Moscow has told the world in no uncertain terms to keep its nose out of Russian domestic affairs following a second guilty verdict on Monday for jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“We expect everyone to mind his own business, both at home and in the international arena,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “Attempts to exert pressure on the court are unacceptable.”
Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia’s richest man and head of the Yukos oil giant, was due to be released in 2011 following a conviction for fraud in 2003.
But he will almost certainly go back to the Siberian gulag -- where he is serving out his current sentence for fraud doing hard labour -- until 2017 in what looks increasingly like a personal vendetta between Khodorkovsky and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
On Monday, Judge Viktor Danilkin announced that Khodorkovsky and co-accused Platon Lebedev had been convicted in a second trial after going to court again in March 2009 on money laundering and embezzlement charges.
If Khodorkovsky is still in jail when presidential elections take place in 2012, he will be unable to stand or to support opposition candidates publicly as he has done in the past, angering Putin.
Many expect that the campaign season of 2012 will see Putin launch a bid to return to the presidency.
Putin has 'created a monster'
For George-Frederick Jewsbury, research associate at the Centre for the Study of Russian, Caucasian and Central European Studies in Paris, the case is more about Putin than about the defendant.
“It’s puzzling,” he told france24.com. “Putin has an almost perfect hold on power and it’s difficult to see what he’s so afraid of.”
But some of Putin’s worries may be justified, as the publicity surrounding the case dents his credibility at home. An October poll carried out by Levada showed that just 13% of Russians believe the charges against Khodorkovsky are real -- down from 29% in January 2009.
In being seen to pursue the case personally, Putin may have made Khodorkovsky "too big to kill". The Russian premier may have thus “created a monster”, Jewsbury said.
But Putin remains determined to hound Khodorkovsky to the bitter end, Jewsbury said. By financing opposition parties in the past, “Khodorkovsky interrupted Putin’s carefully orchestrated system, and Putin hates him for it,” he said.
Rebuke from Medvedev
“This trial is a very strange aberration that has Russia’s leaders tripping over each other,” according to Jewsbury.
Indeed, in a rare televised intervention on December 24, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who, in 2009, pledged to reform the Russian judicial system
, reminded his powerful prime minister that “no official has the right to state his position on this case or any other case until the sentence is read”.
This seemed a direct rebuke to Putin’s statement on a television call-in show earlier this month that a “thief must be in prison”. On the same show, Putin also alleged that the oil tycoon had blood on his hands.
Meanwhile, the reading of the judgment alone is likely to take a few more days. Russian judges must read the minutiae of their verdicts before passing sentence. On Tuesday, the judge at Khodorkovsky’s trial was only one-third of the way through 800 pages.