Khodorkovsky, The Prisoner who Unsettles Putin

French publication Marianne’s special correspondent in Moscow, Anne Dastakian, comments in detail on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s second trial.

Marianne Lead Photo

For Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the prosecution suffers from “legal schizophrenia”. Many celebrities, including US President, Barack Obama, support the former head of Yukos. Deported to Siberia and deprived of his oil company, Khodorkovsky, once the richest man of Russia, has already served seven years in the gulag. He is involved in a chess game with Putin. For 17 months, a new trial, threatening him with 22 more years of detention, has been going on. He will not comply.

This ritual does not change. Since March 31st, 2009, every morning at 10:15 am, that is 15 minutes before the debates start, the police evacuate room No. 7, on the 4th floor of the court of Khamovniky District, in Moscow.

The thirty attendees, including many retirees and a few journalists go out without protesting while Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev come down from the 42nd floor, handcuffed and escorted by men dressed in black military fatigues, the famous spetsnaz, armed with Kalashnikovs.

The audience, clearly in favor of both defendants, welcomes them with applause and encouragements, to which they respond by nodding their heads and smiling, touched by the audience’s reaction. The procession continues its way into the small courtroom, where the two men are led into a glass cage. The audience is allowed to go back to the room. The hearing can begin.

Welcome to the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos Oil Company, a multinational group which controlled 20% of the world production of oil, before falling into the hands of the Kremlin. Because he financed the opposition and defied Vladimir Putin, who sought to rule over the all-powerful oligarchs in the early 2000’s, the richest man and most powerful of Russia, at the time he was arrested, has been condemned to eight years in prison for fraud and tax evasion, with his partner Platon Lebedev. Refusing to leave the country when he could have – “I’d rather be a political prisoner than a political refugee” said Khodorkovsky at the time – they have served seven years in the gulag and are likely to serve 22 more years.

The endless indictment of 3.487 pages asserts that the two men, within a group of organized crime, have stolen 350 million tons of Yukos oil between 1998 and 2003.
A quantity that exceeds the production of the group during the period concerned…
All this leads Khodorkovsky to declare that the prosecution suffers from “legal schizophrenia”: ‘how can I be accused, he objects, of stealing the same oil that I supposedly hid from the tax authorities a few years ago?’

“Any normal person understands that these charges are absurd”, declares Yuri Schmidt, a veteran of fights for the human rights who now defends the former billionaire. “This trial is politically motivated and aimed at keeping Khodorkovsky in prison beyond 2011, at the end of his sentence. Remember that the presidential election takes place in 2012”. Many citizens agree: according to a survey by the sociological center Levada last June, a third of the Russians are convinced that this is a political trial against 20% who believe in its economic nature. Only 10% believe in its legal outcome without an intervention “from above”…

Mikhail Khodorkovsky & Platon Lebedev

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his fellow defendant Platon Lebedev defend themselves, question the witnesses, tackle the prosecutor and sometimes lecture the judge. The audience of the trial is obviously on their side.

The Actor in Spite of Himself

This trial is like “the” show to go to in Moscow. Great theater, mind you: two wealthy stars in the box, plenty of supporting roles. Nearly 120 witnesses following each other at the bar (57 for the prosecution, as many for the defense), a villain (the prosecutor) hated by the audience, a thriller that holds the press spellbound, and the shadow of Putin…

Played to a full house for more than a year, in the heart of the capital, it is open to everyone, even foreigners – you just need to show an ID to attend. “It was more difficult to get to the first trial”, says Marina, Khodorkovsky’s mother, sitting in the front row. This energetic 76 year-old woman, who manages, in the suburbs, an orphanage founded by his son, admits she regrets the time when “Micha” was serving his sentence in the Krasnokamensk gulag, in the depths of Siberia! “It was far, but visits were more humane. We could touch, kiss and hug each other. Here we have the right to see each other once a month for one hour, through a window and talking in a phone. And last month, they cancelled the visit on medical grounds.”

