February 26, 2009
Khodorkovsky’s best hope may come from the Kremlin
By Anna Arutunyan
The location and timing of former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky's new trial may indicate that some powerful figures in the government would like to see him released sooner rather than later, some experts say.
Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, his former business partner, were moved from their jail in the Chita region late last week. The two men were sentenced to eight years in jail in 2005 for fraud and tax evasion, and have had requests for parole denied. They have now been charged with embezzling over 890 billion rubles ($22 billion), laundering 487.4 billion rubles ($14 billion) and an additional $7.5 billion.
Their preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 3.
"I understand the subtext that journalists are putting into this," Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yury Shmidt said by telephone, referring to the belief that the trip to Moscow may be a positive political signal. "But I don't see any special influence from President Dmitry Medvedev and his team in this decision. It is a normal, lawful decision. It is evidence that somewhere at the top they have understood that there must be some limits in this persecution."
He added that while he did not see any "clever game" in the decision to try Khodorkovsky in Moscow, it was clear that "Medvedev does not need this case."
Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer who represented Khodorkovsky in his first trial, saw the move to hold the trial in Moscow as a positive sign. "I think that allowing Khodorkovsky to face the prosecutors and political figures who have put him in this position is a very important step and should be welcomed," he said.
But Amsterdam said it was wrong to speculate on any political motivations behind the decision.
Other experts suggested that the move did have political significance, but underlined that great care should be taken in interpreting such political motivations. Khodorkovsky's second trial "might mean that the siloviki are trying to bolster their positions in society as the crisis gains momentum and show who's boss," said Dmitry Oreshkin, president of the Mercator think tank. "But the fact that they've decided to hold the trial in Moscow signals that there are influential people in the government that do not want for the trial to end the same way it did last time."
Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib, agreed that the Moscow trip was the most interesting part of the new trial. "You can interpret anything as a sign of friction between the two groups," he said, referring to economic liberals and pro-statists in the government. "We know there is some friction. But we should be careful about going into conspiracy theories. My sense is he is due for parole soon. It would be difficult for President Medvedev to ignore that parole unless there were new charges. And at the same time the government is concerned about the public reaction to the economy and rising unemployment. The last thing you want in this period is the emergence of a high-profile figure like Khodorkovsky who could be the focal point of political opposition."
"The fact that they have been moved to Moscow suggests there that is some movement in government to work towards a solution, with constraints to what he would do afterwards."