Don't Mess with Putin-He'll Have the Key Thrown Away

Mikhail Khodorkovsky continues to pay the price for defying Vladimir Putin as demonstrated by the verdict in his case.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 21:52

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Mikhail Khodorkovsky


The Russian Czar, Nicholas I, had a well-deserved reputation for cruelty against the Jews and for iron-handed autocratic rule. One of his favorite stratagems, at least in Jewish folklore, was to tack on an extra week to the jail time of a prisoner who was about to complete his sentence.

One can observe that today's verdict by a Russian court that found two imprisoned Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and  Platon Lebedev, guilty of fraud is reminiscent of Nicholas' reputed behavior. The two were the heads of the giant Yuko's oil company and in their prime they were billionaires.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the oligarchs snapped up Russian natural resources companies for a song, and during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin they exerted extraordinary influence on Russian politics. For example, during the 1996 Russian presidential elections, they turned the tide in favor of Yeltsin by advancing the Russian government the needed funds to pay arrears on salary and pensions and successfully vilified Yeltsin's opponent the communist, Genaddy Zyuganov via their media outlets.. When the not-always sober Yeltsin was about to retire, the oligarchs settled on a young St. Petersburg official  named Vladimir Putin as his successor. Big mistake.

Don't Cross Putin

Putin was determined not to be the lapdog of the oligarchs and wanted to re-centralize power in Russia around his ex-KGB buddies. He basically offered the oligarchs a deal: keep your wealth but stay out of politics. Those who heeded the warning, kept their assets, their football teams and most importantly, their freedom. Those who challenged Putin found themselves facing what Putin called "the dictatorship of the law."  Some managed to escape to exile, Khodorkovsky found himself in the gulag.

Interviewed prior to the verdict, Putin parroted a line from a Soviet film "I think that a thief should be in jail." This was immediately interpreted as a signal from on high directing the verdict.

The verdict was to have been originally read out previously, but was mysteriously postponed. Some speculated that a guilty verdict would have hampered Barack Obama's efforts in shepherding through the START Treaty in the U.S. Senate. The treaty has passed and the guilty verdict is in.

Putin subsequently denied that he was attempting to influence the verdict and innocently claimed that he was merely referring to the original conviction. Putin also compared Khodorkovsky to Bernie Madoff and joked that compared to the American's 150 year sentence his Russian counterpart was getting off lightly. Putin had also previously compared Khodorkovsky to Al Capone thus implying that he was responsible for gangland style executions.

One would very much like to believe that Ingo Mannteufel, the head ofDeutsche Welle's Russian Service is correct in the following assessment: :"The West may have readily embraced Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as symbols for a free, democratic and just Russia. Their current treatment and the clearly politically motivated nature of their trial has now led many Russians to look up to them as heroes in a battle against a corrupt and arbitrary regime."

However, In terms of popular sentiment, the oligarchs were hated as people who had become fabulously wealthy while a large percentage of the population had been pauperized. 

Unfortunately Putin is probably correctly banking that aside from the liberal intelligentsia, some of whom staged a demonstration outside the courthouse, the Russian man in the street will not be outraged. Similarly he concludes that the Western tongue wagging over the verdict will soon die out because the West needs Russia and its mineral resources. They may not like him or his methods but they will have to deal with him in the end. The businessmen have already factored in the risk of dealing with an arbitrary regime.

A Verdict that Verifies Power Rankings

There appears to be a general consensus that the verdict has hurt the political standing of Pres. Dmitry Medvedev. Lilia Shevstova of Moscow's Carnegie Center, an astute observer of post-Soviet Russian politics, commented: "If one assumes that this country still has a vertical of power - and it does, if one assumes that Putin is the national leader - and he has repeatedly proven that he is, and if one assumes that we still do not have a parliament and a justice system - and we do not, then the judge obviously had to do as he was told,"

Medvedev, the good cop in the Russian tandem and a former professor of law had said last Friday that neither he nor any other government official had a right to speak out on the case. In in responding to the question of the double standard between good and bad oligarchs, Medvedev said:"If proof exists that other people also committed same crimes - where is this [legal] base? Where are these cases?" he asked.

"If this base exists, I want it found and brought to me" The power relationship between Medvedev, the titular number one, and Putin the presumed subordinate, had been clearly demonstrated.

Pravda Backs Putin

There was one irony to the Russian media reaction. Pravda writer Anton Kulikov attacked the pro-Western liberals who had condemned the verdict and claimed that it was thye rather than Putin who had attempted to subvert justice by claiming that the only possible verdict was acquittal.

Pravda was and is the organ of the Russian Communist Party. When Khodorkovsky ran afoul of Putin it was because he was bankrolling the only effective opposition – the Communist Party. Mikhail Kasyanov, Russia'  Prime Minister from 2000 to 2004, in an interview with the Ffinancial Times on July 21, 2009 told the British paper that then-President Putin told him that he Putin was unhappy with Khodorkovsky’s campaign financing for the Communist Party. “He told me Khodorkovsky…was financing the Communist party without his agreement."

Kulikov furnishes an indication of how successful Putin has been in absorbing Communist Party support.