By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 7:49 PM
A Moscow judge's decision Thursday to impose the harshest possible penalty on Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky signaled that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin intends to keep a firm grip on power and is unwilling to bend to American and European concerns about the quality of Russian justice.
U.S. officials have been urging Russia to develop an independent judiciary and other democratic institutions, and they have viewed Khodorkovsky's case as the most important test of Russia's willingness. Analysts saw Thursday's sentence of 14 years in prison as a resounding statement by Putin that he will not permit the liberalization that his counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev, has been endorsing.
Khodorkovsky, who was already serving an eight-year prison sentence on related tax charges, will remain behind bars until 2017, with credit for time served.
President Obama has been attempting to "reset" relations, dealing with Russia in areas of common interest rather than trying to change the way it operates. The Khodorkovsky case hinders that effort, throwing into doubt congressional repeal of Cold War-era sanctions on trade with Russia, and thus perhaps Russia's entrance into the World Trade Organization.
"Simply put, the Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary that serves as an instrument for furthering economic growth, ensuring equal treatment under the law and advancing justice in a predictable and fair way," said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman.
Earlier this week, Russia called Western criticism of the verdict unacceptable.
Khodorkovsky's evolution from ambitious communist to fabulously wealthy capitalist to political renegade has become emblematic of the destiny of post-Soviet Russia. He and his business partner Platon Lebedev were convicted this week of embezzlement and money-laundering for stealing more than 200 tons of oil from their own company, an exploit that prominent witnesses testified was impossible.
The conviction had been considered inevitable because of Putin's animosity toward Khodorkovsky.
"I am the ruler of Russia. That is Putin's message to the country and the world," said Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, describing the case as a return to the Soviet era when anyone charged with a crime was routinely convicted and prosecutors always got what they asked.
"There was not even a glimmer of compromise in the sentence," he said. "And that Soviet-like example is exactly what is going to scare the opposition."
Medvedev, who has campaigned vigorously if only verbally for a more democratic Russia, has lost all credibility, Aron said. The weak opposition will be even more enfeebled. "It's a watershed," he said.
In a brief statement issued by his attorneys, Khodorkovsky struck a resilient tone.
"You cannot count on the courts to protect you from government officials in Russia," he said. "But we have not lost hope, nor should our friends."
Putin, a former president who became prime minister after reaching term limits, has not publicly declared whether he will run for president again in 2012 - although the question is only whether he will do so then or wait another four years. In any case, Khodorkovsky, who originally angered Putin by financing political opposition, will be out of the way in a Siberian prison camp, unable to raise any challenge.
The sentence was pronounced by Judge Viktor Danilkin, who has been reading the charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev since Monday, apparently timing the verdict for the end of the week when most Russians and most of the rest of the world were distracted by the approaching New Year holiday.
But if Putin was reminding Russians that their country is unlikely to change significantly in the near future, he also has handed Khodorkovsky a moral victory. The former oil tycoon has displayed considerable fortitude in the face of judicial caprice and Soviet-style banishment, and he has become an unlikely martyr to the dashed dreams of a new Russia.
Now 47, Khodorkovsky was a leader of the Young Communist Youth League in Soviet times, turning his energy and straight-A talents toward capitalism as the Soviet empire crumbled. In the 1990s, he swept into the winner-take-all battle for Soviet property and emerged a conqueror, one of the astonishingly wealthy oligarchs who acquired lucrative assets through murky and well-connected means.
Whatever guilt he earned was shared by the other tycoons, who bought up the nation's gas, aluminum, nickel and more, taking control of vast natural resources and industries for modest investments. But unlike the others, Khodorkovsky did not come to heel when Putin told his robber barons that they could keep their booty if they stayed out of his way.
Determined to make his company more profitable, he made it more transparent. And he turned political, financing opposition as Putin tightened his control over Russian life.
The verdict was nearly universally criticized - the writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared it political.
"This is not a sentence," Khodorkovsky's attorney Yuri Shmidt told reporters in Moscow. "This is a totally unlawful thing."
Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the opposition, predicted a flight of capital.
"The sentence displays the extreme pettiness and spite of the regime, which will have far-reaching negative consequences for Russia," he said. "You may forget about innovations and modernization."