Show trial: Should ties to Russia be linked to its record on rights?

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

RUSSIA'S GOVERNMENT has calculated that it needs better relations with the West to attract more foreign investment and modern technology, according to a paper by its foreign ministry that leaked to the press last month. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently made conciliatory gestures to Poland, while President Dmitry Medvedev sealed a nuclear arms treaty with President Obama. At the United Nations, Russia has agreed to join Western powers in supporting new sanctions against Iran.

Moscow's new friendliness, however, hasn't led to any change in its repressive domestic policies. The foreign ministry paper says Russia needs to show itself as a democracy with a market economy to gain Western favor. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have yet to take steps in that direction. There have been no arrests in the more than a dozen outstanding cases of murdered journalists and human rights advocates; a former KGB operative accused by Scotland Yard of assassinating a dissident in London still sits in the Russian parliament.

Perhaps most significantly, the Russian leadership is allowing the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil executive who has become the country's best-known political prisoner, to go forward even though it has become a showcase for the regime's cynicism, corruption and disregard for the rule of law. Mr. Khodorkovsky, who angered Mr. Putin by funding opposition political parties, was arrested in 2003 and convicted on charges of tax evasion. His Yukos oil company, then Russia's largest, was broken up and handed over to state-controlled firms.

A second trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky is nearing its completion in Moscow, nearly a year after it began. Its purpose is transparent: to prevent the prisoner's release when his first sentence expires next year. The new charges are, as Mr. Putin's own former prime minister testified last week, absurd: Mr. Khodorkovsky and an associate, Platon Lebedev, are now accused of embezzling Yukos's oil production, a crime that, had it occurred, would have made their previously alleged crime of tax evasion impossible.

Mr. Khodorkovsky, who acquired his oil empire in the rough and tumble of Russia's transition from communism, is no saint, but neither is he his country's Al Capone, as Mr. Putin has claimed. In fact, he is looking more and more like the prisoners of conscience who have haunted previous Kremlin regimes. In the past several years he has written numerous articles critiquing Russia's corruption and lack of democracy, including one on our op-ed page last month.

Mr. Obama raised the case of Mr. Khodorkovsky last year, and the State Department's most recent human rights report said the trial "raised concerns about due process and the rule of law." But the administration has not let this obvious instance of persecution, or Mr. Putin's overall failure to ease domestic repression, get in the way of its "reset" of relations with Moscow. If the United States and leading European governments would make clear that improvements in human rights are necessary for Moscow to win trade and other economic concessions, there is a chance Mr. Putin would respond. If he does not, Western governments at least would have a clearer understanding of where better relations stand on the list of his true priorities.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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