At first glance, it is hard not to conclude that the future looks dire for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the former Yukos executives who have been in prison since 2003 and are widely seen as victims of the Kremlin’s power politics and greed over oil assets. On May 24, a Moscow City Court upheld a second verdict against the two men on charges of stealing oil and money-laundering, which was issued last December; in reducing their sentence by just one year, the decision requires them to serve five more years in a Siberian labor camp. (No wonder Khodorkovsky’s mother burst into tears when the court announced its verdict.) A week later, the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg denied a claim by Khodorkovsky’s lawyers that his original arrest in 2003 was politically motivated. And on Tuesday, Moscow’s Preobrazhensky District Court sent back applications for the parole of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, which had been submitted by their lawyers ten days ago, saying some of the required paperwork was missing.
Yet despite this apparent bad news, there may be growing reason to hope that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will be released early. Above all, there has been a dramatic shift in how the Russian media is handling the case. Until quite recently, the Yukos case has received practically no coverage on Russia’s state-controlled television; what little viewers have seen has been highly biased against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. In a Levada Center poll conducted in March of this year, only 18 percent of respondents said they felt sympathy for the two defendants, and 56 percent said they knew nothing about the case.
But on May 29—just five days after the Moscow court verdict—state-owned NTV aired an unprecedented 8-minute segment on the Khodorkovsky case on prime time. As Novaya Gazeta observed: “It was the first such report in years. It gave an account of the whole affair, of the scandals accompanying the trials.” The presenter, Vadim Takmenev opened the segment by saying: “One thing is true: the attitude toward someone [Khodorkovsky] is already changing.” Incredibly, the report showed footage of Takmenev’s last interview with Khodorkovsky before his 2003 arrest, in which Khodorkovsky claimed that he was being persecuted and predicted that he would be imprisoned. It also featured a viewers’ question and answer session with Khodorkovsky, in which he relayed his written responses from his prison cell, denouncing the authorities for vindictive and unlawful treatment of him. Even more surprising, the NTV story mentioned allegations that a Moscow court judge had been pressured into denying the appeal of the two defendants in the December 2010 verdict—allegations that the Investigative Committee of the Russian Procuracy has now announced it will formally probe.
That same night, Russia-1 channel also ran an uncharacteristically balanced story on the Yukos affair. According to Novaya Gazeta, “the very fact that this TV network would touch this subject at all was surprising. Second, the manner of presentation was absolutely unexpected.” The coverage included a 30-second excerpt from Khodorkovsky’s speech at the Moscow Municipal Court earlier this month in which he discussed the absurdity of the charges against him and Lebedev.
Clearly, the appearance of such reports on state television on the same night—after years of virtual silence on the case—is no accident. They indicate that parole of the two Yukos executives is being discussed (no doubt heatedly) at top levels of the government. Indeed, the programs could be part of a campaign to prepare the public for the early release of the two men, for which they are eligible since they have served over half of their 13-year sentences. Provided that the inmate in question has a record of good prison behavior and is deemed not to be a danger to society, parole is legally possible. (The lawyers of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are now resubmitting their parole applications.) Although statistically the chances of obtaining release are far from assured (last year Russian courts granted 57 percent of these petitions), there is reason for optimism in the case of the two Yukos executives.
President Dmitry Medvedev also seemed to set the stage for parole at a press conference on May 18. Medvedev—who back in December implicitly criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for pronouncing Khodorkovsky guilty while his second trial was still underway— said that freeing Khodorkovsky would pose no threat to society because he “is absolutely not dangerous.” Meanwhile, prison officials last week gave their evaluation (kharakteristika) of Lebedev, which must accompany his appeal for release, and stated that his behavior behind bars has been exemplary. Khodorkovsky’s evaluation has yet to be handed over, but his former partner’s positive evaluation is encouraging. It is highly unlikely that Russian authorities would release Lebedev without granting parole to Khodorkovsky as well, since they are co-defendants.
They also have world public opinion on their side—something not taken lightly by the Kremlin as it seeks to “reset” relations with the U.S. and encourage badly-needed Western investment in Russia. The May 31 ruling by the European Court for Human Rights, was far from the major setback for Khodorkovsky that has been portrayed in the Western press. Whether or not Khodorkovsky’s arrest was politically motivated was only one of more than a dozen claims his lawyers had put before the court in Strasbourg. As Russia watcher Robert Amsterdam has observed: “The judgment …represents a clear victory for the plaintiff, as the court ruled in [the plantiff’s] favor on 8 out of 15 claims, most critically declaring that Russia had violated Khodorkovsky’s rights under the European Convention on Human rights in several instances.” For example, the court ordered the Russian government to pay Khordorkovsky 24,543 euros (about $36,000) for jailing him in “inhuman and degrading conditions,” noting also that “the applicant’s continuous detention was not justified by completing reasons outweighing the presumption of liberty.”
Regarding the issue of political motivation, moreover, the court acknowledged that there are “strong arguments” in favor of the complaint. For her part, Khodorkovsky’s lawyer Karinna Moskalenko, who headed the legal team in Strasbourg, greeted the verdict as “the victory of good over evil,” and suggested in her blog on Ekho Moskvy that the court had turned down that complaint partly on strategic grounds, “to avoid accusations of being political and to give weight to its [overall] decision.” This ruling applied only to first complaint filed in February 2004. Since then, more evidence on the political motivations of the Russian authorities in handling this case has emerged and will be considered in later appeals to the court in Strasbourg.
In the meantime, the Moscow court’s verdict prompted Amnesty International to declare Khodorkovsky and Lebedev “prisoners of conscience.” Nicola Duckworth, the director of Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia division, claimed that, “for several years now these two men have been trapped in a judicial vortex that answers to political not legal considerations.” Significantly, NTV announced Amnesty International’s important decision to the viewers of its prime-time report on Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been in holding cells in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison since February 2009, when they were moved there to face the new criminal charges. They are now scheduled to be sent back to Siberia if their paroles are not accepted for consideration. The decision for parole lies formally with the judiciary, but the court needs only a clear signal from the Kremlin to proceed in considering and then granting the requests. Many of the defendants’ supporters rest their hopes in President Medvedev, despite the fact that he apparently did nothing to prevent the Moscow court’s May ruling against them. The paper Nezavisimaya Gazeta observed on June 3 that the pleas of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev offer Medvedev “an opportunity to put an end to the absurd saga that has been doing so much harm to the image of Russia…He cannot help knowing that every new verdict and every new denied request thoroughly undermine his own efforts to do away with so-called legal nihilism. He has to sort out this mess and move on.”
But is Medvedev in a position to do so? What happens to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will not only reveal the true depth of Medvedev’s democratic intentions, which have rightly been questioned by Russian liberals. It will above all be a measure of the president’s independence from Putin. Khodorkovsky threatened Putin’s power in 2003 by funding oppositional political parties and Putin is believed to be the main force keeping him behind bars. If Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are granted early release, it would mean that Medvedev is no longer Putin’s puppet, as many assume, but a leader in his own right. Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted that “Medvedev’s successful evolution into a bona fide politician and leader depends on a single decision [in the Yukos case].” This is probably no exaggeration.