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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moving the Goalposts for Khodorkovsky

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Something is very wrong when you read the results of an opinion poll and think, they should have kept this quiet. That is the reaction I found myself having when I read that 28 percent of the people in Moscow's Universitetsky District surveyed by the independent Levada Center were ready to vote for Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the upcoming by-election to fill their district's State Duma seat. You would think the poll results would make me happy, both for Khodorkovsky, who has so many supporters, and for the Universitetsky District, which has so many politically motivated and open-minded residents -- even if, with their high education level and liberal views, they are entirely atypical of Russian and even Moscow voters as a whole. And it did. But I also thought, I wish they had not published the results.

Why? Because now efforts to prevent Khodorkovsky from running for the seat will be redoubled. Let us review what has happened so far. On Sept. 2, the Central Elections Commission set the date of the special elections in two Moscow districts for Dec. 4, quashing rumors that the elections would be postponed to make sure Khodorkovsky could not run. Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov told reporters, irritably, that he had no intention of adjusting election timing to personalities. The crux of the matter was that, while Khodorkovsky has been found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison, his sentence does stand until the Moscow City Court considers his appeal. As long as his appeal has not been heard, Khodorkovsky has the right to run for office. And since appeals generally take months to get to a hearing, the early-December date seemed to promise Khodorkovsky would run.

Not so fast. By the time Veshnyakov made his statement, Khodorkovsky's lawyers had been notified that the appeal hearing was scheduled for Sept. 14 -- not only much earlier than they expected, but, they argue, earlier than the law allows. At the time the date was set, the paperwork had not even been finalized in the lower court. Not only that, Khodorkovsky's defense lawyers say, but the document notifying them of the hearing was signed by a judge of the lower court, who has no authority on the appeal, and was conveyed to the lawyers not by the court itself but by fax from the prosecutor's office --which is an apparent violation not only of procedure but of simple decency. It all seemed pretty transparent: The system had shifted into gear trying to prevent Khodorkovsky from running for office, and appearances did not matter.

The courts and the prosecutor's office are not the only ones trying to do their bit to stop Khodorkovsky. The administration of the Matrosskaya Tishina pretrial detention facility, where Khodorkovsky is being held, appears to be holding up his application for registration as a candidate in the district. Until this bit of correspondence is cleared and delivered, Khodorkovsky's supporters cannot start collecting the signatures required to have him registered. Meanwhile, the number of political activists who plan to take part in the campaign is growing; they include representatives of opposition organizations from every part of the political spectrum. And, if the poll is to be believed, the number of voters who support Khodorkovsky is growing as well: 28 percent is probably enough to win that election if his name is on the ballot.

What makes this story particularly poignant is that this may be the last direct election to the State Duma. Next time, the parliament will be elected by voting for parties not individuals -- and these will be only the parties that clear the registration hurdles set by the draconian new law on political parties. So this may be what the last direct election on the federal level in Russia looks like: a candidate who is in jail, and a huge state machine huffing and puffing and embarrassing itself in an effort to keep him from winning.

Masha Gessen is a contributing editor at Bolshoi Gorod.