TOPICS > Politics

Khodorkovsky Conviction Renews ‘Selective Justice’ Concerns in Russia

December 27, 2010 at 8:03 PM EDT
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After the latest conviction of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Jeffrey Brown examines political dissent, the rule of law and the legal system in Russia with Anna Vassilieva of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and Dimitri Simes of the Nixon Center, both of whom are natives of Russia but are now U.S. citizens.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington today in Washington today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined critics of the conviction. The White House statement said the failure to follow the rule of law impedes Russian ties with the U.S.

And for more on all this, we turn to two analysts, both Russian natives and now American citizens. Anna Vassilieva is head of the Russian studies program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Dimitri Simes is president of the Nixon Center, a foreign policy research organization.

Welcome to both of you.

DIMITRI SIMES, president, The Nixon Center: Good to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anna Vassilieva, I will start with you.

What is your reaction to today’s verdict?

ANNA VASSILIEVA, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Well, I wasn’t surprised.

The verdict, indeed, was pronounced when Vladimir Putin said to the whole world that the thief should be in prison. That was his definition of what was happening in the court. And it was very difficult to imagine any other outcome, any other verdict, after what the most powerful man in Russia said.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dimitri Simes, as I said in the introduction, Khodorkovsky would seem to be an unlikely figure for this kind of international human rights debate here. Explain for our audience a little bit how he came to be that.

What does he represent?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, he started as a tycoon. He was a very ruthless tycoon. He took a lot of government property, paying very little, and actually using government loans, which he never repaid, to become very wealthy.

He was, politically, very ambitious. He wasn’t just supporting opposition parties, but he was entertaining the possibility of becoming prime minister himself, curtailing Putin’s power.

Having said that, once he was arrested, he proved to be a man of courage, determination, eloquence. The government wasn’t able to break him. And when he was arrested first time in 2003, I really liked Khodorkovsky personally, and I was sorry for him, but, politically, I had mixed feelings, because he was threatening the government in a very ruthless way, using the money he got illegally to mount a political challenge.

What they are doing to him now is totally beyond the pale. It is not just selective justice. It’s really no justice at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Anna Vassilieva, what does this tell you, this case, tell you about Vladimir Putin, about where power sits and rests in Russia today?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, what does it tell me and tells all of us is that the power belongs to someone who exercises strength, not justice, not pardon, as we were hoping until the most recent phrase that Putin announced.

What we see is history repeating itself. Russian rulers are afraid to make compromises. And, obviously, allowing Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev free would be a sort of a compromise that no one can afford, because they know they will lose the trust.

We have to remember that — the trust of the population — we have to remember that the highest ratings Putin and Medvedev enjoyed were during August 2008, during the war with Georgia. And there was no chance that they would exercise the opportunity to compromise.

And that is what we see now. And that — unfortunately, we may see this trend continuing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, staying with you, you mentioned President Medvedev. What of him? Because he has spoken recently of trying to create more of a climate for foreign investment, for economics, for a legal system. What of him in all this?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: And this is all — he means this, I’m sure, but he also understands that he cannot cross the path of the population’s preferences.

And the population still trusts Vladimir Putin more than any other politician. This is the data from a Levada Center poll of this December, late December.

So, Putin is the most trusted politician. Putin is extremely popular, 79 percent of popularity. And there was, again, no way the president of the country would try to change that or try to cross Putin’s path.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dimitri Simes, the statements from the U.S. officials today were quite strong, actually, in terms of — well, Secretary Clinton said the case — quote — “raises serious questions about selective prosecution and has a negative impact on improving Russia’s investment climate.”

What does that say to you? I mean, does it — is…

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, I think that the statements were, as you said, strong, but measured.

And there is no question that there is a capital outflow from Russia. Foreign investors are leaving Russia, Medvedev’s promises notwithstanding. And when investors look at what is happening to Khodorkovsky, they would ask themselves, why would they put their money in a country like Russia? Why not in Brazil? Why not in China?

Whether the administration likes it or not, what is happening to Khodorkovsky has implications for the U.S.-Russian relationship. Let me make one point about Medvedev. I think it is clear that Putin is the prominent leader, and the way Khodorkovsky is treated, to a large extent, is because of Putin.

Having said that, Medvedev wants to run in 2012.

JEFFREY BROWN: For a second term.

DIMITRI SIMES: For a second term. And the last thing he would want to happen, in my view, is to see Mr. Khodorkovsky out of prison as a victim, as a hero, as a courageous man of means who could challenge Mr. Medvedev.

So, Medvedev wants to throw more leniency to Khodorkovsky, but he doesn’t want, in my view, to see Khodorkovsky out of jail before next presidential elections.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Anna Vassilieva, coming back to you, especially on the U.S. statements, and would statements — what strikes you about them, and would statements like that provoke a backlash from Russia?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: No, there will be no backlash, because everyone in Russia knows that there is a selective justice. Everyone in Russia knows that this is a politically-driven accusation and verdict.

But, at the same time, when Russia ever had fair judicial system, you know? Anyone who read “Resurrection” by Leo Tolstoy written in the 19th century, early 20th century, knows about that, about the complete lack of justice. Anyone who read Varlam Shalamov (INAUDIBLE) stories or “Archipelago Gulag” knows that the 20th century never brought fairness and justice to Russian people.

And thus, you know, I think, also, in the ’90s, no one bothered to be building or rebuilding the justice system. So, why did we decide all of a sudden that, overnight, Russia or Russian people will enjoy and in fact will know, will have a taste of what it means to live in the country where the system of justice is fair and it is being exercised?

They don’t know what it is. All they know is there is a strong popular leader who found the right discourse of communication with the people, and there is the oligarch who doesn’t cause — doesn’t carry much respect or pity among the people. Two percent of the Russian population were closely watching the court hearings — 2 percent of the population.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dimitri Simes, we have heard the verdict here. We have not heard the sentence yet. Is there still some possibility of some kind of compromise or some potential leniency?

DIMITRI SIMES: I think so. I think that, if they give Khodorkovsky 14 years, as prosecutors have asked, that would be a personal humiliation for Medvedev. After what he…

JEFFREY BROWN: For — for the president?

DIMITRI SIMES: Absolutely.

After what he said about justice, about justice not being selective, I think, if some leniency is not shown to Khodorkovsky, Medvedev would really be politically diminished in Russia.

And I agree that not many people in Russia are watching the trial. But the political elite, the influential people, are watching the trial very carefully. And if Khodorkovsky gets what the government have asked in terms of sentence, a lot of people would say, well, Medvedev is a nice boy, he talks big, but he’s not for real.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dimitri Simes and Anna Vassilieva, thank you both very much.


DIMITRI SIMES: Thank you for having us.