Chris Bryant reports from the Khodorkovsky trial

Russia can often seem surreal. Layer upon layer of history. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin, Yeltsin – and now Putin/Medvedev.

For all the oligarchic bling in all the shops, the red stars on the top of the Kremlin towers suggest Communism is still alive and the very walls of the fortress themselves seem to invite kremlinology. Who really pulls the strings? Is it the President, Medvedev, who is organising the probably accurate smearing of the Moscow mayor, which has dominated the state-run media for the last two weeks? Or is it Putin? And why are they doing it now, when mayor Luzkhov’s term runs out soon and he is barred from standing again? All too often, the labyrinthine political chicanery and the extraordinarily tight circle of the very well-heeled elite reminds one of communism, but without the ideology.

At the heart of the parabola of surrealism lies the legal system. Torture is endemic according to Amnesty International. Many prisons would be better termed ‘penal colonies’ or indeed ‘gulags’. Thousands are infected with HIV and have little or no medical care. And the criminal justice system is regularly used to settle political scores.

I went to see one such case this Monday.  The courtroom, on the third floor of a tired Moscow building, was tiny, panelled with cheap varnished plywood, its parquet flooring scuffed by decades of rearrangements of the furniture. At the front, a dais with the double-headed Romanov eagle and the flag of the Russian Federation limply hanging from a thumb tack and a piece of sellotape. To the left a sort of tank, made of reinforced glass and chunky steel, in which stood the two defendants, Platon Lebedev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

In front of them their seven lawyers, varying from the poised veteran Yuri Schmidt to a shiny suited young lad who did the photocopying. Before the judge arrived, the defendants bent over to talk through the inconveniently placed grilles to pass on their instructions, Khodorkovsky looking clear-eyed, Lebedev tired and drawn. The state Prosecutor sat opposite, fiddling with cables and wires for his laptop, alone and tidy, confident in the sharpness of his uniform.

The judge appeared just a few minutes after 10 and the depositions began whilst a fug of boredom descended over the room. The stenographer adjusted her make-up, the defense lawyers argued tight points, slowly. And from time to time the prosecutor would unexpectedly leap to his feet, rant, threaten and sit down again, peering closely into his computer.

What the judge makes of this I do not know. He has a reputation for being decent and many joke that he has drawn the short straw. For this is no ordinary case.  The defendants have already been imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion for nearly six years and are coming up to release. But now new charges – or the old charges re-fashioned – have been laid and the trial has gone on for nearly a year. The logical flaws in the charges are evident. They are accused of embezzling an amount of oil equal to literally every drop their company, Yukos, produced in six years.  No wonder there has been intimidation of defence witnesses and lawyers throughout the case.

But, more importantly, everyone reckons that these charges were only brought because Khodokovsky had the temerity to get involved in politics. Many had thought that by dispatching him to Siberia, where he could virtually never see his family and where he would be sharing an insanitary cell with seven others, the Russian state was effectively issuing a death warrant. But he has had the double temerity to survive.  Hence the new charges.

I hold no particular candle for Khodorkovsky, or any other oligarch, extant or former. But as his trial comes to its close over the next month or so, the world will be watching to see what happens. It may after all be that Putin has not yet decided what should happen, or that he has decided Khodorkovsky can do him little harm now.

But if the world is to take President Medvedev’s highly acclaimed recent speeches in favour of rooting out corruption and modernising Russia at face value, then this trial will be key. Letting the charges drop and allowing Khodokovsky his political rights would be a clear symbol that Russia is changing for the better. Anything less will make it seem as if Russia is still no place to do business – and heaven knows Russia, with its hideous over-dependence on oil and gas, needs new business.

For Britain, and Europe, it’s a key moment. Sarkozy is busy selling weapons to Russia, even though it is his deal in Georgia that the Russians are patently ignoring.  But Europe shouldn’t be strengthening the Putin arm, it should be acting far more in unison, with steadfast discipline, so that Russia really reforms.

William Hague is meant to be visiting Russia in October. With Cameron’s hard-line pursuit of trade, the temptation may be to forget about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the repression of human rights organisations, the harassment of NGOs (including the British Council), the vicious disruption of political demonstrations and the suspension of virtually all free media in Russia.

But what really limits trade with Russia is the pervasive corruption that makes it difficult for British companies to do legitimate business – and the fear many harbour that if they put a foot wrong they will be dealt with in the same way as Khodorkovsky. So in Russia – as elsewhere – the route to economic prosperity lies through democratic reform. And if Hague wants to protect British businesses he needs to tackle head-on the problems of repression and corruption, raising both Litvinenko and Khodorkovsky.

Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for Rhondda

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2 Responses to “Chris Bryant reports from the Khodorkovsky trial”

  1. Couldn’t agree more; in fact I’ve been banging on about this stuff for months.

    The worst of it is the people who support them in the west.

    Please have a gander at my blog;

  2. daria grimaldi says:

    well written and succint . It said just what I wanted to now ,thanks .

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