There doesn't seem to be any common ground between critics and supporters of the guilty verdict in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. (I feel obliged to at least mention Lebedev, if only once, in this piece. Hey, the man was accused of the same crimes as Khodorkovsky and got exactly the same punishment. Yet, in contrast to his superstar co-defendant, no one in the West calls this guy with a typical Russian surname a "political prisoner", nor suggests that his arrest in 2003 was a "watershed moment" in contemporary Russian history.)
Speaking of the verdict's critics, the West's obsession with Khodorkovsky has long struck me as a cultural phenomenon of sorts. I could in principle contemplate Khodorkovsky as being a "prisoner of conscience" — depending, of course, on how you define "conscience" (or lack thereof). Yet comparing Khodorkovsky to Andrei Sakharov, as Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post recently did, should insult anyone who knows what the great Sakharov stood for. And awarding Khodorkovsky with the Rainer-Hildebrand medal "for non-violent commitment to human rights" simply borders on insanity. (I'm just curious: is there a medal/award for a "violent commitment to human rights"?) Moreover, if the recent performance of the clowns from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is a prediction of their future actions, then Khodorkovsky will undoubtedly top the list of contenders for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Khodorkovsky's fans maintain that he was convicted on "trumped-up charges" and that the real reason for his persecution was his support for "opposition parties" in Russia. I'm not a lawyer, but after having read a 2006 legal opinion written by Peter Clateman, I remain convinced that the charges against K&L were real and proved by documents. So before I listen to the "trumped-up charges" argument, I'd like anyone with more legal experience to please explain to me why Mr. Clateman's analysis is wrong.
(The often made claim that the Khodorkovsky case was one of "selective prosecution" doesn't make me cry, either. Sure, every prosecution is selective, and this selectivity reflects the ability of any state to prosecute only as many cases as it has the resources for. It's outside the frame of this post to discuss cases of "selective prosecution" elsewhere, but even in the U.S., it's not unheard of that among many potential criminal investigations, the prosecution unmistakeably selects the one involving a big name. The 2004 Martha Stewart's ridiculous stock trading case immediately springs to mind.)
As for Khodorkovsky's "real crimes", I'd recommend for all those interested to re-read a five-part investigative report published by Izvestia in 2006, titled "What is Mikhail Khodorkovsky sitting for?" ("За что сидит Михаил Ходорковский", Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The Izvestia report makes it abundantly clear that those believing that Khodorkovsky was supporting "opposition parties" are either ignorant or have a passion for "trumped-up" evidence. True, during the 1999 Duma election campaign, Khodorkovsky supported the liberal Yabloko, a perennial "opposition party" due to its constant poor election performance. But he also financed the Communists (calling them "opposition" is somewhat awkward given that at the time, the KPRF had the largest faction in Duma) and pro-Putin Edinstvo (Unity).
Such a diversified investment had nothing to do with Khodorkovsky's ideological flexibility: he didn't fund "opposition parties"; what he was funding was the so-called Oil Lobby, a group of Duma deputies belonging to different parties that were successfully promoting legislation favorable to Khodorkovsky's YUKOS. According to different calculations, the Oil Lobby consisted of between 100 and 200+ Duma deputies (of 450 total) and was headed by a Vladimir Dubov, who happened to represent the ruling, pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin, United Russia party. Funding "opposition parties" indeed! (After Khodorkovsky's arrest in 2003, Dubov suddenly aborted his brilliant legislative career and emigrated to Israel.)
Turning now to the supporters of the guilty verdict, I must say that I don't share their glee, either. Sure, I agree with Gleb Zheglov and his admirers that "a thief should sit in jail." The question is: for how long?
It goes without saying that a guilty verdict in a criminal case will serve its purpose of a public message only if this verdict can be understood by ordinary citizens. No, I'm not talking about legalities such as "fraud", "tax evasion", and "embezzlement." But people should be convinced that a thief goes to jail because he is a thief. That's why the guilty verdict in the first K&L trial was generally accepted as fair. The very reason Khodorkovsky's supporters kept talking about "selected persecution" and his support of "opposition parties" was because they couldn't challenge the legal basis of his conviction. Because deep down, they knew that Khodorkovsky was a thief.
The second trial is different exactly because it's difficult to understand which crime has been punished. Khodorkovsky has been in jail since 2003 and obviously couldn't committ any additional crimes. Even if a difference between "tax evasion" and "embezzlement" does exist, why weren't these embezzlement charges brought forward during the first trial? Because the prosecution was in a hurry? Or because people pushing for the trial believed that Khodorkovsky's eight years in jail will last forever? But bringing these charges now doesn't make any sense to a common person like me. It's like saying: "Sorry, guys, we did a sloppy job in 2005 and we want to correct this mistake. So, please, sit in jail for a few more years."
Therefore, the major problem with the second K&L trial, as I see it, is that it undermines the legitimacy of the first.
Up until now, President Medvedev didn't "own" the K&L trial: he didn't initiate it, he didn't support it, and he didn't benefit from the YUKOS destruction. For as long as Khodorkovsky was serving his first prison term, Medvedev could safely deflect all the inquiries to his predecessor. Now, things have changed. The long shadow the guilty verdict in the second trial has cast upon Russia in the eyes of the world public opinion is Medvedev's problem now. And he has to do something about it.
Khodorkovsky is a thief and will remain one for the rest of his life, regardless of whether he's in jail or not. But Russia doesn't have to look like a jail to the rest of the world.