When the new trial of former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky began in March 2009, many Russian and Western commentators noted that the outcome would be a measure of how strong the Kremlin neo-autocracy is—and how much power is still wielded by its architect, President-turned-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Others put it more bluntly and pessimistically: as long as Putin was in power, Khodorkovsky would never leave prison alive.
So far, at least, the pessimists are proving correct. After a nearly two-year trial, Khodorkovsky, first arrested in 2003 and convicted of tax evasion in 2005, has been not only found guilty (with former business partner Platon Lebedev) on theft and money laundering charges widely viewed as absurd, but given the harsh 14-year sentence requested by the prosecution.
Unlike Soviet-era dissidents who were sent to the gulag on such openly political charges as "slandering the Soviet state," Khodorkovsky is formally accused of acts also recognized as criminal in free societies. This has allowed his persecutors to dismiss Western concerns with sneering references to con men like Ponzi scheme king Bernard Madoff.
But the political nature of the case is evident to everyone from Amnesty International to generally Russia-friendly Western politicians such as German chancellor Angela Merkel to most Russians who pay attention to the case. Khodorkovsky's legal troubles began after he started to use his wealth to finance opposition groups and hint at a possible run for political office. Forget Madoff: for a Western equivalent, imagine that George Soros was suddenly hauled into court on fraud charges in 2004, right after he announced his goal of spending millions to ensure the defeat of George W. Bush.
In the second trial, Khodorkovsky faced charges of "stealing" all the oil pumped by his now-defunct company, Yukos, and defrauding Yukos shareholders by selling oil on the domestic market cheaper than the market price abroad.
Viktor Gerashchenko, the former chairman of the Russian State Bank called as a witness by the defense, referred to these charges as "arrant nonsense." Three other former top government officials testified that the acts incriminated to Khodorkovsky were normal business practices which place with the full knowledge of the authorities. In an ironic twist, the shareholders Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused of mistreating reaped handsome profits under their management, only to see their stock turn worthless when Yukos was destroyed by the state; some of them are now suing the Russian government in European courts.
Most trial watchers described the prosecution's case as farcical. Yet few had any doubt that the trial—a non-jury one, like most trials in Russia—would end in a guilty verdict.
There is a common view that Putin has a strong personal stake in the ex-oilman's incarceration, for multiple reasons: a vendetta against a man who defied him; the symbolism of his triumph over the Russian oligarchs and his ability to keep them docile; even the fact that plundered Yukos assets were redistributed to his cronies. This belief is bolstered by Putin's thin-skinned, vitriolic reaction to mentions of the case. In a nationally televised chat on December 16, he crudely summed up the issue as "a thief should be in jail" and hinted, not for the first time, at Khodorkovsky's involvement in murders with which he has never been charged.
Yet Putin's determination to keep Khodorkovsky behind bars is an expression not only of power but of fear—in the words of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, "acute khodorphobia." The perception that Khodorkovsky will stay in prison as long as Putin stays in power means that Putin cannot allow Khodorkovsky's release without being seen as weakened or even doomed—even if not releasing him has substantial costs as well, including the strain to relations with Western business partners and political allies. Blogger Yegor Kholmogorov compares the Kremlin's situation to that of the hunter in a fable who has caught a bear and can't take him in or let him go—the Russian equivalent of holding a tiger by the tail.
What is the role of President Dmitry Medvedev in all this? Ever since Medvedev took office as Putin's handpicked successor, there has been rampant speculation about whether he would emerge from his mentor's shadow and become a president rather than a puppet. He has talked the good talk of liberalizing and modernizing Russian society, and on occasion taken action such as vetoing particularly illiberal laws (though no one is sure if these are genuine differences with Putin or a good cop/bad cop strategy). While Medvedev is clearly the junior partner in the "tandem," some Russian politics-watchers such as Moscow Times columnist Victor Davidoff believe he could pose a genuine challenge to Putin if substantial pro-liberalization forces in government and industry rally behind him.
The Khodorkovsky case could have been Medvedev's declaration of independence—especially considering that, in the past, he has spoken out against overly harsh sentences for white-collar crimes. Some hoped against hope, especially when, days after Putin's venomous remarks about Khodorkovsky, Medvedev stated in a TV interview that public officials should refrain from commenting on the case while the verdict was still pending. For now, these hopes—even for a lighter sentence—have been dashed. But the story is not over. Davidoff and some other commentators believe there is a distinct possibility that Medvedev will pardon Khodorkovsky and Lebedev before next year's Russian presidential election, thus throwing the gauntlet down to Putin.
The alternative is that Khodorkovsky stays in prison until at least 2017 (his 14-year sentence is running concurrently with the one he is serving now) and possibly faces a third trial, while Putin returns as president for at last twelve more years. If that happens, then, as Grani.ru columnist and Hudson Institute fellow Adrian Piontkovsky has written, Putin has handed down a life sentence to Khodorkovsky, himself, and Russia. And Khodorkovsky, who openly laughed at some particularly absurd passages in the judge's lengthy decision and regularly sent out Twitter updates through his attorney, may be the freest of the three.
Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics. This column first appeared at Reason.com.