The first year in office of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev has marked an almost seamless continuity with the policies of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin who is serving as prime minister until a legal framework is created to allow him to run, once again, for president. But in one potentially important respect, Medvedev is quite different from Putin: A former lawyer, the current president has spoken publicly and frequently about judicial reform to ensure fairness and end what he has referred to as "legal nihilism." Medvedev's promises of reform, if honored, could make a substantial difference to the fate of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos who was convicted of fraud and tax evasion, is back in court, along with his former business partner Platon Lebedev also serving eight years on a tax evasion conviction to face fresh charges of embezzling $25 billion. A conviction could add another 22 years to the current eight-year sentence of which he has served five and a half years. The tycoon was convicted in 2005 of fraud and tax evasion, but prosecutors have introduced the new charges, claiming they are based on evidence brought forward by erstwhile Yukos subsidiary companies. But it is widely believed in Moscow that the new charges may have been brought because Khodorkovsky's will soon have finished his original sentence. (See pictures of Russia celebrating its Victory Day anniversary)
"There is a big gap between Medvedev's rhetoric and reality," says Maria Lipman, the editor-in-chief of the Pro et Contra Journal at Moscow's Carnegie Center. "If there is hope a change of fate for Khodorkovsky, then there would have to be a serious political shift in Russia."
Some recent events have given cause for optimism that Medvedev may be relaxing some of the strictures of the Putin regime: The president withdrew Duma-approved legislation that would have broadened the terms for a treason conviction. Permission was granted for a protest march by an opposition party last month. And Medvedev visited the headquarters of Novaya Gazeta after the murder of journalist Anastasia Baburova no such gesture was forthcoming from Putin after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya two years ago, a journalist from the same newspaper known for her exposes of human rights abuses in Chechnya.
"These are isolated acts," said Lipman. "They do not represent the system as a whole."
Lipman sees the new charges against Khodorkovsky as politically motivated. "The main meaning of this trial is an attempt to demonstrate that they [Russia's rulers] have the capacity to keep Khodorkovsky in jail for many more years."
Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest man, was arrested in 2003 at a time when he had been funding Kremlin-opposition groups, and had been vocal about his disdain for Putin. The charges for tax evasion and fraud on which he was convicted may have applied to many of Russia's leading businessmen at the time, say critics. "The only difference between [Khodorkovsky] and any other large-scale business at the time was his anti-Kremlin stance," says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. "He frequently denounced Putin." Lokshina says that a further conviction of Khodorkovsky would sound a warning to Russian business elite that "they shouldn't get too comfortable, they should always be cautious."
Lokshina has been documenting the conditions of Khodorkovsky's imprisonment. "He was punished for sharing a food parcel, and he was denied leave for refusing to participate in some kind of prison sewing group. It's just completely ridiculous," said Lokshina. She pointed out that the only good news for Khodorkovsky was a recent dismissal of a lawsuit where a cellmate had accused him of sexual assault. "This was also ludicrous."
At the new trial, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will face an old nemesis, prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin, who helped convict the tycoon in 2005. A defense request for the removal of the judge after Khodrokovsky was prevented from sitting outside a cage during the trial was denied, as was a request to change prosecutors. Ten pro-Khodorkovsky demonstrators were arrested earlier this week. The court adjourned on Friday until March 11, pending a defense request to terminate the case on the grounds that the defendant committed no crime.
Defense lawyer Karinna Moskalenko sees some judicial improvements in the new trial. "The fact that the hearing will be public signals a major breakthrough," she said. "Also it is good that the trial will be in Moscow, we have wanted to move Khodorkovsky here for a long time."
Still, Moskalenko is cautious about her expectations. "I am used to working for 33 years without hope. We just do what we have to do, but sadly the verdict does not depend on us."