 2011 .

Detesting cruel and unusual punishment, preventing double jeopardy and imposing statutes of limitations are basic tenets in the legal systems of democracies. An independent judiciary has generated such strong adherence in the modern world that even Cambodia’s murderous Pol Pot, Zimbabwe’s ruthlessly cruel Robert Mugabe, the Myanmar military junta and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi have often invoked it. They were not persecuting their enemies and opposition. It was their judiciary that was handling their crimes.

None of these niceties seem to bother today’s Russia after twelve years of Putinocracy. There is not even a disguised attempt to spray a semblance of perfume on the obvious stench.

In late December – during the week between Western and Russian Christmas – when ultimate cruelty can be mixed with power politics, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, already wasting away in a Siberian prison and a few months before his ostensible release, was convicted to another fourteen-year jail term. The new conviction was based on fresh embezzlement and grand theft charges which were somehow discovered well into his jail term.

Khodorkovsky, at one time Russia’s richest and most successful businessman, was arrested in 2003 and sentenced in 2005 to eight years of hard labor on fraud and tax evasion charges. The charges against him were considered a sham by many both inside and outside Russia. For starters, Yukos alleged tax bill was larger than the entire income of the company.

The Khodorkovsky and Yukos affair showed, more than any other, the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The take-over of Yukos was called the “swindle of the year” by Putin’s own economic advisor Andrei Illarionov.

US President George W. Bush, then mired in the quagmire of Iraq, and having looked Putin “in the eye” four years earlier kept largely silent. The same went for most European leaders loath to bite the hand that feeds them with energy. Of course, that would not be the reaction in an earlier era.

Russia, shortly thereafter, went on to re-Sovietize its oil and gas industry; which today is run entirely as a state enterprise or by Kremlin cronies. In the process, Russia became one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In Transparency International’s latest rankings, Russia is 146 out of 180 countries, tied with Zimbabwe and below Nigeria and Uganda.

Some suggested that the attack on Khodorkovsky had been motivated by his own political ambitions while others suggest that a prominent oligarch got his just comeuppance after the wild days of the Yeltsin privatizations. In fact, the reasons are much simpler. In a KGB/FSB infested government, any move towards political modernity or dissent is considered unforgivable hubris. All must beware that swift and horrible punishment is lurking. There is no difference between today and the Stalin era and Lavrenty Beria’s implementation.

This is the culture that not only brought Vladimir Putin – a former KGB agent – to power, but has permeated Russia for twelve years. The siloviki, former or active FSB agents, are ubiquitous and, at some estimates, they dominate at least 60 percent of positions of power. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of FSB under Putin, and Putin”s longtime deputy chief of staff – himself a former KGB agent – Igor Sechin, are considered to really pull the strings in Moscow today. The recent discovery of Russian spies in the United States should not surprise anybody. In the prevalent Russian frame of mind, there is no question that agents would be everywhere, including the United States. Their presence is what counts, their actual function is secondary; a question that came up at the time of the spy revelations.

After a Russian court rejected Khodorkovsky’s request for parole in August 2008, he was supposed to be freed in 2011 after serving his entire sentence. But in what can only be described as sadism, rumors about new charges have been circulating in Moscow from the beginning of his arrest. The timing was supposed to coincide with his potential release to affect maximum continuous stay in prison. With the snail-paced Russian justice system, it was decided that two years before his expected release would be about the right time for the desired outcome. The Prosecutor General did not disappoint his masters by bringing the new charges in February 2009.

The indictment alleged that Khodorkovsky schemed with a group of investors at Yukos to steal 3.6 billion rubles ($102 million) from a Siberian oil company. The outrageousness of the charge, other than the obvious rationale of the sham proceedings, is that the prosecutor seems not to even know how an integrated oil company works. The alleged victim was a wholly owned subsidiary of Yukos. It would be like accusing the headquarters of an American oil company of taking the profits of their Texas subsidiary.

But, politics and policy aside, and internal Russian shenanigans non-withstanding, it is the indecency towards a single man that should be revolting among all people, irrespective of nationality or ideology.

There was some tepid reaction to Khodorkovsky’s conviction from Washington and some other Western capitals, but the reaction was true to the tenor of today, flaccid. Understandably, Russia’s response was a terse back-off.

(Note: The author served as Senior Technical Advisor to Yukos from 1999 to 2004)

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