On Tuesday Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon, saw his case rejected before the European Court of Human Rights. Mr. Khodorkovsky argued before the Strasbourg tribunal that the charges of financial wrongdoing brought against him in Russia are politically-motivated as he has been an outspoken critic of the Kremlin. While the Court did not agree, it did find that Russian authorities violated the rights of the one time owner of Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, and ordered the government to compensate him around $35,000.
In light of the ruling, one would expect Khodorkovsky might lose the noble standing of a martyr he enjoys among Western onlookers. One would be wrong.
Khodorkovsky has managed to create this image of a martyr in Western media by manipulating pre-conceived notions. For instance, AP’s coverage of the ruling focused on law enforcement’s abuses against Khodorkovsky rather than the main ruling. Yes, democracy and the justice system are relatively weak in Russia, but that does not mean that Westerners are not constantly seeking confirmation of this assumption. Khodorkovsky understands this pattern and plays into the bias by telling Western observers what they want to hear.
Khodorkovsky is, without a doubt, an enemy of the Kremlin, given his consistent criticism of democracy in Russia. His role as political dissident, however, did not come about until after he had secured one of the largest fortunes in Russian history through very questionable avenues.
Herein lies the misunderstanding of the situation that is prevalent in the United States and Europe. Khodorkovsky is almost certainly a financial criminal, given what is known about the accumulation of his fortune. The charges aren’t purely political. What is political is his singling out for trial. Khodorkovsky is not the only one of the infamous ‘Oligarchs’ who is potentially guilty of such crimes. Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abromavich are just two high profile examples of Russian tycoons who have sought refuge abroad (both in London).
Khodorkovsy’s political ambitions are indeed what landed him in jail. It is rather well-documented that upon taking office, then-president Vladamir Putin made clear to the Oligarchs that they would not come under legal scrutiny so long as they started playing by the books and stayed away from politics. Is such legal selectivity good for a fledgling democracy? No. But the fact remains that Khodorkovsky’s hands aren’t so clean in the first place.
If you ask Russians, you will find very little pity for Mr. Khodorkovsky, if they even know who he is. The oligarchs are unpopular due to the perception that they manipulated the transition from communism and stole resources which belonged to the people. For most Russians, the Khodorkovsky trial represents justice working in a country where it often does not. Yet in the West he is a martyr, a hero, a champion for democracy.
A similar selectivity is at work here, where Western observers are willing to ignore Mr. Khodorkovsky’s criminal defects and hunger for power and take him at his word for a democrat being held indefinitely by a kangaroo court. A dissident, perhaps, but a 21st century Andrei Sakharov he is not.
Here in the West, it is tempting to assume that this is the manifestation of an unchecked tyranny. Is it not possible that political dissidents in these types of countries can also be criminals? And if so, do these criminals really deserve the sympathy?