Russia Enters Year of Elections in the Shadow of a Shameful Verdict

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 1

Mikhail Khodorkovsky on trial. (Kommersant)

The year 2010 could have been marked as “not-so-bad” in the still short annals of Russia’s post-Soviet history. It was the scorching summer heat and massive fires that would be remembered as the main feature of the year, but it also witnessed the return of terrorism to Moscow with the blasts in the metro, and the deadly explosion in the Raspadskaya coalmine, as well as the rabidly nationalistic rally of football fans at the gates of the Kremlin (Vedomosti, December 26). Yet, it was spared catastrophic disasters, so during the pre-holiday week President Dmitry Medvedev stayed on the positive message about struggling along a far from the worst case scenario. The fears that most Russians had about a new wave of crisis have indeed dissipated, but expectations remain low and hopes for a return of petro-prosperity were not rekindled by official cheerfulness (, December 28). What has turned the checkered year into a definitely bad one was the “guilty-as-charged” verdict in the court case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

The proceedings continued for 22 months and perhaps its most odd feature was the openness for the media and the public, so that thousands of people were able to see how the team of lawyers led by the superb Yuri Schmidt destroyed the piles of charges beyond any reasonable doubt, and how the judge took no account of the plainly obvious defense arguments (Novaya Gazeta, December 30). The accused were allowed to say what they wanted about the nature of the persecution and express their views in articles and interviews to any newspaper that dared to publish them, and many did (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 24). Apparently, the whole point of this “show trial” was not to mobilize public opinion against corrupt “oligarchs,” as in 2003-2005, but to establish beyond doubt that no matter how flimsy the evidence or noisy the liberal opposition, the political decision on crushing the unrepentant “enemies” would be enforced.

Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has not attempted to hide his malevolence towards Khodorkovsky, and there are few doubts that the decision on the maximum sentence was his to make, while a softer verdict would have been interpreted as a weakening of his grasp on power (Kommersant, December 30). Medvedev tried to stay clear of this crucial issue and even reprimanded Putin for prejudging the ongoing trial; it is clear, nevertheless, that the credibility of his leadership has suffered a major blow (, December 29). Medvedev’s many statements about asserting the primacy of law and independence of the legal system have turned out to be empty words, and his efforts at emphasizing his personal control over the bureaucratic machine are discredited as a false pretence. Many groups in the Russian political class have grown tired of Putin’s “manual management” and so were inclined to give Medvedev every benefit of the doubt for learning in the job; now they have to move on concluding that his smooth talking makes no difference whatsoever (Ekho Moskvy, December 31).

This disappointment translates into a re-evaluation of business and personal prospects in a country of self-serving bureaucracy – and into capital flight that increased sharply in the last months of 2010 and is set to reach $25 billion to $30 billion (Vedomosti, December 27). Medvedev tries to explain away this worrisome trend by emphasizing the need to improve the investment climate, which in his view “leaves something to be desired; it is bad.” Medvedev has also initiated a package of reforms in economic legislation that should take effect in 2011-12, and quite probably he simply does not understand that the Khodorkovsky case is not a minor setback for the markets, as it was five years ago, but the irrefutable verdict on his “modernization” strategy (Kommersant, December 27). Medvedev concentrates on the good news that Russia in 2010 achieved nearly 4 percent growth omitting the plain fact that not even half of the losses in 2008-2009 were compensated, so Russia is by no means out of crisis (Ekspert, December 30). Most experts expect slower recovery in 2011 and further damage to economic reason due to inevitable populist giveaways in the election year (, December 28; Kommersant-Dengi, December 20).

Warnings about a strong negative impact from the “selective prosecution” on implementation of plans for “partnership in modernization” were given by many Western governments, and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, raised questions “about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.” The Russian foreign ministry immediately refuted these warnings as “unacceptable pressure on the court,” and Medvedev apparently believes that he will continue to harvest fruits from his “charm offensive” because his Western counterparts would not want to see Putin return to the supreme position (RIA Novosti, December 28). What Medvedev does not want to contemplate is that his shallowness is too transparent and that even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, traditionally an advocate of embracing Russia with all its imperfections, is having second thoughts about the costs of doing business with the perfunctory president and his keeper. Medvedev takes particular pride in the reconstituted “equal partnership” with the US, but with the ratification of START III, the agenda of the “reset” is fulfilled and further rapprochement is problematic (, December 23).

A catchphrase among investors is that “Russia is out of fashion,” and this attitude reflects more than uncertainty about the margin of profit in the election year (The New Times, December 27). In fact, the elections have become a political show of little relevance because Putin’s choice to reclaim the presidency or to allow Medvedev to keep the job is now reduced to mere formality that has little if any import for the “modernization” of the system of governance. The unreasonably harsh punishment of unbreakable Khodorkovsky and Lebedev shows that this system has grown so thoroughly corrupt that by trying to prove its power it actually destroys its credibility (Vedomosti, December 30). Every available political resource is mobilized to secure the self-reproduction of Putin’s regime by manipulating elections better than in disagreeable Belarus, but in seeking to prolong the life-cycle measured by the price of oil, the desperate duumvirate merely shortens the chance for a peaceful resolution of a maturing crisis.