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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Should Heed the Gusinsky Verdict

A rebuke from the European Court of Human Rights will hardly have President Vladimir Putin quaking in his boots. Yet this week's verdict in the case of the exiled businessman Vladimir Gusinsky sends the Kremlin an important reminder of the standards by which it will be measured if it wants to be ranked among Europe's democracies.

The timing could hardly be better, with legal proceedings gathering speed in the Yukos affair, Putin's latest and most significant assault on the oligarchs. The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the company founder, on fraud charges is due to start in a few weeks. The trial of Platon Lebedev, his main associate, began Thursday.

Gusinsky was arrested on fraud charges shortly after the president took office. Proceedings were dropped after Gusinsky promised to sell his media empire to the state-controlled company Gazprom.

The human rights court found that the authorities had abused Gusinsky's rights by employing legal instruments for commercial ends. The judges did not say so, but as Gusinsky's outlets had a reputation for attacking Putin, there was also clear political purpose to the Kremlin's action.

The tactics employed in the Gusinsky affair have since become standard practice under Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule. The president often speaks of enforcing the rule of law when dealing with the oligarchs. But his idea of law is the efficient imposition of the Kremlin's authority, not the defense of a set of rules to which all, including the Kremlin, are subject.

The judges hearing the Khodorkovsky and Lebedev cases must now show true independence. Any sign of official pressure on the courts would further undermine faith in Russian justice. However, the real damage has already been done in the arbitrary way that the Yukos two have been selected for attack. They were clearly chosen because of Khodorkovsky's willingness to challenge Putin politically.

Admittedly, in pursuing Khodorkovsky, Putin is challenging the grotesquely unfair way in which a few rapacious businessmen seized control of Russia's wealth in the 1990s. But it is wrong to tackle this grave injustice by targeting some politically awkward individuals while allowing others to keep their ill-gotten gains. A fairer approach would be to set out first the standards by which the actions of the 1990s are to be judged, then act on clearly established legal criteria.

Having easily won a second term, Putin faces few effective critics at home. But he does want Russia to be a respected member of the clubs established by the world's leading democracies.

He should therefore listen, at least with one ear, to well-founded international criticism. Russia accepted the authority of the European Court of Human Rights when it joined the Council of Europe. So it must accept the court's judgment in the Gusinsky affair, and recognize that its implications go far beyond the treatment of one man.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in the Financial Times.