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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Advice From a Former Political Prisoner

Two years ago this week, Russian law enforcement authorities, guns drawn, stormed Mikhail Khodorkovsky's plane. His arrest and imprisonment, and the insufficient response of the democratic world to his case, represent a great setback for the march of democracy in Russia.

The charges against Khodorkovsky ostensibly focus on financial improprieties related to his control of the oil giant Yukos. But one need not be an expert in that company's finances to recognize that the law was used selectively against Khodorkovsky to thwart the political ambitions of a possible future opponent of President Vladimir Putin.

To those in control of the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky had broken the unwritten rules in which successful businessmen were free to prosper as long as they didn't challenge the government in general and Putin in particular. When Khodorkovsky, whom many touted as a reformist future president, refused to rule out a potential run for the presidency, he broke those rules. One of Russia's wealthiest men, he was initially sentenced to nine years in prison, and this month was sent to a labor camp.

Many see the arrest of Khodorkovsky as heralding a return to the Soviet past. But it is important to put things in perspective. The Soviet Union was a place where millions worked for the KGB, tens of millions were killed and hundreds of millions lived in constant fear. The situation today is a far cry from that, not only because Putin is no Leonid Brezhnev, and certainly no Stalin, but, more important, because the virus of freedom has spread among Russians for well over a decade. To reimpose Soviet-style tyranny in Russia would be virtually impossible.

Still, all those who understand that the right of dissent is the cornerstone of a free society should be concerned with recent developments. Rather than being marked by the continued development of democracy, the past few years have brought a regression. This is bad not only for Russia's people but also for its neighbors and the entire free world. For while a democratic Russia would be a powerful ally in promoting freedom and stability around the world, an authoritarian Russia would undermine these efforts and thereby weaken the security of free nations everywhere.

Many democratic leaders are sympathetic with Khodorkovsky but are unwilling to press the Russians to release him for fear that this issue will undermine efforts to resolve other geopolitical issues. But I know as well as anyone that the supposed trade-off between democratic idealism and geopolitical realism is largely a false choice. In the early 1980s, my wife, Avital, who had been mounting a worldwide campaign for my own release from prison in the Soviet Union, had the hard facts of realpolitik explained to her by a senior White House official in an administration that was extremely sympathetic to my plight. Pointing to a map of the world, the official outlined the many geopolitical issues that were at stake between the United States and the Soviet Union. "Do you really believe," he asked, "that we can subordinate all these issues to the question of your husband's release?"

"What you don't understand," she replied, "is that only when my husband is released from prison will you be able to resolve these issues."

What the diplomat surely considered the heartfelt yet naive words of a passionate wife nevertheless contained a basic truth. I was imprisoned because of the nature of a Soviet regime that sought to stifle all dissent. And it was the nature of this regime that was at the root of the geopolitical conflict between the two superpowers. When pressure from the United States led to my release -- I was the first political prisoner freed by Mikhail Gorbachev -- it was a sign that the geopolitical challenge posed by the Soviet Union was drawing to a close.

Today, the Soviet Union is no longer an enemy. Russia has a leader, Putin, who sees cooperation with the free world as the way to restore his country to its former greatness. But the feeble protests of the free world to Khodorkovsky's arrest, and the refusal to make Moscow pay any price for its rollback of democratic freedoms, have led those in the Kremlin to believe that they can consolidate power in Russia through undemocratic means and still win the cooperation with the West that they seek.

Any concern two years ago about the potential fallout from imprisoning an international figure has proved misplaced. The dramatic drop in foreign investment of which some had warned never materialized. And whereas some people were arguing in the wake of Khodorkovsky's arrest that Russia should not be invited to that year's Group of Eight summit, Moscow is now set to host the next summit of industrial nations. Indeed, from the Kremlin's perspective, the move against Khodorkovsky, which has silenced both the opposition and the media, has been an unmitigated success.

This is unfortunate. Just as the failure to press the Kremlin to free Khodorkovsky has facilitated its efforts to consolidate power and restrict freedoms, successfully pressuring the Kremlin to free Khodorkovsky would help restore those freedoms and help return Russia to the path of democratic reform.

The Khodorkovsky case presents a real opportunity for those concerned about the state of democracy in Russia to take a stand. By pressuring the Russian authorities to end this travesty of justice, the free world would be strengthening democracy within Russia and thereby strengthening an alliance between Russia and the democratic world that is critically important to our common future.

Natan Sharansky was imprisoned as a Soviet dissident for nine years. He is a former member of the Israeli Cabinet and co-author of "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror." He contributed this comment to The Washington Post, where it first appeared.