Khodorkovsky and the rule of law in Russia

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev asserted himself this week by firing the powerful mayor of Moscow. Now Medvedev faces another critical test, and that is what to do about the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky has been in prison for years now, much of it in a Siberian labor camp, and prosecutors now want to add another 15 years to his sentence. Eric Niiler reports.

ERIC NIILER: If anyone personified the �greed is good� era of Russia in the go-go 1990s, it was Mikhail Khodorkovsky. As CEO of Yukos Oil, he became Russia's wealthiest man while in his 30s. But Khodorkovsky also made some enemies along the way, most notably Russia's former president and now prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Andrew Kuchins is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says Khodorkovsky went over the line when he meddled in Russian politics.

ANDREW KUCHINS: The surprising part came when he decided to bet everything against the house, the house being the Kremlin, and he lost.

NIILER: In 2003, Khodorkovsky was convicted of fraud and tax evasion. Many Western observers say the charges were trumped up. Despite the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, Khodorkovsky has refused to confess. And for the last 18 months, Khodorkovsky and his former partner, have been sitting through a second embezzlement trial. Vadim Kluyvgant is Khodorkovsky's lead attorney.

VADIM KLUYVGANT: The only goal of this trial is to keep Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind barrier as long as possible.

NIILER: Kluyvgant and several other attorneys are in Washington this week, meeting with US officials and human rights advocates. While some observers doubt that Khodorkovsky will win his legal case, Kluyvant says he's appealing to the court of world opinion.

KLUYVGANT: It's not only internal issue of Russia. It's very much international issue because it's about the main values like human rights, like rule of law.

NIILER: And many outside observers say the charges against Khodorkovsky don't make sense. Angela Stent of Georgetown University points out that he stands accused of embezzling Yukos' entire oil production from 1998 to 2003, a period when Yukos paid federal taxes and employed thousands of workers.

ANGELA STENT: It seems as if the current charges, if you look at the figures, it doesn't seem to add up.

NIILER: Stent says the trial is a test for Russia's president Medvedev and whether he will follow through with his promise of fixing a corrupt legal system. A promise he made when taking office in 2008.

STENT: People are watching this trial of Khodorkovsky, because if he is indeed convicted and given another long jail sentence than I think that will say something about the future of this project to modernize Russia and introduce the rule of law.

NIILER: But the case is also a test of Medvedev's independence from his mentor, Vladimir Putin. Many, like Stent and Andrew Kuchins, believe that the real power over Khodorkovsky lies with Putin. The two scholars met with Putin last summer at an academic conference at a Black Sea resort. Kuchins says Putin became visibly angry when answering a question about why Khodorkovsky was still in jail.

KUCHINS: For Vladimir Putin, the Khodorkovsky and the Yukos case really became very, very personal. There are certain things with Mr. Putin where you just can't get any traction.

NIILER: Kuchins says he doubts Khodorkovsky will be set free as long as long as Putin is in office.

KUCHINS: Mr. Putin and his colleagues well understand that deep structural reform is a threat to their political livelihood.

NIILER: As for the US government's role in all this, President Obama raised the issue of Khodorkovsky's situation during his first meeting with Medvedev in 2009. This year, the State Department put Khodorkovsky on a list of six political prisoners held by Russia, but the issue failed to make the agenda when Presidents Obama and Medvedev met in Moscow. For The World, I'm Eric Niiler in Washington.