Foreign Policy Blogs

Khodorkovsky, Revisited


Source: Press Center of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev

This day marks a decade in Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment, a journey all too similar to the hopelessly frigid Siberian settings of Dostoevsky’s stories and Solzhenitsyn’s novels — except in one regard.

In his younger years, Khodorkovsky was a corrupt oil tycoon and pragmatic oligarch successfully basking in the Russian government’s economic malaise.

It was Khodorkovsky who, in the aftermath of the oligarchs’ deals with the Yeltsin administration, aptly noted in a 1997 interview that “politics is the most lucrative field of business in Russia…and it will be that way forever.”

Then came his redemptive transformation into a modern day dissident and human rights spokesperson. And if his trajectory is telling, a necessity for such positive transformation is time (jail time aside).

Post-Soviet Russia is entering its twenty-second year. In its quest to solidify the backbone of the nation, the Kremlin would do well to operate under the belief that legal nihilism, to use Dmitri Medvedev’s phrase, and corruption need not be part of a new Russia.

Khodorkovsky’s case is not entirely unique. There have been many legal cases that were muddled by power politics throughout Russia’s path from imperialism, to communism and then to Putinism.

What is unique is the momentum cases such as Khodorkovsky’s might bring to future legal issues. While the Russian public scoffs at the money Khodorkovsky spends on defense lawyers and publicity stunts, his seemingly inexhaustible efforts could signal to the Kremlin that the stakes are higher, especially when discontent and protests continue to pop up in the domestic sphere.

Groups such as the Pussy Riot and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have held protests in Russia. The government may turn a deaf ear or reactionary tone to them, but people still listen.

It is no longer enough for growth to be measured by simply creating an image of institutional improvements and legal procedures. Rather, progress entails a tangible, evident commitment to institutional and legal reform.

“Positive examples are needed in which people who have been accused of something that is a challenge to the Kremlin are actually set free and acquitted,” said Katharina Pistor, a law professor at Columbia University and director of the Center on Global Legal Transformation.

There needs to be an example in which an individual is able to win a politicized case on his or her own, without a political hand on the scales of justice.

Being the most sensitive, politicized cases are the arena where it remains to be seen whether people in power will acknowledge defeat when there is defeat, Pistor added.

The injustices regarding the way in which Khodorkovsky’s case was handled are clear and internationally known given the attention the case has received from the U.S. House of Representatives, American politicians, international think tanks and human rights organizations.

This case, like many others, serves as a conduit between the post-Soviet chaos of the past and the uncertainty of the future.

Khodorkovsky is a product of his time, but he is an exceptionally ambitious, ruthless and intelligent product of his time, said James Brooke, the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former New York Times correspondent.

Set against the backdrop of a newly evolving post-Soviet Russian sphere, Khodorkovsky’s business endeavors were propelled by a government that lacked economic or political blueprints. Terms such as privatization were nonexistent in the Russian language, and even more so in the Russian mindset.

As devised by the young economist, Yegor Gaidar, Boris Yeltsin’s economic strategy involved shock therapy. Yet such economic shock reform arrived without simultaneous political therapy. It was Yeltsin’s fears of losing the 1996 elections — along with anxieties over the return of communist popularity — that prompted him to adopt the second wave of economic reforms known as ‘loans for shares,’ which entailed deals with the newly formed oligarchs, or the Russian version of the American robber barons.

The “loans for shares” program came at a time when the Russian government was having difficulty paying even the most basic of its responsibilities, including pensions and wages. Oligarchs, including Khodorkovsky, capitalized on this window of opportunity and devised a way for commercial banks to lend money to the government and in exchange receive shares in enterprises that were key political assets to the Russian government.

And so it was under this scheme that Khodorkovsky came to possess the coveted Yukos oil company. Khodorkovsky and the rest of the oligarchs were picked politically rather than by the free market.
Offshore accounts, shell corporations and shady transactions were just a few of the corrupt tricks under their belts.

Fast forward to today and the ex-tycoon’s stagnant case serves as a glaring reflection of Russia’s legal and institutional shortcomings, just as Khodorkovsky himself once reflected post-Soviet corruption.

The question now is whether Russian citizens can continue to swallow more of the shortcomings that plague their government.



Ani Torossian

Ani Torossian is working toward her master's degree in political science at Columbia University, where she focuses on international relations, U.S.-Russian relations and U.S. foreign policy. Born in Yerevan and raised in Moscow, she holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles. She works with the editorial team at the Foreign Policy Association on Great Decisions 2014.