The sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos Oil Company, to a labor-camp term of 13.5 years shows once again that when their personal interests are at stake, Russian leaders are openly contemptuous of the opinion of the civilized world.
The charges against Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev were so absurd that the Russian regime should have been embarrassed to bring them. The two were charged with stealing 200 million tons of oil from Yukos subsidiaries, more than the total annual output of many oil-producing countries. Viktor Khristenko, the Russian trade minister, said at the trial that the theft of oil is a serious problem. It is accomplished by boring into pipelines and siphoning off oil. “But I know nothing about theft on the scale of millions of tons,” he said.
The need to keep Khodorkovsky behind barbed wire, however, was not negotiable. Like the other oligarchs who amassed wealth in the 1990s, Khodorkovsky made his fortune on the strength of corrupt connections. But unlike all of the others, he sought to transform Yukos into a modern enterprise with Western standards of transparency and corporate governance. In doing so, he put to the test the notion that capitalism is automatically self correcting. Unfortunately, capitalism is self correcting only within a solid moral and legal context. In Russia, such a context does not exist. Khodorkovsky therefore became a direct threat to the criminal status quo instead of a force for reform.
Under these circumstances, Khodorkovsky’s fate was sealed. He had to be neutralized lest the whole kleptocratic structure be threatened. Although his trial went on for many months, the accusations against Khodorkovsky were irrelevant. If necessary, the Putin regime would have come up with charges that were even more fantastic. When it comes to eliminating those who threaten their hold on power, the Russian leaders have a lot of imagination. Western protests should continue, but they are unlikely to do any good. The security of the world will be strengthened, however, if the Western power take note of the absurdity of the Khodorkovsky case and draw the necessary conclusions.
– David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His latest book, Haunted Ground: Russia and the Communist Past, will be out next year from the Yale University Press.