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Russia: Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the 2012 Presidential Election

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

Formerly Russia's richest man, jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is once again in the political spotlight, as Russian presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov vows to pardon Mr. Khodorkovsky if he's elected next spring. Mr. Khodorkovsky has been incarcerated since 2003, when he was arrested for non-payment of back-taxes as part of the “Yukos Affair“. Many have doubted the validity of the charges against him and view his prosecution as part of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's political agenda.

In a November 16, 2011, post entitled “FC Anzhi and the Yeltsin Era Money,” Global Voices described Russia's economy since the fall of the Soviet Union, the origin of the “oligarchs,” as well as Putin's attempts to control and direct their activities:

The Yeltsin era of the 1990s was characterized by a struggle over who would emerge from the transition with holdings of Russia's major sources of wealth, such as its natural resources. The victors in that struggle are known as the ‘oligarchs’ because they possess a degree of wealth that surpasses most people's ability to conceptualize. [...]

Vladimir Putin's rise has had unexpected effects on the power of the oligarchs in that he has been able to enforce limitations on them and to direct their activities.

The early Putin years marked a divide between the oligarchs who fell in line with Putin's wishes and those who didn't. During this time Mr. Khodorkvsky, CEO of the oil giant Yukos, was praised by international organizations for being the first of Russia's elite to make public his financial records; he met with world leaders, he engaged in well-publicized domestic relief efforts, and he mentioned running for president in 2008. Mr. Khodorkovsky was then arrested in 2003 and his assets were seized.

Pavel Khodorkovsky, Mikhail's son, wrote in a blog associated with CNN on November 15 about his father's 2003 arrest and incarceration.

It’s been eight years since Vladimir Putin’s thugs forcibly removed my father, Mikhail, from a plane and took him to prison.

The last time I saw him was a few weeks before his arrest, when he was visiting me at college in Boston. There were already concerns about his safety in Russia; his business partner, Platon Lebedev, had been locked up earlier that summer. And despite the urging of American friends and colleagues to stay here, my father remained firm and returned home.

In the intervening eight years, after enduring two show trials and countless other indignities – all while the international community’s condemnation of his imprisonment fell on deaf ears within the corrupt Russian regime – my father has not given up hope.

Even as the term of his first sentence ended two weeks ago – and, therefore, by all accounts, he should be set free – he remains optimistic.

He is encouraged that in the last few months, the chorus of those who denounce his imprisonment has grown louder. In May Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. Then the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he was not afforded fair hearings and had been subjected to degrading conditions in court and in prison. This fall the International Bar Association concluded that his second trial was unfair, based on “mistake-ridden and self-contradictory” charges that were at odds with the Russian criminal code.

Protesters at a rally demanding freedom for Mikhail Khodorkovsky outside the Khamovnichesky District Court in Moscow. Photo by RFE/RL RFE/RL, copyright © Demotix (12/27/2011)

Protesters at a rally demanding freedom for Mikhail Khodorkovsky outside the Khamovnichesky District Court in Moscow. Photo by RFE/RL RFE/RL, copyright © Demotix (12/27/2011)

Khodorkovsky's life story has been immortalized by a 2011 documentary film. Samuel Rubenfeld wrote in a blog associated with the Wall Street Journal about the film:

German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi directed the film, which Corruption Currents saw at a special press screening on Nov. 3. He began with painting a picture of the Wild West landscape of post-Soviet Russia. Graft ruled, and it still does: The World Justice Project’s 2011 Rule of Law Index (pdf) warned of a lack of checks and balances in Russian government, leading to “an institutional environment characterized by corruption, impunity and political interference.”

Such was the case of Khodorkovsky, according to the film, which features the first interview with the man since his detention.

There were issues with finding Russian theaters willing to screen the film, and in the interview Tushci was asked to discuss that process. This post was published on November 29, which was days before the controversial parliamentary elections, and yet this film maker, who had a limited understanding of the Russian language or Russian culture, as he indicated earlier in the interview, seemed to be aware of something ominous. He seemed to be aware of a powerful link between Putin and Khodorkovsky:

I’m very surprised that they are so open-speaking about it. They don’t screen it out of self-censorship. I don’t think…that the Kremlin said, “Don’t do it.” I think the cinema owners fear state revenge if they would do it. [What kind of revenge?] Very simple. Tax inspections. Not enough fire doors, so you get a fine of a million or something silly like that. But maybe it’s just inherited in their genes the authoritarian character.

Not in everybody. I’m very happy people are changing, and the air is changing in the last 72 hours. It changed a lot. [What happened in the last 72 hours?] Something’s happening, and it’s not only the film. The film’s only triggering something that’s already in the air. All the…approval for Putin is going down. People are criticizing and laughing at Putin on live TV, and this wouldn’t have happened before. Something is changing and I’m curious what will happen.

Russian billionaire and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov at a news conference in Moscow. Photo by RFE/RL RFE/RL, copyright © Demotix (09/14/2011)

Russian billionaire and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov at a news conference in Moscow. Photo by RFE/RL RFE/RL, copyright © Demotix (09/14/2011)

In a December 16 post, the Khodorkovsky and Lebedev Communications Center announced how the upcoming Russian presidential election could affect Khodorkovsky's fate:

Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who plans to challenge Vladimir Putin in Russia's presidential election said that his first move if elected will be to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky [...].

The post went on to cite a Wall Street Journal article, which quoted Putin's response to whether he would be equally willing to free Mr. Khodorkovsky if he were to win the election:

“Freeing Khodorkovsky is the president's right. For the pardon to happen, Khodorkovsky would have to write an appeal for a pardon, and effectively assume the guilt, which he hasn't done so far. If he writes it, the pardon will be possible by law. If Khodorkovsky writes such an appeal, I will consider it, but I will have to become the president for that first.”

A Russian-language blog devoted to Mr. Khodorkovsky's cause cited a Gazeta.ru article in their December 2 post [ru]:

Самый известный российский заключенный считает основным риском после возвращения Путина на третий срок возникновение новых проблем для бизнеса и экономики и отмечает, что власть в России утрачивает каналы для объективной оценки ситуации.

Russia's most famous prisoner said the main risk after the return of Putin for the third term is the emergence of new problems for business and economics. He notes that the Russian authorities are losing their power to effectively form an objective assessment of the situation.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

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