Back to the Uncertain Future for Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky file photo

(Moscow Times – – Dmitry Elovsky, Mikhail Fishman – December 17, 2015)

The mob-style execution of Vladimir Petukhov, mayor of the Siberian oil capital Nefteyugansk, one summer morning in 1998 was not an unusual occurrence for the “wild 90s” era of Russian business. But it has returned to the spotlight as part of the reanimated prosecution of former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which he now links to the Hague court ruling on the enormous payment to the former company’s shareholders. Now, the saga of the face-off between the state and its once richest mogul enters its newest phase.

Khodorkovsky, 52, who resides in London following his pardon by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013, has now been officially charged by the authorities with Petukhov’s murder – based on newly discovered evidence, according to the Russian Investigative committee official press-release.

“The resurrection of Petukhov’s murder case was triggered by Putin’s instruction to provide countermeasures to attempts to win claims via court orders and my financing the opposition,” – Khodorkovsky told The Moscow Times in an interview.

Back to 1998

Sixteen years ago, Yukos, which had recently taken over oil assets in the region, was indeed in conflict with the independent and quarrelsome newly elected Nefteyugansk mayor, former political analyst and consultant, Andrey Volchkov, told The Moscow Times. Back in 1998, Volchkov was hired to do opinion polls in Nefteyugansk and arrived there right after the murder.

Yukos had incited the regional Accounting Chamber to look for evidence of wrongdoing by Petukhov. “I detest Yukos, and Khodorkovsky personally. He is to blame for a number of violations. But by the time Yukos had all legal documents necessary to have Petukhov brought up on fraud charges, they had no reason whatsoever to kill him. Politically it only made things much worse for them”, Volchkov told The Moscow Times.

Two members of a local criminal syndicate were charged with the murder, but were also found dead shortly thereafter. The case was dropped – until Yukos came under fire from the state in 2003. In that year, Yukos, and its head, became the target of what is generally considered a politically motivated campaign led by Putin. As a result, the company was destroyed and Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 8 years in prison on financial charges.

That’s when Petukhov’s murder regained the spotlight. Alexey Pichugin, Yukos’ chief security officer, was sentenced to life in prison, and Leonid Nevzlin, a major Yukos stockholder, was tried in absentia and also sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.

State oil giant Rosneft took over all Yukos assets in Nefteyugansk, and Petukhov was lionized as the helpless victim of Yukos criminal activities in the region. A monument to Petukhov was even erected in 2013. Putin and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin publicly linked Khodorkovsky to the murder.

Breaking the Deal

There is still no public knowledge as to why Khodorkovsky was suddenly released and secretly sent to Germany in December 2013. Analysts agree that most likely it was a mixture of Putin ramping up his image before the Sochi Olympic games, the effectiveness of behind-the-scenes diplomacy from Angela Merkel and former German deputy chancellor Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and the fact that Khodorkovsky’s mother was gravely ill.

After his release in 2013, Khodorkovsky said he was not going to challenge Putin nor engage in Russian politics, but would participate in activities focused on building a civil society in Russia. Earlier this year, when the new charges suddenly emerged, he claimed that they were not initiated by Putin, since the two had already “sorted things out.”

But now, it looks like if there ever was a “deal”, it’s canceled. As Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, put it: when Putin released Khodorkovsky in 2013, he had no way of knowing about these charges.

New Attack

There is an obvious reason for the new murder charges, said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. A lawsuit filed by former Yukos shareholders against Russia resulted in a ruling in July 2014 by The Hague Court that Russia has to pay $50 billion in compensation for seizing its assets in contradiction with the international Energy Charter signed earlier by Russia. Starting from January 2015, the Russian government has been getting billed $2.6 million dollars daily in interest on the unpaid fine.

“Creating an image of Khodorkovsky as an assassin would send a message to judges: you should trust neither him nor his former partners,” Belkovsky said.

Putin has publicly denounced the Hague decision, saying Russia never ratified the Energy Charter, which it was accused of breaking. The Russian Government is challenging the ruling in the local Hague court. Meanwhile, local courts in the United States and Europe have already started proceedings to seize Russian property as a way of implementing the Hague decision. This process is expected to gain new impetus in 2016 and could lead to different financial complications if Russia doesn’t at least show the will of settling the dispute. For instance, one could imagine Ukraine getting the right to assign its debt to the Russian Federation by selling it to the litigants, a source close to the plaintiffs told The Moscow Times.

“Creating an image of Khodorkovsky as an assassin would send a message to judges: you should trust neither him nor his former partners,” Belkovsky said.

Russia has also shown no signs of readying to pay the 1.86 billion euros awarded to Yukos shareholders by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on July 2014. President Putin just signed a law which gives Russia’s Constitutional Court the right to ignore ECHR rulings.

This is an example of one problem snowballing into a whole destructive process, said prominent political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, and no state can afford to be isolated from the system of international jurisdiction.

The penalty awarded to the Yukos shareholders in The Hague is definitely perceived by the Kremlin as a threat, and legal proceedings will drag on, Pavlovsky told The Moscow Times. The case will be closed during what he calls “the [country’s] next historical era – over the next 5 to 10 years or so.”

Fighting Back

On Dec.9 Khodorkovsky gave a speech in London. In his strongest language since his release in 2013, the former tycoon stated that in his de facto fourth term in office, Putin is usurping the constitutional rights of civil institutions. “We are witnessing an unconstitutional coup,” Khodorkovsky said. A new revolution is inevitable, he added, and he believes his mission is to make it as peaceful as possible. Putin and his colleagues have to pay for what they’ve done, standing trial in an independent court, he said. As soon as he finished, the Prosecutor General’s office started checking the speech for extremist content.

Khodorkovsky also announced he would be reshaping his Open Russia Foundation, designed to build and strengthen Russian civil society, which he manages from exile.

The human rights subdivision, which now has 24 activists, has just been expanded.

“We’ll be providing more help and legal support for political prisoners as well as helping their families financially,” said Maria Baronova, the head of the subdivision. “Although it’s essential that the prisoners share European values.”

Khodorkovsky also said he is starting a group to monitor elections to carry on the work of civil observers who tracked the parliamentary elections of 2011, which were marked by accusations of rigging.

“I am not part of the opposition, but I want to provide society with alternative,” Timur Valeev, the newly appointed head of this watchdog group, told The Moscow Times.

Valeev was a producer at one of the state-owned TV channels with a reputation for blatant propaganda and censorship. His appointment by Khodorkovsky’s camp is surprising given Valeev is scheduled to be honored in the Kremlin for his involvement in “The Immortal Regiment,” a public initiative to commemorate the memory of those who died during the World War II. The initiative received the full support last year from Putin, who even joined the rally.

However, Valeev said, even within the realm of Russian official media, there is “a large number of people, especially younger ones, who think and act outside the box,” and strongly disagree with the current political agenda.

Khodorkovsky is also launching an online series promoting literacy about civil liberties and is even rumored to to be contemplating the creation of a Russian language newspaper in London. Open Russia recently started a discussion club in London in his office at Hanover square.

Any of these activities are not likely to trigger an impact in Russian politics. “My main task for the next couple of years is to find activists and help them become popular and get political experience”, Khodorkovsky told The Moscow Times.

[featured image is file photo]