When Mikhail Khodorkovsky was found guilty of fraud and tax evasion in 2005, many observers were prepared to believe he was guilty as charged. The injustice was that the punishment was selective. Other Russian tycoons, the infamous “oligarchs”, engaged in similar abuses in the 1990s. Only Mr Khodorkovsky, however, who had committed the cardinal sin of openly defying the then president Vladimir Putin, went to jail.
Mr Khodorkovsky is no saint. While he may be fairly described – especially after this second conviction – as a political prisoner, to portray him as a modern-day dissident, as do supporters and some human rights groups, is a stretch. He was a ruthlessly ambitious businessman, responsible for some of the worst corporate governance abuses of Russia’s post-Soviet “wild east” era. Even the philanthropy he later engaged in was initially part of an image makeover designed to boost the Yukos share price.
Mr Khodorkovsky’s second conviction reveals little new about Russia’s legal system. It was already well known that the country lacked an independent judiciary, and that a defendant stood little chance of receiving a fair trial in such a politically-charged case. However, in conjunction with a spate of brutal attacks on journalists – which the authorities have shown no inclination to prevent – this judicial travesty is a reminder of the risks run by those who challenge the regime and its acolytes. This gives a hollow ring to President Dmitry Medvedev’s election pledge to battle against Russia’s “legal nihilism”, and his more recent talk of modernisation and democratisation in the country.
This gnawing sense of insecurity is the hallmark of undemocratic regimes the world over. Until Russia replaces its mix of kleptocracy and authoritarianism with a functioning democracy, this fear will remain justified. Those overdue political and legal reforms are unlikely to happen, however, as long as the regime feels it necessary to keep Mr Khodorkovsky behind bars.