Reprinted from City Journal.
The verdict in the “criminal” trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and of his “accomplice” Platon Lebedev, scheduled for December 15, was delayed for unannounced reasons until December 27. The verdict was guilty, but the Russian people are not dupes: 40 percent know that it was concocted in behind-the-scenes power politics.
The accused is the former boss of the giant oil company Yukos, surrealistically charged with having “stolen,” right under everyone’s noses, 20 percent of Russian oil production between 1998 and 2003 (enough to fill tankers end to end twice around the equator). The prosecutor reduced the alleged amount of the larceny, without explanation, from 349 million tons of stolen oil to 218 million tons. He seems to find this revised number more plausible.
Meanwhile, Mikhail Kassianov (the Russian prime minister during the period in question), Viktor Khristenko (deputy prime minister at the same time), and German Gref (the development minister), called as witnesses, have stated that a diversion of oil on such a scale is a pure invention; they simply could not have missed it. The prosecutor juggles his imaginary barrels no less miraculously than the loaves multiplied in the Gospels. “Thanks to the prosecutor for proving my innocence,” should be the defendant’s ironic response. “No normal person could believe something so absurd.”
The Yukos business has been dismantled, its assets joyfully distributed to Kremlin insiders. The fleeced ex-oligarch has already been unjustly punished by seven years in a Siberian cell on charges of fraud. Why has he not been set free, or simply exiled? Why not reassure foreign investors, who are disinclined to risk personnel and capital in a country rotten with general corruption and with the arbitrary greed of kleptocrats?
Here’s the explanation: Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s true guilt is very grave. He is right, and Vladimir Putin is wrong. Compared with other nations’ emergent economies, Russia’s is not looking good. Over the last three years, it received three times less in foreign investments than Brazil. Moreover, in a 2010 ranking of “international transparency,” Russia has fallen to the rank of 154th among “least corrupt countries”—right beside Tajikistan, Papua, and Yemen, just ahead of Somalia, and far behind Zimbabwe. Let’s entrust them with our dollars and euros!
Khodorkovsky—well-known for having launched a plan ten years ago that would bring together modernization and democratization along with freedom from Russia’s political-economic mafias—insists that the nation’s extreme corruption, including embezzlements and assassinations, represents “a threat greater than that of a nuclear catastrophe.” He is paying dearly for too openly disdaining local customs in government and business. As Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in 2008: “To guarantee that no one will again show such insanity in acting freely and participating in political life, we have before us the mad example of Khodorkovsky freezing at -40°, sleeping on bare planks with nothing to do but ponder the hellish reality of a Russia that, whether capitalist or communist, so resembles Dostoyevski’s nightmares.”