TCS Daily

Free Khodorkovsky!

By Joshua Livestro - February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

In his second Inaugural Address, President George W. Bush launched what we can now safely call the Bush Doctrine: the spread of democracy and liberty anywhere is in the self-interest of free societies everywhere. The sources of inspiration for this doctrine are many, ranging from the biblical idea that the truth shall set us free to Ronald Reagans confrontational Evil Empire speech in the Palace of Westminster in 1982. Uppermost in Bushs mind, however, was a book that has caused quite a stir in the US since its launch in the autumn of last year: Natan Sharanskys The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.

Sharanskys story is well recorded. He was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union, held in a remote camp in Siberia. He gained new hope when his guards gave him a copy of the Pravda in which the authorities attempted to rubbish claims by President Reagan that the Soviet Union was, fundamentally, an evil empire:


Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagans provocation quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth - a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.


Twenty years on, a different American president can similarly give hope to a political prisoner held in a cell in a remote Siberian jail by demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin reverse his countrys dangerous slide back to authoritarianism. Bush ought to use this weeks Bratislava meeting to demand that the Kremlin oligarchy restores press freedom, reverses a number of anti-democratic reform measures and, most important of all, sets free all political prisoners. The most important of this new generation of Russian dissidents is the former head of the Russian oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Since his arrest in October of 2003, Khodorkovsky has spent the past 15 months in custody, awaiting the outcome of a show trial that will surely see him convicted on trumped up charges of tax evasion. His real crime is a political one. In the run-up to the last presidential elections, Khodorkovsky spent some of his considerable capital supporting a number of free-market liberal democratic parties in their campaign against Putins autocratic regime.


On the 25 January of this year, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution declaring that Khodorkovskys arrest (and that of another prominent political prisoner, Platon Lebedev) was essentially an attempt to weaken an outspoken political opponent, intimidate other wealthy individuals and regain control of strategic economic assets. The latter was achieved through the farcical sale of the core Yukos operations at Yuganskneftegaz to the then unknown and since dissolved Baikal Group. The Councils strongly worded condemnation follows an equally strongly worded declaration by the Councils rapporteur, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, condemning the Russian government for its over-zealous, apparently coordinated measures against Yukos and its former leaders, which have made me wonder whether a political background can still be denied.


Khodorkovsky is certainly not the only victim of the Kremlins campaign of repression. Since Putins unexpected rise to power in the 2000 presidential elections, the Kremlin has tightened control of the media; in April of 2001, Putins prosecutors effectively closed the countrys only independent broadcasting corporation, thereby bringing all television news broadcasts under state control. The Putin-controlled Duma recently passed legislation restricting the right to stage public demonstrations. As part of his electoral reform program, Putin also abolished democratic elections for state governors, replacing them with directly appointed cronies. Khodorkovskys arrest has been something of a turning point, however. Since then, it has been impossible for the Kremlin to hide the ugly truth about its autocratic intentions. That doesnt stop it from trying, of course. When asked, Putins underlings always trot out the party line that Russia has no political prisoners newspeak, 21st century style.


It has been reported in the Israeli press that Sharansky personally intervened to help Khodorkovskys assistant, Leonid Levzlin, escape the Russian prosecutors by getting him an Israeli passport. For his part, the former dissident seems to be doing all he can to help his fellow dissidents. That puts the ball firmly in President Bushs court. Will he have the courage to call Russias new tyranny by its real name? And more importantly, will he mention Khodorkovskys name when expressing his concerns about the treatment of Russias political prisoners? Will the leader of the free world again give courage to those unjustly imprisoned by speaking truthfully? For the sake of liberty, he should.


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