In Russian, to describe someone as a muzhik (derived from the Russian word for “man”) is not simply to convey that someone is macho, it is also a reference to their character; that they can be relied upon to do the right thing. In the now waning days of his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev still has time for his muzhik moment.
Medvedev will of course be followed by Vladimir Putin who “won” Sunday's presidential election, reclaiming the post he vacated in 2008 and ending Medvedev's tenure as the world's most famous seat-warmer. Yet, the Medvedev presidency held such promise at its beginning – a decade younger than Putin, pro-business and computer-savvy, Medvedev was seen as a likely reformer who could further Russia's post-Soviet transition. But few of Medvedev's promises panned out – either due to Kremlin infighting between his supporters and Putin's, or because of Medvedev's own reluctance to shake up the status quo.
That is what makes his order on Monday to review the legality of the criminal case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky so interesting. Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man. He has been imprisoned for the past decade due to his high-profile feud with then-President Putin. Khodorkovsky is the former head of Yukos, which was once Russia's largest company. He was typical of the oligarch class that emerged in Russia in the 1990s, who used business sense, personal connections, and a lot of nerve to amass staggering fortunes from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. But along the way, Khodorkovsky started to change. Rather than using Yukos as a personal wealth-extraction machine, he began to invest in Russia, opening schools and funding charities in Siberia.
He also gave a relatively small amount of money to a political party in Siberia, an act that brought him into direct conflict with Putin as it violated a “gentleman's agreement” between Putin and the oligarchs: You stay out of politics and the government will stay out of your business. Khodorkovsky was soon prosecuted and imprisoned on charges of tax evasion. His supporters claim that Khodorkovsky abided by Russia's ever-shifting tax laws as best he could during the 1990s, and that even if he did violate the law, so did every other oligarch, yet only Khodorkovsky was singled out for punishment. (For a full account of the Khodorkovsky case, I recommend the book Putin's Oil, by Martin Sixsmith, which I reviewed here.) To add to the political overtones of the case, Khodorkovsky was tried again for roughly the same crimes last year, which conveniently added six years to his sentence, keeping him in jail through the 2012 election.
Rather than just ask for an investigation, Medvedev could use his presidential powers to simply pardon Khodorkovsky. Not only would this right one of the most visible wrongs of the first Putin presidency, it would also provide a catalyst for opposition to the second. A freed Khodorkovsky could serve as a much-needed public head for the Russian protest movement. In letters smuggled out of his prison in Russia's remote Far East, Khodorkovsky presents himself as a “prisoner of conscience” for daring to stand up to the will of the Putin machine. His letters have been stinging critiques of Russia under the era of Putin and call for average Russians to demand a better government from their leaders. His most recent letter, published just days before the election, called on the protest movement to remain energized, but peaceful, and to avoid displays of extremism that would give the government an excuse to attack them.
Khodorkovsky seems the logical choice to head a movement opposed to Putin. His pardon would be a bold move of defiance by Dmitry Medvedev, but also a move that would show that Medvedev was not merely a place-holder, but a muzhik himself.
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