Outgoing Russian President Dimitri Medvedev caused something of a stir Monday when he ordered a review of the case of Russia’s most famous political prisoner, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But every knowledgeable Russian with whom I’ve spoken dismisses the move as a PR gesture as Medvedev prepares to step aside for Vladimir Putin to take up his third term as president.
Medvedev might want to free Khodorkovsky, but Putin has all the power.
Khodorkovsky angered Putin several years ago by entering opposition politics despite warnings not to. As a warning to others who might have similar ideas, Khodorkovsky was charged with tax fraud and embezzlement – in blatantly political trials – and convicted in 2005 and 2010 ; he still faces years more in prison and his giant oil company was effectively nationalized by the state.
Facing opposition at home, Putin is less likely than ever to free Khodorkovsky, whose release has become a key demand of Russia’s new protest movment. But the case has also become a symbol of whether Putin is ready to reform a corrupted political and economic system under pressure from a new opposition movement.
“I’m absolutely certain that so long as Putin is in power, Khodorkovsky will stay in prison,” says Natalya Gevorkyan, noted Russian journalist and author of the new book about the trials of Khodorkovsky - Prisonnier of Poutine. (Published in French and soon in German, it will hopefully be translated into English; not clear if any Russian publisher will dare touch it.)
Putin clearly has a powerful and personal grudge against Khodorkovsky. Indeed, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, told me that, when he and a small group of opposition leaders met recently with Medvedev, and he inquired about the chances for Khodorkovsky’s release, Medvedev told him frankly: “That is not my case.” Adds Gevorkyan, “This is Putin’s case.” And there’s no sign Putin is willing let his nemesis out of jail.