Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Russia could care less...

...that the West is bothered by the guilty verdict handed down yesterday against billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and a one of his business partners.

As Reuters reports:
The United States and European nations said the verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and warned they were closely watching the case.
Referring to comments from Washington and European Union capitals about the trial, the ministry said: “We would like to once again underscore that this issue relates to the competence of the court system of the Russian Federation.”
“Attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable,” it said in a statement. “We are counting on everyone to mind his own business -- both at home and in the international arena.”
But it is hard to mind one's own business when the case as a whole smacked of a Stalin-era show trial. The Financial Times notes
It is hard to see the new charges of which Russia’s former richest man has been convicted – essentially that he stole the entire output of his Yukos oil company over several years – as anything but fanciful. Even former ministers under Mr Putin have suggested they strain credibility. At best, the case seems openly political. At worst, it looks like the latest instalment of a long-running vendetta waged by Mr Putin, now prime minister.
The Los Angeles Times offers a good assessment of who Khodorkovksy is and how he ran afoul of Putin: 
Khodorkovsky became fabulously wealthy in the lax atmosphere that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Assets that once belonged to the state fell into the hands of a small class of businessmen who became known as Russia's "oligarchs."
He turned to politics and social action, encouraging parties that sought a Western-style democracy as well as the successors to the Soviet Communists in a bid to foster a more open political system. He financed orphanages and funded university programs.
Many of the oligarchs have faced prosecution or been forced to leave the country as Putin has reasserted central control. The defense insisted during the trial that Khodorkovsky's business activity was legal at the time.
When telling the world to mind its own business, it is important to remember that such language is coming from Putin's office. It is not coming from President Dmitri Medvedev's office. In fact, as TIME magazine notes, Medvedev is not at all happy with the political undertones of Khodorkovsky's conviction:
Putin, who has remained as powerful as ever since becoming Prime Minister in 2008, repeated throughout the trial that Khodorkovsky deserves to stay behind bars. Most recently on Dec. 16, less than two weeks before the verdict, he said on national television that "a thief should sit in prison."
This blatant bit of pressure on the court seemed to irritate President Dmitri Medvedev, a former lawyer, who said on Dec. 24 that no official "has the right to state his position about this case or any other case until the sentence is read." This was the clearest rebuke against Putin that Medvedev had ever made....
And the United States might be attempting to further strain the relationship between the president and the prime minister, as the National Journal reports:
The White House's harsh public criticism of the Khodorkovsky trial is virtually certain to anger Putin and could threaten the broader U.S. push to improve its relationship with Russia, one of the administration's top foreign-policy goals.
But the wording of the White House statement--which praised Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by name for his "important campaign to strengthen the rule of law"--seemed carefully chosen.  Obama has worked to build a close personal relationship with Medvedev, whom some American officials see as a potential counterweight to Putin, and the White House's comments about the verdict were likely designed to drive more of a wedge between the two Russian leaders. 
Remember, in 2012 President Obama is up for re-election, and that is also the year that either Mr. Medvedev or Mr. Putin will run for the presidency of Russia. Next year's political dance among those three men ought to be well-worth watching.

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