We Must Stand Up for Russia

January 14, 2014

From the editors of Khodorkovsky.com:

The reaction on the streets of Russia to the outcome of the parliamentary elections of December 2011 and the presidential election of March 2012 took the Russian authorities and much of the world by surprise. Large public protests had not been a feature of the Russian political scene for many years.

The protesters may have been inspired by the Arab Spring, which swept the Middle East in 2011. As in the countries of the Arab Spring, discontent in Russia over the extent and depth of state corruption is a well that runs deep across society. The anger in Russia only intensified with the announcement by Vladimir Putin in September 2011 that he was reclaiming the presidency – and the realisation that the country may be facing twelve more years of Putin’s rule through to 2024.

Nevertheless, the catalyst for protesters spilling onto the streets was outrage over widespread and blatant instances of vote rigging by the pro-Putin party, United Russia, which won 49.32% of the vote according to official figures, securing an outright majority with 238 of 450 Duma seats.

United Russia became known as “the party of crooks and thieves” – an appellation popularised in the blogosphere. Journalists, political activists and concerned citizens revealed evidence of electoral fraud, leading to unprecedented public protests involving tens of thousands of people. One week after the election an estimated 70,000 demonstrators braved freezing temperatures in Moscow. The “For Fair Elections” movement was born. The movement called for annulment of the election results, the resignation of the head of Russia’s electoral commission, an official investigation into vote fraud and registration of opposition parties, new legislation on parties and elections, new elections, and freedom for political prisoners – including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other Yukos prisoners.

In February 2012, an official report whitewashed the election irregularities. The protests carried on up to and beyond the March presidential election. During the presidential election campaign, all candidates except for Putin declared that they would release Khodorkovsky if elected. One candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov, went as far as stating he would consider appointing Khodorkovsky as his prime minister.

By bringing Khodorkovsky into their election platforms, those candidates permitted by the Kremlin to compete with Putin sought to demonstrate their independence. Even if pure rhetoric, the prospect of Khodorkovsky’s release became synonymous with a promise for real change; an acknowledgment that his incarceration was unjust and politicised; and proof of the role he plays in society, inevitably connected with civic activism and opposition, even when he was in jail.

In the end, according to official figures, Putin won a needed majority to return to the Kremlin across all regions of Russia except Moscow. The election processes were criticised by the OSCE’s election monitors, undermining the legitimacy of the results.

The protesters’ earlier demands for the release of political prisoners apparently had some impact: the day after the presidential election, Dmitry Medvedev orderedan official assessment by the prosecutor general of the legality of the cases against Khodorkovsky and dozens of other political prisoners. Unsurprisingly, given that the prosecutor general was given less than a month to examine the cases, and that his office was engaging in a self-assessment exercise, no wrongdoing was identified.

The prosecutor general’s April 2012 announcement clearing the authorities of any wrongdoing was also likely intended to counter the results of a nine-month official independent inquiry conducted in 2011 into the most recent Khodorkovsky trial. In that inquiry, the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights identified serious and widespread violations of the law, finding that there was no valid legal basis or evidence supporting the guilty verdict. Against the backdrop of the December 2011 street protests, the inquiry’s findings prompted the Council to call for an annulment of the “illegal” guilty verdict and for Khodorkovsky’s release.

Outgoing President Medvedev ignored the demands of the protesters and the advice of his own advisory council to redress the wrongs of the Khodorkovsky case. Yet the administration’s “Khodorkovsky problem” did not go away. More than ever, recent events have proven Khodorkovsky’s prescience and validated his vision of how Russia could yet become a prosperous and modern country. It is a vision for modernisation that contrasts starkly with the methods of the current regime.

Before his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky was firmly engaged in the support of democratic reforms in Russia – indeed he was arrested in the midst of a tour of the country to promote the development of civil society.

Even after being imprisoned, Khodorkovsky continued to challenge the Kremlin, warning of the blight of rampant and growing state corruption. In his writings from jail he continued to push for the development of civil society, the rule of law and a vibrant market economy. He was a vocal exponent of a democratic Russia, criticizing the Kremlin’s so-called “managed democracy”.

In an article entitled “Real political change in Russia is unavoidable”, published in The Guardian with parallel versions published in the New York Times, Focus, Le Monde and Wprost in February 2012, Khodorkovsky welcomed the public protests, calling for his generation to secure change without recourse to violence. He set forth his belief that violence could be avoided if civil society and the rule of law are able to flourish and if controls over government bureaucracy lead to reduced corruption, and he affirmed his belief that “the role of our generation is to attempt to change the paradigm without a civil war.”

Khodorkovsky also reiterated the themes that have marked his public writings in recent years. He wrote:

“Abuse of power in Russian politics has been allowed to flourish too long. We need to modernise our economy, build a genuine civil society, end legal nihilism and stamp out corruption. We need to do this to build a better life for our children and our children’s children, and for the country we love to prosper and to be engaged usefully in a changed and changing world.”

These words not only articulate the demands and desires of the growing protest movement in Russia, but also reflect the personal philosophy to which Khodorkovsky has irreversibly committed his life, at the cost of a decade of his own freedom.

Click here to read more from Khodorkovsky in the media.


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