- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Last week, I had the chance to speak with three of the lawyers representing the imprisoned Russian oil tycoon-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who were visiting Washington for meetings with the administration officials and NGOs. The verdict in Khodorkovsky’s latest embezzlement trial — the proceedings of which have bordered on farcical at times — is expected on Dec. 15.
I asked Khodorkovsky’s lead trial lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant if he was surprised at the harsh assessments of the Russian political landscape contained in the WikiLeaks cables from Moscow:
We were pleased to read in WikiLeaks that everything we’ve been saying over the years about what’s really going on in Russia are reflected in this diplomatic correspondence. Internally, we see there was always an understanding of what’s really happening. But of course publicy, to put it mildly, they don’t say everything they say internally.
Attorney Maria Logan thought that the contrast between the stark assessments in the cables and the friendly public relationship between the Obama administration and the Kremlin would be difficult to maintain in the post-WikiLeaks world:
The American administration has created a division between the real Russia, which is being reflected in the correspondence that we now see, and this other Russia that they wanted to show the American public when they pursued the reset strategy. It will be very difficult now for the us to explain why they’ve been doing the reset when Russia’s face is not as pretty as it looked. […]
The administration, internally, was always very helpful from us. We always received very generous time from the State department and the embassy, very generous time considering where they put the issue of Khodorkovsky publicy on the agenda. There was always a difference and I think they’re put in a difficult position. It will be interesting to watch.
One of the cables, from December of last year, specifically discusses Khodorkovsky’s trial, taking note of the Russia public’s apathy about the situation.
There is a widespread understanding that Khodorkovskiy violated the tacit rules of the game: if you keep out of politics, you can line your pockets as much as you desire. Most Russians believe the Khodorkovskiy trial is politically motivated; they simply do not care that it is. Human rights activists in general have an uphill battle in overcoming public apathy and cynicism, but nowhere more so than in the Khodorkovskiy case.
I asked Klyuvgant whether he thinks the Russian public is tuning out the trial:
Our civil society is still very weak. But the civil society as it exists today in Russia is listening to him and understand what he’s saying. The level of support for Khodorkovsky in Russia has been increasing. The level of sympathy for Khodorkovsky, as opposed to support, has been increasing even more. Of course it’s still below what we would like to to be and what we think he deserves, but that’s general disatisfcation with the political environment in Russia. There is apathy and cynicism among the general public. But having said that, if you’re talking about the level of support for Khodorkovsky, it’s still higher than the level of support for the political opposition as a whole.
Given the widespread attention received by Khodorkovsky’s closing statement in the trial, I asked if Khodorkovsky considered himself an opposition leader:
He’s not comfortable being put in a position at the center of resistance so to speak. He’s being forced into becoming what seems to a lot of people to be a revolutionary, but that’s not his nature. If you look at the reforms declared by President Medvedev, the attempt to modernize the country, Khodorkovsky would be essential to that reform. He has so much to offer in that area. There are not so many people with so much potential and it’s a crime to keep a person with such potential to build and do something in isolation and unable to contribute.
But however Khodorkovsky sees himself, his trial has certainly become much bigger than one oligarch’s struggle against the government. As longtime Khodorkovsky attorney Anton Drel put it:
In 2003, when Khodorkovsky was arrested, few people supported him. He was just an oligarch. Now he is a litmus test: for President Medvedev as well as for the reset button policy. We’ll see if this is an issue for the young people in Russia and an issue for America.
The Khodorkovsky case is not an internal issue of Russia. It is a foreign policy issue, a geopolitics issue.