Obama's silence on a jailed Russian dissident
Russia's tradition of autocracy has always been matched by that of the suffering, ascetic dissident who speaks truth to power. In the modern era there was Solzhenitsyn. There were Sharansky and Sakharov. And now, somewhat improbably, comes Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Unlike his recent predecessors, Khodorkovsky is not a great writer or a human rights activist. He is an entrepreneur who played by the rough rules of Russia's immediate post-Soviet era. "I am not at all an ideal man," he says. And yet, thanks to Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, he has become his country's latest moral champion.
He did so last Tuesday from the glass cage inside a Moscow courtroom where he and a co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, have been on trial since April. Their prosecution is a blatant setup and a grand piece of political theater, designed to demonstrate the regime's power to crush its opponents. Its conclusion is already settled: Sometime by Dec. 15, the judge will sentence Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to as many as 14 years in prison, on top of the eight they have already served.
But first, Khodorkovsky delivered what is likely to stand as a historic indictment of the Putin-Medvedev regime. Russia, he said, has become a place where "the obvious conclusion of the thinking person is terrifying in its simplicity: The security bureaucracy can do whatever it wants. There are no private property rights. There are no rights at all for a person confronting the system."
The case against him offers ample proof of that judgment. Khodorkovsky headed an oil company, Yukos, that became Russia's biggest and most dynamic private company even as its founder sought Western investors and dabbled in Russian politics. For this defiance of Putin's "power vertical," he was arrested in 2003 and tried on the dubious charge that Yukos had underpaid its taxes. The company was confiscated and handed over to a state oil company headed by one of Putin's cronies.
Khodorkovsky's sentence is due to expire in a year, just before Russia's 2012 presidential election. So new charges were brought against him, contradicting the first. Now it is said that he stole from his company the same oil that it was previously accused of not paying taxes on. Putin's own former prime minister testified that the allegations were "absurd." No matter. Prosecutors blackmailed the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers into withdrawing an exculpatory audit. They tortured and intimidated would-be witnesses, offering an imprisoned former Yukos executive treatment for AIDS in exchange for false testimony.
"That is because they want to show that they are above the law, that they always achieve what they intend," Khodorkovsky said. "For now they've achieved the opposite: They've turned us, ordinary people, into the symbol of struggle against arbitrary rule."
Many Russians supposed Khodorkovsky would strike a deal to save himself. But he didn't. "The men who started this shameful case," he said, "scornfully called us 'men of commerce,' considered us scum who would do whatever it took to preserve our prosperity and avoid prison."
"Years have passed. Who's the scum? Who lied, tortured, took hostages for the sake of money and cowardice before their bosses?"
The dissident's larger argument is that such a regime can lead Russia only to another ruin. "Who will modernize the economy?" he asked. "The prosecutors? The police? The Chekists [secret police]? That sort of modernization has been tried - it didn't work."
Because he is an entrepreneur and not a poet, Khodorkovsky was regarded skeptically for many years by the sort of people who usually defend Russian dissidents. That's no longer true: Elie Wiesel is campaigning for him; Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and French philosopher Andre Glucksmann have taken up his case. The U.S. Senate, prompted by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin and Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, passed a resolution saying Khodorkovsy and Lebedev "are prisoners who have been denied basic due process rights under international law for political reasons."
What of Barack Obama? Previous U.S. presidents, after all, have turned Russian dissidents into personal causes. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan championed Sakharov; Reagan even declared an Andrei Sakharov day.
Obama, who has spent the past two years assiduously courting Putin and Medvedev, has spoken publicly about Khodorkovsky just once, in response to an interviewer's question last year. He said that he found the new charges "odd" but that "I do not know the intimate details" and "I think it is improper for outsiders to interfere in the legal processes of Russia."
In his glass cage, Khodorkovsky concluded by saying that "everyone understands" that his case "will become part of Russian history. All the names will remain in history - of the prosecutors and judges - as they remained in history after the notorious Soviet trials." That's also true of Obama: His record on Khodorkovsky will become part of his history. So far, it's a weak chapter.