Russia’s Lawless Legality

by Susanne Scholl

Susanne Scholl is Moscow Bureau Chief of ORF (Austrian Public Television). Her latest book is Tochter des Krieges: berleben in Tschetschenien (Daughters of the War: Surviving in Chechnya).

MOSCOW - Colonel Yuri Budanov is a convicted rapist and murderer. After serving half his prison sentence for the rape and murder of an 18-year-old Chechen, Elsa Kungayeva, he was released last December.

Svetlana Bakhmina was a lawyer at Yukos, the oil company formerly run by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In 2004, she was arrested and, in 2006, sentenced to six and a half years on embezzlement and tax fraud charges. Like Budanov, she applied for early release from prison in 2008. Her request was refused, as was her earlier plea in 2006 to suspend her sentence until her two small sons reached the age of 14 - a request she was entitled to make under Russian law.

Vasily Aleksanyan was Executive Vice President of Yukos, and, as a lawyer, defended Khodorkovsky and his partner, Platon Lebedev, after their arrest in 2003. He was subsequently disbarred and was himself arrested in April 2006. By that time, Aleksanyan was critically ill with AIDS, for which treatment was withheld. In December 2008, the Moscow City Court approved his release on bail of 50 million rubles (around $1,775,000 at the time).

Finally, consider Khodorkovsky and Lebedev themselves. Arrested in 2003, they were sentenced in 2005 to eight years in prison on charges of tax fraud. They are serving their sentence in Chita on the Chinese border, although Russian law prescribes that, for the crimes with which they were charged, they were entitled to be imprisoned near their place of domicile, i.e., in Moscow.

When Dmitry Medvedev was elected as Russia's president a little more than a year ago, he promised to do away with the "legal nihilism" in Russia. Although he was a close confidante of Vladimir Putin and probably was able to assume presidential office exclusively for that reason, many dared to hope that he would stop the vendetta against Khodorkovsky and all those who had been close to him.

Disillusion fully set in only one year after Medvedev's election, when a new case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev was brought, this time for embezzlement of billions and money laundering.

A cynical observer remarked at the preliminary hearing that by the looks of it the Russian authorities couldn't make up their mind: either the former Yukos bosses didn't pay taxes or they embezzled money. But since when does one pay taxes on embezzled funds?

The courtroom where the new trial against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev is taking place is slightly larger than a spacious classroom. And it is full of heavily armed guards. Despite this, the two defendants are forced to sit inside a narrow cage whose glass front has only two small holes through which their lawyers can communicate with them. Every day, they are brought into the courtroom handcuffed like dangerous felons. One cannot help but contrast this with Budanov, the rapist and murderer who is now free to move about Russia at will.

The judge refused without comment requests by the defense to remove the cage and to replace one of the prosecutors, who had already been a prosecuting counsel during the first trial. So the authorities' aim seems clear: put Khodorkovsky and Lebedev away for a much longer time - more than 20 years if they are convicted. Few doubt that they will be.

Still, this new trial of course is also a test case for Medvedev's presidency. So far, he has done nothing to counteract the legal nihilism against which he himself has spoken. But maybe he will in the course of this trial, which resembles a personal vendetta even more than the first one did.

To be sure, Khodorkovsky is no saint. Like many others in Russia who are allowed to enjoy their wealth in peace today (or maybe are lamenting its loss due to the financial crisis), he made his money in thoroughly obscure ways during the early post-Soviet years. But, instead of buying villas, yachts, or soccer clubs abroad, he invested his fortune in Russia.

Of course, he did mainly fill his own pockets - and his social and political activities certainly were not entirely altruistic, either. But what made him public enemy number one for Putin was his desire to move Russia in a political direction that he viewed as positive and desirable. It was his ambition to subject the country to truly far-reaching social and political reforms that sealed his downfall and also brought about this new trial, which appears intended to silence him for good.

Medvedev's presidency will inevitably be measured by this case. Will he tolerate and endorse his prime minister's personal aversions, or is he willing to put an end to the infamous spectacle of a judicial process that has been manipulated and abused from beginning to end? Little speaks for the latter scenario, but Russia has always been a country where hope dies last.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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