20 years under Putin: a timeline

On November 30, Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the Institute of Modern Russia, took part in a Princeton University discussion panel entitled “Trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky: A Symposium on Russia and the Rule of Law.” The event featured presentations by a number of prominent experts on Russian affairs and the rule of law and was followed by a screening of Cyril Tuschi’s documentary Khodorkovsky.



Last week, the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies (RES) and the Program in Law and Public Affairs (LAPA) of Princeton University presented a symposium on the trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The discussion panel included Kathryn Hendley, a professor of law and political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a LAPA fellow; Jeffrey Kahn, an associate professor of law at Southern Methodist University and a former expert adviser to the Presidential Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation; and Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values and LAPA’s director. Sergei Oushakine, Associate Professor of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and a LAPA's fellow, moderated. Presentation at Princeton University is part of Pavel Khodorkovsky’s speaking tour of U.S. colleges aimed at raising awareness of the political situation in Russia.

First to speak was Kim Lane Scheppele, who covered the shocks of economic and social transition in Russia. In her opinion, in the 90s, Russia was a failed state—or, as she put it, “the bottom fell out of the Russian economy.” The country’s GDP dropped by 60%; social inequality rose dramatically; foreign debt continued to increase; and the process of legal transition appeared widely unpromising, as the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, “didn’t believe much in the law.”

Scheppele also remembered the history of privatization in Russia that resulted in the transfer of three-quarters of the country’s industrial production into private hands. Noting the speed of this process, Scheppele observed that it was “widely unpopular, because the majority of the country lived on $2 a day, while there also was a very visible group of oligarchs.” This transition occurred in two stages: the issuing of vouchers for shares and the issuing of loans for shares. Both steps largely lacked transparency, and eventually most valuable companies ended up in the hands of a small circle of people—the oligarchs, of whom Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one. The new laws regulating the private economy were introduced much later, which created a loophole in the legal system. As Scheppele pointed out in conclusion, when Boris Yeltsin endorsed Vladimir Putin as his successor, he made a big mistake.

In the following presentation, Jeffrey Kahn detailed Khodorkovsky’s second trial. In 2011, Kahn was approached by members of the Presidential Human Rights Council, who offered him a position as expert advisor on the second case. Kahn, who specializes in American constitutional law and Russian law, agreed to assume this role. “I researched what the Council did, and, despite all the odds, its reputation was strong at the time,” he explained.

“The second trial considered the same period as the first case,” Kahn said. “But instead of the allegations of tax evasion, it focused on embezzlement. Also, the second case was initiated just a few months before Khodorkovsky could have been freed, because according to the Russian law, a person could be released on parole in the middle of his or her term in prison.” Kahn listed the inconsistencies of the court’s various decisions, ranging from unreasonable interpretations of embezzlement of oil to the humiliating conditions of Khodorkovsky’s detention: during the court trial, Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev were kept in a glass box, nicknamed the “aquarium,” which violated the European Convention of Human Rights that Russia had previously ratified.

As Mr. Kahn pointed out, the final verdict of the second trial was 600 pages long, and it took Judge Viktor Danilkin four days to read it. “It was some sort of punishment in itself,” Kahn said. “In essence, the verdict turned out to be gibberish, the charges were clumsy, but the problem is that they were not meant to be comprehensive in the first place. It was a message from power, and the law was only an instrument, a tool.”


From left to right: Kim Lane Scheppele, Jeffrey Kahn, Pavel Khodorkovsky, Kathryn Hendley.


Next, Kathryn Hendley focused on the social aspects of the legal nihilism that exists in Russia today. She presented results of Levada Center polls to illustrate public attitudes toward the court system and other state institutions. For example, according to Levada, of all political institutions, Russians most trust the president. However, in 2012, the level of trust in the president significantly decreased compared to 2007 rates. At the same time, trust in other institutions, such as the church, security organs, courts, and political parties, went up. Still, political parties remain the institutions that Russians trust least of all, with the courts ranking second to last.

Hendley also pointed out that the problem of legal nihilism in Russia is not so acute as many are used to thinking. She referred to the results of the Russia Longitudinal Monitoring Survey-Higher School of Economics (conducted by the by the Russian National Research University-Higher School of Economics and ZAO “Demoscope” together with Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Institute of Sociology RAS), which showed that the number of law-abiding citizens in Russia is almost twice as high as the number of nihilists.

In the concluding part of her presentation, Hendley mentioned the increasing number of civil cases that have been brought during the last 12 years, mostly before the administrative courts. She also noted that Russians feel very frustrated with their court system but pointed out that this feeling is shared by many people around the world: “People feel the same frustration because they think, The courts are not for us, they are for powerful people who make laws.”

Finally, Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the Institute of Modern Russia, took the floor. In his speech, he focused on the story of Russia’s transition under Putin over the last 12 years.

Despite the challenges of its struggling economy, in the 1990s, Russia had functioning institutions, a pluralistic parliament, and a free press. But the people wanted economic stability and prosperity, and that’s what Putin promised them. At that time, oligarchs played an important role in politics; Putin, however, sought to reduce this influence, as he strongly believed in the idea of concentration of power. Consequently, he made several amendments to the political system to build the “vertical of power.”

First, he limited financial support to the political parties and thus eliminated political pluralism. Second, he set up show trials. “Before my father’s case, there was also prosecution of Vladimir Gusinsky, who was the first oligarch to be attacked by the government. For Putin, it was even more important to take over Gusinsky’s media empire,” Pavel Khodorkovsky said. “But it was not until the second case of Yukos that the political motivation behind the tax evasion charges became obvious to the public. Before, the public didn’t really care.”

As Khodorkovsky also noted, Putin formulated the term “sovereign democracy” to explain the framework of the Russian political system. But the term is contradictory in itself, especially in light of Putin’s use of democratic institutions to sustain his autocratic power.

After a period of economic prosperity, the public suddenly became disappointed with the current social contract when they realized that the state had failed to deliver on its promises. Khodorkovsky pointed to the recent Krymsk flooding disaster as an example of that failure, as well as winter protests in Moscow. “What we see today is a breach of a social contract,” Khodorkovsky observed. “The government is not interested in anything that doesn’t provide avenues for corruption. Corruption became systemic. It touches everyone and provides the link for the people who begin to understand why it’s personal.”

In conclusion, Khodorkovsky suggested a few simple but effective measures of how to fight corruption in Russia from outside the country. One would be to pass the Magnitsky Act in the United States and similar pieces of legislation in United Kingdom, other countries of the European Union, and Canada. “This Act doesn’t seek to diminish the Russian state; it’s targeted at the corrupt Russian officials, because everyone wants Russia as a functioning member of the international community,” Khodorkovsky concluded.

The panel was followed by a screening of Cyril Tuschi’s documentary Khodorkovsky, which tells the dramatic story of how Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, became its number-one political prisoner.