Khodorkovsky's Parents

Mikhail Kodorkovsky’s parents, Boris and Marina, regularly attend debates.

Sitting side by side in their “fish tank”, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, both dressed in polo-shirts and jeans, remain highly concentrated. A few openings allow them to communicate with their lawyers. Regularly, one or the other taps on a microphone before speaking to intervene in discussions. What can you really feel when you spend up to ten hours a day, five days a week, isolated but exposed to the public in this narrow compartment? “This bulletproof glass cage, slightly tinted, muffles the sounds”, recently noted Khodorkovsky. “I see the room more clearly, and feel a little detached”. He is an actor in spite of himself in a show that is played only for him.

Just in front of the “fish tank”, five or six lawyers turn their backs to the prisoners, sitting before a long table covered with records, law books, computers and bunches of flowers brought by the audience.

Sitting at another table, five attorneys in uniform – wearing Terylene gray shirts and epaulettes – face them. At the end of the row, an elderly man: Viktor Dimtchenko, a minor shareholder of Yukos, as the plaintiff.

Perched on a platform between the two parties, facing the audience, sits the judge Viktor Danilkin, wearing a black dress, under the double-headed eagle and the Russian flag.

Bearer of the indictment, the prosecutor, Valeri Lakhtin, is the pet hate of the audience. Everyone is convinced that if he spends his time with his nose glued to his computer, it is because he receives his instructions “from above” through the Internet. Hard-working, by-the-book, and obviously not familiar with the business world, he hesitates, he is confused, gets angry, drowning in oil and high finance. Confrontations with Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are frequent. Because, it is the defendants who, in fact, provide their own defense. Knowing more about the intricacies of their cases than their lawyers or the prosecutors, they question the witnesses, refute, shout, tackle or jeer at the prosecutor, and even lecture the judge sometimes.

Shaved head, with a face like Buddha’s behind his eyeglasses, Khodorkovsky never raises his voice, always remains polite and friendly, addressing with a feigned obsequiousness the “respected attorney Lakhtin” when the fiery Lebedev gets angry at “the so-called” attorney.

The audience, on the side of the defendants, reacts loudly, mocks the slightest mistake from the attorney, sighs, shouts … “Here, it is the class struggle”, says irritated Alexei, a 27 year-old businessman who attends the hearings once a week.
“In Russia, Bill Gates would be locked up after fifteen days!” says an elegant young woman, a former manager of Yukos, furiously and endlessly commenting on the debates, to such an extent that a guard is threatening to have her leave the room. Ditto for Nina Semyonovna Ulitchova, an old lady, her chest covered with medals. If this was the case, it would not be tragic. A corner has been fit out on the 2nd floor, in the guards’ room, with two television screens to broadcast the debates.

Apparently, the Attorney Lakhtin mocks critics. His persistence exasperates the judge, who withdraws his questions. Aggressive towards the defendants, he seeks to undermine the credibility of the witnesses of the defense. When he does not question their integrity, their diplomas or their identity papers. When he came to testify last June, Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet, French, former Vice President of Credit Lyonnais, who subsequently served on the supervisory board of Yukos, Lakhtin found that he did not look like the photo of his passport… Then he attacked – for the second time in one week – the interpreter, Yuri Somov, yet a leader in his field. “The Attorney must not like his pony-tail”, jokingly says an observer.

Editor in chief of the serious daily Vedomosti, partner of The Financial Times, Tatiana Lysova lived this unpleasant experience last May. She had come to testify about the transparency policy led by Yukos – which gave, she said, much more information than the other companies – she constantly faced “insulting” questions by Lakhtin: Did Yukos pay her for her articles? No. On an offshore account? He insisted. “He was quoting – wrongly – some of my articles, trying to confuse me, repeating his questions constantly”, recalls Lysova. “But he failed to destabilize me”, concluded the young woman, who mainly deplored that “one could question the fact that I was going to testify in the interest of justice. One could believe that we are their enemies.”
Tatiana did not, however, lose hope for a favorable outcome. “The first trial proved profitable for the State budget. It put an end to the schemes of tax optimization and frightened large companies which began to pay their taxes. But why a second one? It will have no value as an example, all the more since Yukos no longer exists.”

