Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia's Khodorkovsky On Ice Ahead Of Verdict In Second Trial


(WATCH: Khodorkovsky supporters outside the courtroom speak to RFE/RL's Russian Service.)

When it comes to how the West has perceived Russia's Vladimir Putin, his rule falls into two periods -- before and after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Few believe that will change anytime soon.

A Moscow court has delayed its reading of a judgment in the case, originally scheduled for today, to December 27, according to a court notice. But the verdict, when it does arrive, will mark the culmination of a second case against the former oil tycoon who many now see as Russia's most famous political prisoner.

His supporters fear he'll probably be jailed for close to the maximum sentence of another six years*, in a judgment they say will really be a verdict on the state of authoritarianism in Russia.

End Of The Affair

When Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, then-President Putin was widely hailed as a great reformer, praised by the London "Sunday Times" as the best Russian leader since Tsar Aleksandr II, who abolished the slavery known as serfdom in 1861.

Months later, the public honeymoon ended with the news that security forces had stormed Khodorkovsky's private plane on an airfield in Siberia.

President Vladimir Putin (right) greets Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2002.
The country's richest billionaire and head of Russia's biggest oil company, Yukos, was sentenced to eight years, banished to a prison camp in the desolate city of Chita 6,000 kilometers east of Moscow. Yukos was broken up and sold in a shady auction to a state-controlled company, part of the Kremlin's drive to put the energy industry back under state control.

Changing Reputation

Khodorkovsky's reputation had already undergone several permutations by then. In the 1990s, when he was putting together his business empire, many impoverished Russians had reviled him as one of the most ruthless of the country's financial oligarchs.

Still, Boris Belenkin of the Memorial human rights group says Khodorkovsky was no different than others who made huge fortunes then. "None of it really matters now," he says. "What matters is the situation in which Khodorkovsky and many others were caught last decade, a situation of utter lawlessness."

Once secure in his fortune, Khodorkovsky did differ from other oligarchs for being among the first to introduce Western business standards, and giving more money to humanitarian and social causes than all his peers combined.

The courthouse-door announcement saying the Khodorkovsky and Lebedev verdict has been postponed until December 27.
But many believed Khodorkovsky's real crime was to have posed a political threat to Putin by using his vast influence to lobby against the president's aim of building an oil-fuelled authoritarian regime. He talked to Western energy companies about selling off some of Yukos and poured money into opposition groups.

During a meeting between Putin and the oligarchs shortly before his arrest, Khodorkovsky denounced the president's ministers as "thieves." Belenkin believes his arrest was a "classic act of personal revenge." It was also a signal to everyone about the limits of private business prerogatives in Russia.

Second Trial

The most recent charges were brought against Khodorkovsky months before he was eligible for parole in 2007. Many believe he and his business partner Platon Lebedev -- who was jailed with him -- were accused of stealing $25 billion of their own company's oil as an excuse to keep them in jail.

Maksim Dbar, spokesman for Khodorkovsky's defense team, calls the accusation "absurd," saying it contradicts the outcome of his first trial. "The main thing the charges are missing is an actual crime," he says. "Even after 20 months of trial, no one understands what Khodorkovsky is actually accused of."

Appealing to the judge in his final statement, Khodorkovsky said the authorities had targeted him because he championed cleaning up Russia's economy. "Much more than just the fate of two people is in your hands now," he said. "The fate of every citizen in our country will be decided here and now."

Putin's Russia

Khodorkovsky's supporters say his fate is a barometer for the state of authoritarianism in Russia.

Putin has claimed to have imposed order by cracking down against the corruption that enabled Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs to plunder the country for their own benefit in the 1990s. But the Kremlin's critics say Putin actually installed himself at the top of a Byzantine bureaucratic system in which officials wielding arbitrary power have replaced organized criminal groups heading the racketeering industry.

Even the government's own figures show corruption has skyrocketed under Putin, who retained power as prime minister after having stepped down from the presidency in 2008.

Dmitry Medvedev decried Russia's "legal nihilism" when he succeeded his patron Putin as president in 2008, promising to institute the rule of law. Human rights activists say freeing Khodorkovsky would be the best first step, but few believe the court will acquit him this month, or give a lenient sentence.

Memorial's Belenkin says that's because the judge has no actual say. "The court itself decides nothing," he says. "That depends instead on the will of the politicians who control the court system."

Back To The Future

Echoing a common refrain, Khodorkovsky's 77-year-old mother Marina Khodorkovskaya says a second conviction for her son will confirm Russia is "still moving toward 1937," which marked the height of the Soviet terror under dictator Josef Stalin.

But despite his status as a rallying symbol for the opposition, she says Khodorkovsky never wanted to become a political figure. "The authorities are afraid of a political symbol they themselves created [by arresting him]," she says. "They're worried he'll demand back the assets confiscated from him, although he's said he doesn't want that at all."

Whatever the judgment, it's not clear exactly when Khodorkovsky's sentence will be known. Russian judges continue the Soviet-era practice of reading entire verdicts in court, a process that could take days, although most believe it will be immediately clear once the court begins its peroration whether or not he'll be found guilty.

* CLARIFICATION: The six-year figure reflects a possible 14-year sentence on the fresh charges in light of possible time already served.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.