MOSCOW — He has become the ultimate symbol of the Kremlin’s sweeping control over politics and business in Russia.
On Tuesday, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company and once Russia’s richest man, walked into a Moscow courtroom to hear charges that stand to keep him in prison for another 20 years.
Since his arrest in October 2003, Khodorkovsky has spent the bulk of his time at a labor camp in Chita, a city 3,100 miles east of Moscow.
His appearance on Tuesday at the Khamovnichesky Court, just down the street from the gleaming White House that holds Putin’s government, was his first in Moscow since being exiled east after being handed a guilty verdict in 2005.
Khodorkovsky looked, understandably, older and greyer, and plumper, too. His face held a wide smile as he entered the courtroom, led to a glass cage by armed guards who took off his handcuffs before letting him inside.
There he vigorously shook the hand of Platon Lebedev, his former business partner and co-defendant, whose fate has mirrored Khodorkovsky’s since the Yukos ordeal began.
(Print journalists were not allowed into the pre-trial hearing — which will decide whether the trial itself will be open to the public, and other procedural issues — but I managed to corner a cameraman who had taken a small video camera inside.)
Among opposition-minded people in Russia, interest in the case is high. One old woman roamed the halls of the shabby courthouse along with more than 100 journalists, shouting at police whenever she had the chance.
“I want to see my love!” she shouted. “I love smart people! Khodorkovsky is the smartest. Instead, we have idiots in power.”
Special operations troops clad in bullet-proof vests guarded the entrance to the courtroom, as well as the streets outside. They reportedly detained ten people who had gathered near the building shouting “Freedom to political prisoners! Freedom to Mikhail Khodorkovsky!"
Khodorkovsky himself reportedly shouted, “It’s a disgrace!” as he entered the courthouse.
The trial, coming halfway through Khodorkovsky’s eight-year-term for fraud and tax evasion, will serve as a major test for President Dmitry Medvedev’s rhetoric extolling the need for an independent judiciary.
Yet most people here see the new charges — of embezzlement and money laundering — as a means of ensuring that Khodorkovsky will remain behind bars for years to come. He was eligible for parole late last year, but that request was denied.
What brought Khodorkovsky to a Siberian prison in the first place? It’s a question that still manages to engross observers five and a half years after he was first arrested and subsequently jailed on charges of fraud and tax evasion, his oil empire dismantled and essentially handed to the state in a series of orchestrated bankruptcy auctions.
Was it that he was on the verge of selling a 25 percent stake in Yukos to an American oil company? That he was planning to build a pipeline to China to bypass the state-run pipeline monopoly? That he was openly funding opposition deputies ahead of a parliamentary vote?
Most agree that a confluence of these actions that led to Khodorkovsky's downfall. Whatever the final straw, his political and economic power was inimical to the Russia that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, then president, wanted to build: a powerfully centralized state backed by the revenues that a rising oil price would bring.
Alexander Temerko, a former Yukos vice president, once told me they knew trouble was coming before it arrived. “We knew we would have serious problems. While they had a monopoly position in gas, they didn’t have one in oil,” he said.
The first case against Khodorkovsky dragged on for months, and his lawyers say they expect this trial to go no faster. They will call dozens of witnesses to fight the charges, which claim that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev embezzled over 890 billion rubles ($25 billion) and laundered nearly 500 billion rubles (nearly $14 billion).
Khodorkovsky, one of the original oligarchs and once one of the most powerful, grew his fortune in a time of theft and chaos, but the question is one of selective justice. Many of his former associates remain among Russia’s richest men.
The trial that started on Tuesday not only will test Medvedev’s stated desire to crack down on what he terms the country’s “legal nihilism.” It will also give a further hint at the extent of the independence that Medvedev, a former lawyer, holds from Putin.
Khodorkovsky has accused Putin’s team of personally orchestrating the legal attack on him, laying the blame mainly at the feet of Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s most powerful backers. In 2003, few knew who Sechin was, he was a secretive figure often termed the Kremlin’s grey cardinal. Today, he is publicly known as the chairman of Rosneft, the state-run oil company that now owns the bulk of Yukos’ former assets. He is also one of Putin’s four deputy prime ministers — tasked, conveniently, with overseeing the energy sector.
More GlobalPost dispatches by Miriam Elder: