How Khodorkovsky’s Arrest Ruined Russia
Published: October 30, 2013 (Issue # 1784)
Ten years ago, on Oct. 25, 2003, Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested. On the day of his arrest, no one realized the significance of the case against Khodorkovsky and Yukos. But today it is clear. It was a case against the entire country, and the sentence given to Khodorkovsky and his associate Platon Lebedev was a verdict for Russia. The current political and economic system is to a great extent the result of the trial of Khodorkovsky.
To be fair, by the time Khodorkovsky was arrested, the first stone in the authoritarian system had already been laid. Soon after Putin came to power, the free press was under attack and the influential television channel NTV had lost its independence. Without an independent press, the state-controlled mass media was able to shape public opinion against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. The coverage of their case was highly tendentious, and no alternative opinions by legal experts or lawyers were aired. Television showed stories about murders allegedly ordered by Khodorkovsky and his plans to overthrow the government.
The second victim of the case against Yukos was the independent judicial system. The head of state gave many public signals that were easily read by judges and then carried out. This was particularly obvious during the second trial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in the Basmanny court in 2008, after which the phrase “Basmanny justice” came to describe an entire Russian court system that was dependent on the authorities.
The Yukos case also had serious economic consequences. The state company Rosneft quickly took control of the larger part of the company’s assets. This was the start of Putin’s “New Economic Policy” in which the main role was played not by independent players but inefficient state-controlled behemoths.
Khodorkovsky’s arrest altered the relationship between business and politics in Russia. Yukos openly funded oppositional parties like Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces. Since then, business executives who dare to finance the political campaigns of people and parties out of favor with the Kremlin soon feel the full weight of state pressure. This usually begins with financial audits and often ends with criminal charges and the destruction of their businesses.
As political scientist Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote on his Ekho Moskvy blog, “The essence of the current regime came out in the case against Khodorkovsky: suppression of other points of view and independent thought and the subordination of big business to the Kremlin’s rules of the game. After Khodorkovsky’s arrest, big business avoided like the plague any hint of support for opposition or civic groups that the Kremlin did not like.”
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