Moscow’s December Freeze
On December 15, hundreds of people who gathered at Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Court to hear the verdict in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were told that it was being postponed until December 27. Optimists took the delay as a sign of an internal Kremlin struggle over the fate of Russia’s most famous political prisoners, under arrest since 2003 and now facing the possibility of extended prison sentences to 2017. Realists countered that a lenient verdict would hardly have been slated for the period between Western Christmas and New Year’s Day, when most of the world takes a holiday from politics. Like their Soviet predecessors, today’s authorities in Moscow like to bury bad news. “They are trying to minimize [public opinion] costs,” remarked writer and legendary Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the many public figures who came to hear the verdict in the Kremlin’s show trial.
Mr. Bukovsky’s own experiences in the last few days give little hope to believers in the so-called “Medvedev liberalization.” For the first time since Soviet days, the former dissident, now a key leader in the opposition Solidarity movement, was being followed by (presumably secret service) surveillance. His every move around Moscow was tracked by two cars with blacked-out windows; the same cars were parked during the night at either side of the house where he was staying. As he attempted to return to England, Mr. Bukovsky was detained at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport for just enough time that he would miss his flight. Border guards, who since 2003 have been subordinated to the FSB, the KGB’s domestic successor service, cited unspecified “passport problems.” For Mr. Bukovsky, who had spent 12 years of his life in the Gulag, this is no more than a “petty trick” (he is, half-jokingly, considering sending FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov an invoice for the new plane ticket he had to buy). But it is worth mentioning that state security resources were being directed at Mr. Bukovsky while thousands of ultranationalists were rampaging in downtown Moscow in a wave of pogroms against migrants from the North Caucasus — including on Manezhnaya Square, literally yards away from Kremlin walls. It is comforting to see a government setting its priorities right.
In his annual televised question-and-answer marathon — this time lasting a record four and a half hours and coming on the heels of Moscow’s nationalist riots — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin left no doubt as to whom he considers the real enemies. The premier, once again, suggested that Mr. Khodorkovsky is involved in “murders” — an accusation not contained even in the official indictment. Mocking Russia’s “liberal intelligentsia” with “thrum beards,” Mr. Putin singled out three prominent opposition figures, including Solidarity leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, as people who had “stolen … billions” in the 1990s and who now seek to return to power in order to “sell off the whole of Russia.” Needless to say, if there was a shred of any such evidence against Kremlin opponents, Mr. Putin’s prosecution service would have moved long ago. Bizarrely, the prime minister declared that Mr. Nemtsov and others “stole” money “together with [Boris] Berezovsky,” a once-powerful oligarch. As any Russia observer knows, it was Mr. Putin who relied on Mr. Berezovsky’s support (including financial support, as the ex-oligarch, now in exile in London, was quick to point out) during his rise to power in 1999 and 2000, while Mr. Nemtsov famously feuded with Mr. Berezovsky. In the absence of an independent media or judiciary, the premier’s slanderous jibes are unlikely to be challenged; just as there is little chance for public discussion of, for example, corruption and the alleged siphoning of billions of dollars in state assets by Mr. Putin’s own entourage. No “thaws” should be expected from the current regime: on the contrary, a deep political freeze is settling over Moscow. How long the regime will survive is, of course, an entirely different question.