The re-sentencing of Russia's No.1 dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, wasn't unexpected, but the sheer brazenness of it is a striking and dangerous sign of bad things to come.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
There is one word that comes to mind when watching the drama surrounding the Mikhail Khodorkovsky verdict and sentence today of 13.5 years in prison. Perhaps tellingly, it is a Russian word: naglost’. English simply doesn’t have one word that packs into so few letters all that naglost’ means: arrogance, contemptuous malice, obnoxiousness, brazenness, insolence, impudence, and sheer nerve. Google Translate suggests no fewer than 22 synonyms, none of which captures the fullness of the word as well as the Russian government has embodied it in this case.
There was, for instance, the postponement. The verdict was supposed to be read on the morning of Dec. 15. Camera crews, journalists, and a crowd of Khodorkovsky supporters showed up at the courthouse to find a piece of paper taped to the courtroom door. The verdict would now be read on Dec. 27, it read, when the world — and foreign journalists — would be on holiday. No one had bothered to alert Khodorkovsky’s legal team. When asked for an explanation, the court spokeswoman snapped, "The court does not explain itself."
When the court reconvened on Dec. 27, just before the reading of the verdict could commence, Judge Viktor Danilkin called a 15-minute recess. After it was over, he simply didn’t let the journalists back in. Then he shut off the simulcast of the proceedings and kicked Khodorkovsky’s wife and daughter out of the room.
And just when one thought the naglost’ had surely peaked, the court — and, by extension, the Russian government — showed how much farther they could go. In October, the prosecution had cut the volume of oil allegedly stolen by Khodorkovsky from 350 million tons to 218 million, citing a lack of evidence and arithmetical error. But on Dec. 29, Judge Danilkin found Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev guilty of stealing — that’s right — 350 million tons of oil. The judge overrode the prosecution, apparently deciding that it was not being prosecutorial enough.
And there’s more: On the second day of monotonous reading (the verdict is some 250 pages, most of which simply recapitulates the trial and all of which has to be read aloud), Danilkin challenged the testimonies of German Gref, the minister of economics and trade from 2000 to 2007, and of Viktor Khristenko, minister of industry. Both had reluctantly testified on Khodorkovsky’s behalf this summer, but Danilkin said that their testimony merely proved Khodorkovsky’s guilt. What had they said in court? Gref testified that had 350 million tons of oil been stolen under his watch, he surely would have noticed — and he didn’t notice any such theft. Khristenko, for his part, explained why it is impossible to accuse Yukos (Khodorkovsky’s oil company) of stealing oil at all. But Danilkin seemed to think that it was, in fact, very possible, and reminded everyone of a crucial detail that, in his view, mortally compromised the two high-level government officials: They had been subpoenaed by the defense. And the defense, let’s recall, is not anything the Russian judiciary takes seriously, even when trying to imitate a fair trial.
On Dec. 30, the third day of the reading, Danilkin accused Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of withholding dividends from shareholders — which, he said, "hurt their feelings" — even though the day before he had found the two former oil executives guilty of bribing board members and shareholders so they would participate in Khodorkovsky’s plot to steal 218 million — wait, no, 350 million tons of oil. How did he bribe them? He paid them dividends.
One could go further and expose more reasoning such as this, reasoning one could call circular if that circle didn’t instantly collapse on itself. It seems a pointless exercise, however, when the charges themselves are completely nonsensical: Khodorkovsky has just been convicted and sentenced for stealing all the oil his company ever produced, after having been convicted and sentenced in 2005 for not paying taxes on all the oil his company ever produced.
Much of the coverage of the verdict and trial has described the affair as a farce, but farce cannot be the right word when, at every step, the court has displayed such a flippant disregard for even the barest semblance of logic, or when it pulls such childishly malicious stunts as coaxing the press out of the courtroom. (Or when it seems to just be half asleep: In the course of mechanically reading the verdict, Danilkin occasionally read pages twice, or pages from something else altogether that had somehow made it into his stack of paper.)
Sadly, this is not just about the Khodorkovsky case, which is still ignored by a massive — if shrinking — segment of the Russian population. This is about a large and growing arrogant impudence embodied not by the Kremlin, but by the real master of the house, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Plans to hew a road through the federally protected Khimki forest this summer sparked an unexpectedly fierce public resistance, so President Dmitry Medvedev pulled the plug on the project until the experts could deliver their opinion (which no one had asked them for in the beginning). Earlier this month, however, the original plan for the road was reapproved: Putin’s friend, Arkady Rotenberg, just had too much money riding on the project.
What else? In November, the lawyer-cum-blogger Alexei Navalny posted Treasury Department documents showing that Transneft, the state oil transport monopoly, had stolen a humble $4 billion in building an oil pipeline to China. How did the government respond? The next day, Putin publicly thanked Transneft "for its big contribution to the development of energy cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China."
During Putin’s annual December phone-a-thon with the Russian public, he received a question from the town of Ivanovo, from a cardiologist named Ivan Khrenov. Khrenov alleged that all that hi-tech equipment and the happy, well-paid doctors the premier saw during his visit this November to Khrenov’s hospital had been brought in for the occasion, a near-literal Potemkin Village. "What you saw in the wards also has little to do with the real situation," Khrenov said during the live broadcast. "Most of the patients were asked to leave the hospital on the day of your visit, and in some wards the patients were disguised as members of the hospital’s staff." Putin, seemingly surprised and dismayed by this allegation, ordered an investigation. But the special commission investigating the charges found that Khrenov had been lying, of course. (Khrenov is now being accused of slander, in a turn of events reminiscent of Alexey Dymovsky, a police officer who issued a YouTube video detailing grotesque corruption in his unit. He was jailed and bankrupted.)
The most shocking example of this fuck-you attitude is the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer for Hermitage Capital, then the biggest foreign investment company in Russia. He died in November 2009 under stomach-turning conditions while being held in pre-trial detention. He had been put in prison ostensibly for evading taxes, though he was forced to recant his findings that three Interior Ministry employees had, through forged Hermitage documents, stolen $230 million of Russian tax revenue. Despite the shock over Magnitsky’s death, this November the Interior Ministry awarded those same officers medals for exceptional service. Earlier, an investigative committee had found that Magnitsky himself was party to stealing that money. This after Medvedev pledged to punish those responsible for Magnitsky’s death.
This is at the core of Putin’s image as a salty man of the people who speaks his mind: He does things his way, and, when his way is challenged, he will contemptuously, insolently, flip the world and his subjects a giant, brazen bird. Thus his Foreign Ministry told foreign leaders — like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who issued flabbergasted statements criticizing the Khodorkovsky conviction — to "mind [their] own business, both at home and abroad."
To many, it is reminiscent of the behavior of street thugs (of which Putin was one until he tried to join the KGB and was told to first go to college) or of the gulag barracks: Any sign of compromise is weakness, and any sign of weakness starts the countdown to your demise. How do you show strength and leadership in today’s Russia? Be brazen, be rude, be ruthless.
"It is unaccountability par excellence," says political analyst Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "You can do whatever you want because you’re the man of the house. And even when the action seems to be beyond the pale" — say, postponing the hotly awaited Khodorkovsky verdict with a note on the door — "they seem to say, ‘You’ll eat it, and you’ll like it.’" This is what’s known in Russia as the Churov rule, named after Vladimir Churov, an eccentric old man doggedly loyal to Putin and known to his employees at the Russian Central Election Committee as "Grandpa." "Putin is always right," he told an interviewer in 2007. And if he’s wrong? Churov replied: "Can Putin really be wrong?"