Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: A Tale of Two Trials

E!Sharp, 1st May 2009 09:49

Two trials – one finished, the other ongoing – say much about the state of modern Russia, none of it promising.

In the first, a jury in February acquitted four men of complicity in the 2006 shooting of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Her murder was one of the most high-profile in recent history. Yet the shoddy way the trial was conducted seemed to mock the dead woman who frequently risked her life to expose human rights abuses.

State-appointed investigators spent two years building their case and three months presenting it. If they were serious about their work, it didn’t show. A key presentation went missing, mobile phone records put forward as conclusive evidence had to be resubmitted because of errors in them, and large chunks of the trial were conducted in secret. Key leads went uninvestigated too.

Incredibly, the identity of a man and a woman caught on CCTV following Politkovskaya around a supermarket before her murder was never established. As the trial progressed, the accused joked and did crosswords. One of them was a former employee of the FSB security service, the KGB’s successor. Politkovskaya’s colleagues believe the defendants’ links to the FSB and the police is the real reason the case was not properly investigated. In February – to squeals of delight – the four defendants were acquitted. State prosecutors are appealing and a new investigation is under way. But two-and-a-half years after Politkovskaya was killed, there seems little reason to suppose it will be any different from the first one.

Ditto for the second, equally high-profile trial that got underway at the end of March and appears to be a replay of a 2005 courtroom drama. In a surreal case of déjà-vu the man in the dock is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once Russia’s richest man, he is now its most famous prisoner. Somebody in the Kremlin clearly doesn’t like him. In 2005, he got eight years in a labour camp 3,000 miles east of Moscow for fraud. The oil company he ran, Yukos, was destroyed with crippling back-tax bills and then dismembered. That trial was widely seen as politically motivated, and as punishment for his opposition to Vladimir Putin, then president.

As Khodorkovsky became eligible for parole and the prospect of his release in 2011 loomed – just one year before Russia’s next presidential election – someone in the Kremlin has decided to go after him again. This time he is charged with embezzling more than $20 billion and with money-laundering. The trial will be closely watched. A pardon or an acquittal would be seen as a sign that President Dmitri Medvedev is serious about a new, more liberal direction for the country. A conviction would send the opposite signal. Khodorkovsky’s supporters are pessimistic. “They’ll find him guilty,” says Lev Ponamaryov, a veteran human rights activist. “Putin is the kind of person who doesn’t forgive anyone anything.”

If vodka sales are to be believed, ordinary Russians continue to adore the tough unforgiving side of Putin’s character. Putinka vodka, a brand that has successfully piggybacked on Putin’s cult-like popularity for years, remains the country’s second best-selling vodka. By contrast, Medvedev has, it seems, a long way to go before he usurps Putin in Russian hearts – or livers.

A new vodka – Medvedeff – that tries to capitalise on his name is not faring too well. Launched last December, it failed to break into the top 20 vodkas and appears to have all but vanished. Indeed, finding a bottle of Medvedeff in a Moscow supermarket is like locating a vegetarian restaurant in the Russian capital – possible but unlikely. Stanislav Kaufman, the man who dreamt up Putinka, says he can’t take Medvedeff seriously. “Mr Medvedev is not a vodka personality,” he says. “Mr Putin is.” Kaufman says Putin’s background as a spy is a good match for a drink that is at least 40 percent alcohol. Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer who has touted himself as a liberal moderniser, just doesn’t have the right image for such a macho drink, he adds.

Medvedev is working on his own tough-guy image though. As the financial crisis has bitten, he has fired several regional governors, a rarity even for his action-man predecessor. He has had himself photographed flying in a fighter jet too, a favourite Putin public relations stunt. A more gentle character, he has also taken to mimicking Putin’s harsher staccato speech pattern. Polls show nobody is fooled. Most Russians think Putin not Medvedev is in charge and no matter how many times Medvedev tells journalists he’s the boss, the impression that he isn’t just seems to grow. If he is to compete with Putin’s judo-fighting, hunter-gatherer image, he may want to consider giving up his beloved yoga and chess – or at least keep quiet about it.