Russia

Everyone said it was a foregone conclusion, said Anastasia Berseneva in Moscow’s Novye Izvestiya. But when former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky was actually sentenced to nine years in a labor camp for “economic crimes,” it still came as a shock. The trial had dragged on for 11 months until even the defendants, Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev, were bored. As they sat in their cage in the courtroom, they were often doodling or doing crossword puzzles. Sometimes they actually laughed out loud at the preposterousness of the accusations against them. Even when the judge began pronouncing the verdict, there was very little drama—because she droned on for 12 days, the longest reading of a prison sentence in Russian history. At the end, though, came enough excitement for any onlooker: The sentence was so “harsh” that the courtroom erupted with cries of “For shame! For shame!”

Nobody expected an acquittal, said Moscow’s Vedomosti in an editorial, but nine years is “stunning.” Such severity is sure to backfire. The Kremlin intended to make an example out of Khodorkovsky, to show the rest of the business community what would happen to anyone who dared use his wealth to form a political party. Instead, business leaders “are drawing the opposite conclusion.” Several of them told this newspaper they would start backing opposition politicians, because they see the Kremlin as arbitrary and authoritarian. Others were simply pessimistic. “Russia’s chances of becoming a state based on the rule of law have evaporated,” said Oleg Sysuev of Alfa Bank. “We don’t have an independent judiciary, and that is our nation’s misfortune,” said Alexander Lebedev, head of the National Reserve Corporation.

Let this be a wake-up call, said opposition politician Irina Khakamada in Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Russia needs an independent court system to provide checks and balances. “What we have now “is an all-powerful general prosecutor who serves only the interests of our new Kremlin oligarchs.” The question, though, is whether it’s already too late to regain our country. “The Khodorkovsky verdict erased all doubt: Under our very eyes, a fascist ideology has taken over. The state controls everything.”

Don’t despair, said Khodorkovsky in a statement printed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “The truth will win out—sooner or later.” I am innocent of any crime. Though I now go to prison, those in the Kremlin “who wish me harm” have not won. From behind bars, I’ll still be able to set up charity organizations. I no longer have much money, but many other generous Russians have pledged to donate to my foundations. They, and the tens of thousands of ordinary Russians who have sent me letters of support, have “convinced me that the people of Russia are not rabble, as some ideologues close to the Kremlin claim. They are a noble and just people.”

Khodorkovsky is too good for Russia, said Russian novelist Viktor Erofeyev in the International Herald Tribune. Here was a man who made his oil company into Russia’s most successful and least corrupt business, who kept real account books, yet who didn’t just buy fancy villas like other oligarchs. He actually set up a philanthropic foundation. “The sad thing is that a clever, practical, industrious person in Russia is doomed.” Russians are suspicious of people like that. Khodorkovsky was given every chance to leave the country with his wealth intact, like Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich did. But he said the country needed him and his company, and he refused to slink away. Such behavior is not normal. “We’ve been so bowed down in these decades and centuries, that those who walk upright, and not on all fours, look like freaks, if not criminals.” It’s a wonder he wasn’t shot.