MIKHAIL Khodorkovsky is an unlikely hero for democratic freedom fighters: an oil magnate and oligarch who by his own account used rapacious and probably illegal tactics to build his empire and embraced financial probity and political liberalism only after he had become Russia's richest man. Mr. Khodorkovsky's prosecution by Vladimir Putin's government and the dismantlement of his Yukos oil company has nevertheless become the centerpiece of Mr. Putin's rollback of Russia's freedom. His sentencing on Tuesday to nine years in prison on fraud and conspiracy charges culminated a prosecution that was political from start to finish; it confirmed Mr. Putin's Russia as a place where power is exercised arbitrarily, courts are a mere instrument, and private capital, media and civil society are tolerated only if they dodge the displeasure, or the avarice, of the ruling elite. Russians both in and out of power have taken their cues from Mr. Khodorkovsky's prosecution; Western governments should do so, as well.
For the most part that hasn't happened. President Bush and his administration have, at least, spoken out forthrightly about the Khodorkovsky case: Mr. Bush rightly said at his news conference Tuesday that "it looked like he had been judged guilty prior to having a fair trial," and the State Department said that "actions such as these . . . do raise questions about Russia's commitment to the responsibilities that all free market and democratic countries embrace." But the adminis- tration has been just as clear in saying that Mr. Putin's emerging authoritarianism will not affect ongoing U.S. security cooperation and aid programs with Russia. Suggestions from Congress that Russia be excluded from the G-8 group of rich democracies -- since it is neither rich nor democratic -- have been dismissed, which means Mr. Putin will soon enjoy the grossly inappropriate honor of chairing the organization and hosting its summit.
The administration's policy looks muscular compared with those of Germany and France, whose leaders have pandered to Mr. Putin and recruited him as an ally in their efforts to counterbalance the United States. To its shame, the European Union declined to comment Tuesday on the Khodorkovsky trial or sentence. Though it has become clear over the past year that Mr. Putin's political program also includes gross interference in the affairs of Russia's European neighbors, Europe's democratic governments have been unable to formulate a coherent or even a common response.
Russians who still hope to see their country join the community of democratic nations are reduced to predicting that Mr. Putin's policies are self-destructive. They may be right: Already, decision making by Mr. Putin's small and insular circle has been hamstrung by a lack of reliable information and constructive criticism, and bureaucrats emboldened by his lawless dismantlement of Mr. Khodorkovsky's giant company are engaged in a free-for-all of graft and extortion. Mr. Putin launched his attack on Mr. Khodorkovsky two years ago because he felt threatened by his growing economic clout and political ambition. He has destroyed the power and checked the ambition; Mr. Khodorkovsky may be in jail for the next two Russian presidential elections. Yet Mr. Putin has grown weaker. He has eliminated his rivals -- but also the chance that he will lead a country capable of thriving in the global economy, or a government worthy of the world's respect.