Court Cases Loom Large over Medvedev’s Presidency

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 197

Jailed former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. (Reuters)

The vanity of various foreign policy affairs has preoccupied President Dmitry Medvedev since his informal summit with the leaders of France and Germany two weeks ago: he traveled to Vietnam for the summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and prepared to participate in the G20 meeting in Seoul and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama, on the sidelines of which a special meeting with US President, Barack Obama, is due to take place (RIA Novosti, October 30). Medvedev has also discussed energy issues in Turkmenistan, played host to Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, and presided over talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with little fruit to show for all these efforts. Later this month Medvedev will greet Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovich, though judging from the meeting last week between Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin and Nikolai Azarov, the results of this long-awaited “brotherly” gathering might prove rather thin (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 28).

It is unclear where in this flurry of diplomatic activity Medvedev will find a moment to deliver the annual address to the Federal Assembly, which is supposed to provide strategic guidelines for the country in the final year of his presidency. Last year, Medvedev invited suggestions from supporters of modernization and presented that experiment as a step towards a more open and democratic leadership (, October 26). This year, no similar invitation has been issued and nobody is particularly keen to elaborate the tired theme of “modernization” since the draft state budget for 2011 developed by the government introduces fiscal punishment rather than incentives for investment in human capital, corralling all “innovations” in the high-tech Potemkin village of Skolkovo (Ekspert, October 25).

There is, nevertheless, an issue that Medvedev can ignore for another week only at great peril to his quasi-leadership: the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. The second court case against the former owner of Yukos oil company and his closest associate has been dragging on for 19 months, but last Friday the proceedings concluded, so now the accused will make final procedural remarks and address the court with the “final word,” after which the verdict must be announced (Vremya Novostei, October 28; Kommersant, October 30).

While to all legal intents and purposes the cross-examination of the haphazardly built and poorly presented case has long left the realm of common sense and traveled deep into the territory of absurdity, politically it makes perfect sense. Medvedev could have assumed the pose of “non-interference” in the court proceedings and hoped that public attention would become bored and shift elsewhere, for instance to the protection of Khimki forest, which has received benevolent presidential attention (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 27). In fact, the opposite has happened, and while the Khodorkovsky theme remains taboo for the official TV channels, every newspaper has published commentary on the fast-approaching moment of truth, and tens of thousands of people have attended the hearings.

Khodorkovsky’s and Lebedev’s defense team, led by authoritative Yuri Shmidt, has proved that the prosecution is political through and through, and that creates a larger-than-life problem for Medvedev (Ekho Moskvy, October 27). The “guilty-as-charged” verdict would signify a fiasco of his efforts to portray, and perhaps even reinvent, himself as a liberal-minded modernizer, who could for instance bargain with the opposition about the number of people they were allowed to rally on the Triumfalnaya square in Moscow last Sunday (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 29). Medvedev can ignore the appeal from Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and other international NGO’s but he cannot expect that at the forthcoming summits his Western counterparts would only casually mention this unfortunate episode and continue to treat him as a leader they could do business with. Such political survivors as Anatoly Chubais could weasel out of direct questions by admitting that putting Khodorkovsky behind bars was a mistake, but insisting that modernization could be launched without releasing him (Vedomosti, October 29).  Medvedev cannot deny responsibility, but the “not-guilty” verdict could only be secured by pulling extra-hard on the strings that are firmly in Putin’s hand.

For Putin, the case has grown beyond the personal vendetta against a political opponent who has remained defiant even after 2,500 days in prison. It is now about his control over the political elites who begin to see him as a liability, and that is why his cool and composed demeanor at the Valdai club meeting this summer changed so visibly when the Polish political veteran Adam Michnik dared to bring up the forbidden name (, October 29). Putin is now making plans for the development of the oil and gas industries inviting foreign investors to participate and expecting that greed would make them forget the brutal expropriation of the Yukos assets (Kommersant, October 29). However, every squeeze on Western majors, like for instance the recent signal that Exxon Mobil could be replaced by Rosneft as the operator of the Sakhalin-1 project, reminds them that Yukos was not an isolated incident but a defining moment in shaping a predatory business culture (, October 26). That precedent of officially sanctioned looting has set the trend of spectacular growth of administrative corruption, so this year Russia sank below Nigeria, Libya or Iran in the index compiled by Transparency International (Vedomosti, October 27).

Putin established many months ago that sometime in the course of next year the two co-rulers would sit together and decide who will “run” for the presidency in 2012, and Medvedev has been eager to go along with this, clearly fancying a second term for himself. Medvedev is trying to show presidential resolution even appointing Sergei Sobyanin –most certainly Putin’s choice– as the mayor of Moscow. Quite probably, Medvedev has not even noticed that the decisive moment for him has arrived without an invitation from his senior partner to have a heart-to-heart. In only a few days, the very tired judge, Viktor Danilkin, will deliver the verdict on his presidency, after which there will be few reasons to keep waiting to discover what Putin prefers. Khodorkovsky has left Medvedev an opportunity to rise above the level of quasi-president by pointing out that the prosecution has done all the hard work of destroying their case and proving his innocence. Medvedev knows Putin too well to believe that this opportunity might be grasped.