My Bad, Khodorkovsky

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During Russia's first two presidencies, as in most of the millennium that preceded them, the rule of law was frequently more honored in the breach than the observance. Boris Yeltsin had big problems with laws and lawmakers, often using executive decrees to circumvent both. Vladimir Putin, in turn, showed a pronounced aversion to due process, throttling enemies -- real and imagined -- through high-visibility prosecutions so ham-handed that they made admirers of blind Themis wince. A lot.

Against this background, Dmitry Medvedev's campaign promises to dispel the country's "legal nihilism" evoked understandable skepticism. Yet within weeks of his inauguration, President Medvedev's juridical minions did indeed begin brandishing a vorpal sword of justice, at least theoretically, issuing a series of anti-corruption and legal reform statements quite bold in their tenor and scope. Not least among these was a truly groundbreaking pronouncement by Prosecutor General Yury Chaika on May 27. Delighting partisans of both Miss Manners and Judge Roy Bean, Chaika claimed that state prosecutors "who make mistakes will have to apologize to citizens for prosecuting them."

This society is not big on apologies. The idea of a prosecutor actually offering one to some hapless nonmiscreant -- as in, "My bad, Petrov, and sorry about the knuckle sandwich" -- is not easily conjured. And bigger fish? The likelihood of a ranking government prosecutor extending a personal apology to an ill-indicted defendant in a "national interest" case is probably only slightly smaller than my chance of becoming king of France. Can anyone imagine Chaika sending former Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov off to see ...

"Khodorkovsky! You have a visitor."

"Who is it?"

"Some fatso VIP -- everybody's saluting him like crazy outside. Put on your clean shirt -- oops, TEN-SHUN! He's in this cell, Your Excellency."

"Thank you, sergeant. Dismissed. Ahem: Hello-o-o, Mikhail Borisovich! May I come in?"

"I guess so -- it's your house."

"Ha-ha, not any more -- but it's nice to hear your irony again. Let me just sit down here by your mitten-sewing kit so we can chat, OK?"

"Just watch out for the big needle ..."

"Ouch!! What the ... I mean, excuse me, I hope my, er, posterior didn't bend anything valuable. Well, Mikhail Borisovich, the reason for my visit is ... "

"Wait, don't tell me. You've discovered nine more Yukos tax violations and I'm looking at another five years of mitten sewing, right? But I'm curious -- Why did Chaika send you to tell me?"

"Actually, Mikhail Borisovich, I'm here to ... to ... hmm, this is harder than I thought ... to ... to ... "

"C'mon, Porky, spit it out, I've got mittens that can't wait. To kneecap me for old times' sake? To shoot me while I'm 'trying to escape'? What?"

"To ... APOLOGIZE! There, I said it. The case against you was a big political frame-up, and I'm here to apologize for it, OK? [thud!] Mikhail!! Guard! He's fainted or something! Help!"

Alas, not too likely, is it? But as long as we're in the hypothetical mode, why not go for broke? What if Chaika's apology injunction actually works -- indeed, works so well that other countries are driven by their envious citizens to draft their own mandatory-apology legislation? Imagine a live broadcast from the Oval Office ...

" ... and so, fellow Americans, I'm required to offer you the abject apologies of several of my more craven subordinates: David Addison, the vice president's constitution-attack lawyer, apologizes for attacking the Constitution. John Yoo, founder of Attorneys for Authoritarianism, sincerely regrets his Let's Legalize Torture! campaign while at Justice. The vice president himself adds that he's sorry for the serial mendacity, conflicts of interest, illegal wiretapping, contempt of Congress ... what? Oh, and for telling Senator Leahy to go [bleep] himself. Yep, bad call there.

"Finally, I myself have a long list of felonies to apologize for. In fact, it's so long I've asked for help. My good friend and former adviser Karl Rove agreed to read it, since his counsel prompted many of the actions I now realize are illegal. And while Karl is reading -- OK, wheel him in, boys, and loosen the hood -- I'll bid you a reluctant farewell and mosey on over to the Nixon Memorial Escape Helicopter now revving outside for departure to a friendly, extradition-proof Caribbean republic ... "

Now that's compassionate conservatism you can believe in! Apologies won't save the world, but they'd certainly make it more livable. So let's hope and dream a little, shall we? L'etat, c'est moi!

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.