December 15th, 2010

Khodorkovsky Verdict Postponed as the Kremlin Deliberates

Today the postponement of the verdict for Mikhail Khodorkovsky was announced by Judge Danilkin without much fanfare. Already a strong litmus test for President Medvedev’s commitment to end legal nihilism, the Khodorkovsky trial has become a bellwether for the future of Russia. Moving the verdict to December 27th, the traditionally quiet period between Christmas and the New Year seemed to some like the Russian government wanted to reduce the world’s focus on Russia’s most famous prisoner.

US Senator John McCain recently said at a speech at John Hopkins University,

And then there is the sad ongoing saga of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose company was stolen from him, and who has languished in jail for seven years.  When his sentence expired recently, new charges were manufactured against him. He is not being tried by a jury, just a single judge, and the political fix has been in for a long time. He could now face up to 12 more years in prison. If ever there were a case of ‘legal nihilism’ – of an affront to the very values of equal justice that we hold dear – the case of Khodorkovsky is it.

David Remnick, editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, wrote the lead Talk of the Town article this week when he addressed the issue of the Khodorkovsky trial and what it means for Russia’s future

Khodorkovsky exploited the lawlessness of the era no less than his fellow-oligarchs did, but he was more reserved than the rest…Over time, he also displayed unusual signs of independence from his Kremlin patrons. And, for Putin, there was the rub. Khodorkovsky began to see the necessity of playing a less sleazy game—not least in order to attract foreign investors…
The Khodorkovsky affair long ago erased any notion in Russia of an independent judiciary; it made plain that the courts do the bidding of a corrupt hierarchy that will stop at little to enrich itself.
Russia undermines its pretense to modern statehood with such an appalling abuse of state power. Putin’s ruthlessness is apparent. President Dmitry Medvedev ostensibly has the power to pardon, and he has shown some small measure of independence from his patron, speaking of the “legal nihilism” that prevails in Russia today. Does he have the capacity, much less the courage, to release Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

In his article, “What now for Russia? Part Three” Anthony Harrington argues that not only does the Khodorkovsky trial blatantly flaunt the rule of law, the actions of Khodorkovsky and his business associates indicate that he was getting Yukos in financial shipshape for a possible sale to foreign investors and listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
Which leads us to the question of what does the postponement mean? While reading into the nondecision is a little like reading tea leaves, it is probably safe to say it indicates a neutral or negative final outcome. With the delay, the authorities may try to mitigate negative public reaction to a guilty verdict. Alternatively, it could be that the judge, who obviously had made his own opinion so far, was unable to get approval from his supervisor. Or it could be something else more germane, such as needing more time to write the decision. Ultimately, the postponement demonstrates to the world that Russia’s judicial system is far from independent.

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