The Russian Dreyfus Affair

It is difficult to predict the outcome of this trial which is like no other. Barack Obama himself expressed his concerns in an interview in Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper for which Anna Politkovskaya used to work until her assassination
“Without knowing the details, it seems strange that these new charges, which seem to be a repetition of the old ones, reappear now several years after these two people have been imprisoned, and become eligible for parole.

The actor Mikhail Efremov went to a hearing “to see by himself if what [he] had read was true.” Apparently when he came out, he was convinced. “It is a historical trial, which certainly will appear in textbooks, within thirty to fifty years. It shows how the State puts all its capacity to break out an individual. A movie will certainly be made out of it.”
Ludmila Ulitskaya, one of the most popular writers in the country, began a correspondence with Khodorkovsky, then in exile in Siberia, which was published in
Znamya magazine. Ditto for the author historical novels of Boris Akunin, who sees in this trial a Russian “Dreyfus Affair”.

All businessmen interviewed by business magazine Forbes – including some members of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party – wish the release of the former CEO of Yukos. Head of the research department at the Graduate School of Economics, Yevgeny Yasin says out loud what others keep to themselves: “If Khodorkovsky is released, the image of Russian justice will been saved. For, what we are witnessing now in this courtroom is a disgrace for Russia. This shows that there is no justice here.”

Reflecting the country’s fate

Even so, should we assimilate Khodorkovsky to the dissidents of yesteryear? “My own fate has become a reflection of the destiny of my country”, he confided recently. Maybe it will help understand today’s Russia.” Whatever one may think, the former member of Komsomol (Communist Youths) who then became a multibillionaire banker by exploiting the weaknesses of Russian law, has more resources than Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov. The former CEO of Yukos, who has probably kept some accounts abroad, has a highly efficient PR machine. From Kriamovniky court, or from Moscow prison, Matrosskaya Tichina, where he shares a cell with three to eight prisoners, the most famous Russian prisoner exudes interviews and reviews in the outside world. After his mea culpa on behalf of the oligarchs, and his condemnation of the excessive privatization of 90’s, he regularly gives his opinion on subjects of economy or domestic policy – And he shows himself as a supporter of modernization efforts and President Medvedev’s fight for anticorruption but he is also involved in international issues.

Thus, last May, five days after the announcement of US concessions to Russia, which had permitted the vote, at the UN, of sanctions against Iran, he signed in
The Washington Post a column entitled: “The greatest international threat is corruption, not nuclear weapons.” The following month, on the eve of Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to the economic forum in St Petersburg, he gave an interview to the French daily Les Echos, warning “investors in Russia not rely on the law”. He did not forget to thank, in the same text, the French President and his Minister of Foreign Affairs” who closely follow [his] trial “as reminded the French ambassador for Human Rights, François Zimeray, who attended one of hearings last April.” No one knows if all these efforts earned him the leniency of the Kremlin. The last time Vladimir Putin publicly mentioned his name – last December, after a long sigh – it was to compare him to Al Capone and accuse him of murder… AD

Short biography of Khodorkovsky:

  • June 26, 1963 Born in Moscow.
  • 1986 Degree in chemical engineering.
  • 1987 He founds a center for market studies for the introduction of new
  • technology in the USSR. He imports computers.
  • 1989 He founds Menatep Bank.
  • 1995 Menatep acquires 78% of Yukos for 350 million dollars.
  • 1997 Yukos is worth 9 billion dollars.
  • 2001 He founds the NGO Open Russia.
  • 2003 He prepares the entry of Chevron ExxonMobil in the capital of Yukos.
  • October 25, 2003 He is arrested on the tarmac of Novosibirsk airport.

By Marianne’s special correspondent in Moscow, Anne Dastakian

Read Khodorkovsky message from Prison

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