For nearly three years, Dmitri Medvedev has diligently performed his role of “good cop,” charming Russian and Western wishful-thinkers with eloquent words about “freedom that is better than non-freedom,” laments about “legal nihilism,” and a generally civilized and soft-mannered appearance — the opposite of his mentor, Vladimir Putin. Just last week, the president treated television audiences to yet another show, this time with pointedly respectful references to Russia’s opposition leaders, including Boris Nemtsov, whom Mr. Putin days earlier accused of scheming to “sell off Russia.” But this time the “good cop” show fell flat. On December 27, Presiding Judge Viktor Danilkin of Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court began reading the verdict in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, Russia’s most prominent political prisoners, spelling an end to any remaining illusions about a “Medvedev thaw.”
The trial of the former owners of the Yukos oil company, both arrested in 2003, came to symbolize official corruption and political control of the judiciary in Mr. Putin’s Russia. In the years that passed since Mr. Khodorkovsky’s arrest, most of Yukos’ assets have been transferred to the state-owned Rosneft, chaired by one of Mr. Putin’s closest associates, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin ; at the same time, a potential political rival (Mr. Khodorkovsky) has been silenced — at least temporarily. The latter, indeed, seems to be the main reason for the whole affair. In the months before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky increasingly irritated the Kremlin with criticism of government corruption, support for civil society projects and sponsorship of opposition parties. Judicial proceedings in the Yukos case have been aptly described as Kafkaesque. During the first trial, from 2003 to 2005, Mr. Khodorkovsky and Mr. Lebedev were found guilty of “tax evasion,” stemming from the legal sale of their company’s oil. Now, in the second trial, initiated to halt their scheduled release in 2011, the former owners of Yukos are accused of “stealing” the very same oil (218 million tons of it, to be precise), on the sale of which they had supposedly not paid their taxes. The regime no longer cares for appearances.
Eleven days before the verdict, Mr. Putin announced on national television that Mr. Khodorkovsky’s guilt has been “proven” and that “the thief must be in jail.” Last Saturday, according to “sources in law-enforcement,” Judge Danilkin was picked up from his home by plainclothes agents and driven to Moscow City Court — apparently to get his signature on the guilty verdict. Yet some continued to hope. Prominent cultural figures, human rights activists, and opposition leaders urged Mr. Danilkin to show independence and courage. Andrei Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, suggested that he has a chance to follow in her husband’s footsteps.
The verdict brought no miracles. Barring reporters (and even Mr. Khodorkovsky’s wife and daughter) from the courtroom, Judge Danilkin declared the defendants guilty. Outside the courthouse, dozens of opposition supporters were arrested for “unsanctioned rallying.” The reading of the full verdict is expected to take several days, with the “resolutive part” — the actual sentencing — likely coming at the end of the week. Prosecutors want to keep the former Yukos owners in prison until 2017. The main verdict, however, was pronounced not on Mr. Khodorkovsky, but on Mr. Medvedev. Russia’s “reformist” president has been found either complicit or powerless. His words about the “rule of law” have proven utterly hollow. Whatever pleasant-sounding speeches he makes now, nobody will listen. The Kremlin’s “good cop” show appears to be over.
Newsflash update. On December 30, Presiding Judge Viktor Danilkin sentenced Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev to 14 years (counted from their arrest in 2003), prolonging their imprisonment until 2017. Opposition leaders are calling the verdict shameful. The defense is preparing to appeal. Mr. Khodorkovsky and Mr. Lebedev have ruled out asking Mr. Medvedev for a pardon as they do not recognize their "guilt."