Russia watchers have been pondering for months: Will Putin run for president again in 2012, or won’t he? The verdict in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky last week should settle it. Putin will run.
In November 2003, federal agents seized Khodorkovsky in Siberia as he was about to board an airplane. At the time, he was chairman of Yukos Oil, the nation’s largest oil company. It and he were prosperous. Its shares were publicly traded and he managed it according to Western trading and accounting standards.
In the early nineties the government of then-President Boris Yeltsin was selling off many government assets. Khodorkovsky was one of a number of young entrepreneurs who obtained such assets at bargain prices. In this case it was a small oil company. He and others who made such deals were labeled “oligarchs.” When Putin was elected he made it clear he did not like the oligarchs and warned them to stay away from politics. Khodorkovsky did not take the warning as literally as he should, as it turned out. He gave monetary support to political groups that wanted more democracy for Russia. Putin decided to make him an object lesson.
Khodorkovsky, after his arrest, was charged with tax fraud. In 2005 he was tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. His sentence was scheduled to run out in 2011, not long before the next presidential election. With him free, Putin probably envisioned Khodorkovsky encouraging the forces of democracy to challenge his campaign. The simplest thing to do was to bring fresh charges, which is what Putin arranged to do. This time it was charged that Khodorkovsky and his partner, Platon L. Lebedev, had embezzled $27 billion from their company using accounting schemes that eluded the company’s auditors.
The charges were a fabrication. Putin used the case to show Russia that he is firmly in charge. This makes a mockery of the apparently sincere statements by current President Dmitri Medvedev calling for government transparency, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.
Predictably, in a judicial system rife with corruption, the judge in the current case handed down a sentence that will keep Khodorkovsky and Lebedev behind bars until 2017. During the first trial Putin’s popularity remained high — around 80 percent — because many Russians saw the oligarchs as unjustly rich and the trial served as a rebuke to all of them.
Putin apparently thinks little has changed, but it has. Pro-democracy activists demonstrate more often and in greater numbers than before and the middle class in large cities continues to grow. Gennady Gudkov recently told the Financial Times that today, “People have begun to feel sorry for Khodorkovsky. It is exactly the opposite of what they felt 10 years ago.”
Criticism of the verdict by governments and news media outside of Russia was dismissed by the Foreign Ministry as “interference” in a domestic issue. Typical of Putin’s style, the critics were invited to mind their own business.
Putin may be able to easily push Medvedev aside and stack the political deck to ensure his 2012 election as president, but the trends are now beginning to move against his the-state-as-bully philosophy and method of operation.
Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.