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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Medvedev's Sakharov

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The authorities initiated new legal actions against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Tuesday. Khodorkovsky -- once the richest man in Russia, the former owner of the country's largest and most successful oil company, patron of the arts, philanthropist and dedicated advocate of a liberal path for Russia's development -- became a tragic symbol of the lack of freedoms, the abuses and corruption that has defined Russia under Vladimir Putin's rule as president and prime minister.

Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped-up charges in 2003 and sentenced to eight years in prison. The entire "judicial process" was a travesty of justice because the court clearly favored the prosecution and constantly violated the rights of the accused. While Khodorkovsky was behind bars, the government, via state-controlled oil company Rosneft, took control of most of his oil business.

But even an eight-year jail sentence and expropriation of the country's largest oil company was not enough. On Tuesday, preliminary hearings began in Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court involving new charges against Khodorkovsky -- that he allegedly stole all of the oil Yukos extracted while he was the company's chief shareholder from 1998 to 2003. As ridiculous as it may sound, the prosecution claims that Khodorkovsky stole 350 million tons of oil -- from himself, effectively.

In recent years, the Putin administration has sought the extradition of former Yukos employees who fled to a host of European countries, from Britain to Cyprus. All of the court proceedings in those countries ended with the same verdict: a refusal to extradite on the grounds that the charges were politically motivated and that the former Yukos managers would face persecution if returned to Russia.

Most observers are pessimistic that Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Platon Lebedev will be acquitted on the new charges. They predict that the pair could be slapped with up to 22 1/2 additional years in prison.

The new case against Khodorkovsky closely coincides with the one-year anniversary of President Dmitry Medvedev's term in office. This is very symbolic.

One year ago, Medvedev's speeches and public statements about the great value of freedom inspired hopes in liberal circles that a political thaw was in the making. One year later, however, those hopes appear to have been only naive dreams. Far from being able to even slightly modernize or democratize Putin's rigid power vertical system, Medvedev has shown in his first year in office that he lacks independence and legitimacy.

One year ago, the fate of Khodorkovsky and his colleagues was seen as the main test for Medvedev's professed liberalism and independence as a leader, but today it seems that Medvedev has failed that test. He has shown no mercy or leniency to any of the Yukos defendants. If Medvedev had the political will or clout, he could have granted Khodorkovsky amnesty, particularly since he has already served over half of his prison term.

On the other hand, there is a perfectly rational explanation why the Kremlin would like to see Khodorkovsky locked up for as long as possible. One of Khodorkovsky's former colleagues told me that the ruling elite are extremely afraid that Khodorkovsky will seek revenge after the government duped him on several accounts. First, the authorities had assured Khodorkovsky that he would not be arrested, but he was taken into custody in October 2003. Next, they assured him that the court sentence would be suspended, but he was given eight years. Third, they said he would be allowed to serve his prison time near Moscow, but he was banished to a remote, radioactive Siberian city. Finally, the authorities promised not to auction off Yukos' most valuable assets such as Yuganskneftegaz, but this company was sold in an "auction" that was concocted in such a way that the assets were handed over to Rosneft for a symbolic payment.

The Kremlin's desire to keep Khodorkovsky locked up extends to Medvedev as well. It is important to remember that Medvedev was the head of Putin's presidential administration in 2004 and 2005 -- a critical period in the Yukos affair when the Federal Tax Service besieged Yukos, Rosneft effectively expropriated Yuganskneftegaz, and the authorities brought criminal charges against Khodorkovsky. Medvedev had to have played some role in all of that, so he also has reasons to fear setting Khodorkovsky free.

Those who still harbor hope that Medvedev will liberalize Russia should consider whether he has serious intentions of reforming the political system. I recall when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided in December 1986 to allow dissident Andrei Sakharov to return to Moscow from his forced internal exile in Gorky. As much as I respect Gorbachev, I am convinced he did not take this step because he was such a great democrat and liberal, but because he wanted to send a clear signal to the world. "This regime is changing," he effectively declared. "The old Soviet Union is becoming a thing of the past."

But Russia's current regime has shown no desire to change. Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov publicly said as much recently. For his part, Medvedev made a small but significant statement in an interview with Spanish journalists earlier this week. He said, "Overcoming the crisis and developing democratic institutions are two different things and they should not be confused."

Thus, it seems that Russia's leaders will not free Khodorkovsky in the near future. On the other hand, there is still a slight chance that the second trial of Khodorkovsky will end in his acquittal. If, by chance, there will be a fully open and impartial trial and if there will be strict adherence to prescribed court procedures, the defendant would surely be found innocent of the ridiculous charges.

If this happens, it will be similar to the Feb. 19 acquittal of the Chechen defendants in the murder trial of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya. But if Khodorkovsky is also acquitted, Russia would send the opposite political message: In the Politkovskaya acquittals, the state looked bad; if Khodorkovsky is acquitted, the state would look good -- at least in the West. In this sense, Khodorkovsky's acquittal may be an ideal victory for Medvedev -- not unlike when Gorbachev earned points in the West (and clearly within the Soviet Union as well) after Sakharov was freed from exile.

Since Medvedev doesn't have the political will or authority to directly influence the Khodorkovsky affair -- by granting amnesty, for example -- an acquittal would make Medvedev look good without having to make any politically risky decisions at all.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.