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Mikhail Khodorkovsky

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released on 20 December after almost nine years in the Russian prison system. Khodorkovsky had been an oligarch, head of the Yukos Oil Company and at one time the richest man in Russia.

Khodorkovsky had come of age in the Soviet Union, and straddled the party system and free-market reforms introduced under Gorbachev. In the transition out of Soviet communism, he was one of the people who parlayed business ability and political connections to become rich. There was a lot of this going on, and most of the people who succeeded used their connections to arrange favorable business deals in a country that still had not bought into the rule of law.

These businessmen were called oligarchs, although the English usage of the word connotes a degree of political power that was not really available to them and became, in fact, the fundamental problem for Khodorkovsky. Under Yeltsin, the oligarchs did have some political influence; Yeltsin relied upon them to finance his re-election campaigns. However, Vladimir Putin had no desire to be dependent upon them and set out deliberately to circumscribe their political influence. Putin’s basic message was, “You can enrich yourself and live a luxurious life to the limits of your ability, but don’t expect a voice in how the country is run.”

This message did not sit well with Khodorkovsky, and he expressed an active and public opposition that, in turn, did not sit well with Putin. By 2003, Putin was telling foreigners,

I have eaten more dirt than I need to from that man.
— Vladimir Putin to Lord John Browne, quoted by David Remnick in “Gulag Lite”, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/12/20/101220taco_talk_remnick

Not long after this remark, the Russian government retroactively recalculated the tax bill for Yukos, and — surprise! — the revised obligation bankrupted the company. Where did the money that was supposed to pay the taxes go? Khodorkovsky was charged and convicted of fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to 9 years of prison.

However, Putin has pardoned him and let him out early. Why would Putin do this? Some commentators believe it was for public relations purposes:

Putin clearly wants to clean up his human rights record before the Olympic Winter Games, which open in the southern Russian resort of Sochi in a mere seven weeks, and Khodorkovsky’s decade-long imprisonment on what have been widely viewed as politically motivated charges was the most glaring blemish.
— Carol Williams, “Mikhail Khodorkovsky pardon: A PR stunt that could backfire on Putin”, Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-khodorkovsky-pardon-putin-20131219,0,3625258.story#ixzz2oGrdGtQ3

However, this explanation requires looking at Russia through an American lens, interpreting Russian politics in American terms.

What was really going on? Ordinary Russians despise the oligarchs, but Khodorkovsky was becoming a more sympathetic figure due to the hardship to which the government has subjected him:

Many Russians who used to be against him as a tycoon now see him as an intellectual force in the opposition, our correspondent adds.
— “Russia frees Khodorkovsky after Putin signs pardon”, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25460427

Putin is an intelligent man, and saw that he was making a martyr out of Khodorkovsky. At the same time, he feels strong enough to release Khodorkovsky, who has lost much of the clout he once wielded. Most Russians will consider him too hot to know, and he no longer controls the financial resources he did eleven years ago.

Khodorkovsky has evidently got the message; in a CNN interview, he said:

“I do not intend to be involved in political activity. … I intend to be involved in social activities,” he said, adding he also did not intend to go back into business. “I am not interested in a fight for power.”
— “Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks out”, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/22/world/amanpour-mikhail-khodorkovsky-interview/index.html

If Khodorkovsky attempts to rally worldwide opposition to Putin from exile, Putin has agents around the world who can shut Khodorkovsky up for good, and the West will do nothing about it. Putin knows he can manage the risk he is taking.

If you want, you can think of this as a prisoner exchange: Mikhail Khodorkovsky for Edward Snowden.

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Written by srojak

December 22, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Posted in People, Politics

Tagged with ,