On October 25, 2003, Russia’s path to a totalitarian kleptocracy was cemented with the arrest of Russia’s wealthiest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at Novosibirsk Airport. Khodorkovsky’s Yukos Oil Company was seized and was subsequently cannibalized by Vladimir Putin and his associates. On May 31, 2005, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison. Having served most of his time, Khodorkovsky is in Moscow waiting to be sentenced to a new term under new charges. He will likely not emerge from prison until he is an old man.
In dealing with Khodorkovsky, Putin has taken a page from Stalin’s book. Stalin charged his political enemies with imagined Nazi espionage, poisonings, and political assassinations. Although Yukos paid more taxes than all other Russian oil companies combined, Khodorkovsky was sentenced in 2005 for tax fraud. The fantastic new charge against Khodorkovsky is that he personally stole the entire production of Yukos – quite a feat, given that Yukos was audited by Price Waterhouse and its production accounted for.
Where is the outrage? Just as “a rich man will hardly enter the kingdom of heaven” so will Khodorkovsky hardly be granted the status of “dissident” or “prisoner of conscience” that he justly deserves. The Russian public and the world community take little notice of his political repression.
Khodorkovsky is indeed a political prisoner of Putin’s Russia. Among his political sins were to contribute his wealth to rival political parties and to set up charitable foundations for independent educational, scholarly, and political thinking. Such activities made him the most likely challenger to Putin. His greatest sin was to convert Yukos into a company run according to Western standards of management, accounting, and corporate governance. Yukos, under Khodorkovsky, was Russia’s most highly capitalized company, well on its way to achieving a market value consistent with its reserves. A “clean” Yukos could not be allowed to stand: It would lay bare the vast corruption dragging down the market values of other energy and mineral companies in the hands of Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.
Putin took other pages from Stalin’s playbook. While ordering the arrest and “turning over to the courts” of political rivals, Stalin also dictated their sentences, usually death. There is little doubt that Khodorkovsky’s new sentence will be dictated by “telephone justice” (a telephone call from the Kremlin). Putin is also copying Stalin’s public humiliation of political rivals. Khodorkovsky appears in court imprisoned in a glass cage.
Khodorkovsky was given fifteen minutes at the end of his trial to make a final statement. His words are worthy of considerable note:
“What must be going through the minds of the entrepreneur, or the senior manager, or simply an ordinary educated, creative person, watching our trial, and knowing that its result is absolutely predictable? The obvious conclusion is chilling in its stark simplicity: it is that the forces of power can do anything….Millions of eyes throughout Russia and the world are watching this trial … with the hope that Russia will still become a country of freedom, and law is above the bureaucrat. Where supporting opposition parties is not a cause for reprisals. Where special services protect the people and the law, and not the bureaucracy from the people and the law. Where human rights no longer depend on the mood of the czar, good or evil.”
Khodorkovsky chose not to take the easy path of other out-of-favor oligarchs by fleeing the country with much of their wealth intact, to luxurious residences and ownership of sports teams abroad. He was offered this option but did not take it.
“I am not a perfect person, but I am a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there. But if I have to, I will. The things I believe in are worth dying for.”
To its great credit, Amnesty International Germany is using the occasion of Khodorkovsky's closing statement to present a "Berlin Declaration", signed by several prominent Germans to demand the end of "injustice" in Russia. The declaration has been signed by Nobel prize winner Herta Müller, actress Katja Riemann, Marieluise Beck from the Green Party and Markus Meckel from the Social Democrats. The declaration is to be delivered to the Russian Embassy after November 15.
To add your name to the letter below, email your full name, country of residence and profession with "Berlin Declaration" in the subject line.