18th Jan 2019

Russia defies EU diplomacy on Khodorkovsky sentence

  • Putin (c) at a charity ball. 'If they behave like cannibals at home, we shouldn't invite them to our dinner tables in Europe,' Browder said (Photo:

Commentators have warned that polite diplomacy alone will have zero impact on an increasingly wayward Russia as EU leaders lined up to criticise the jailing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Thursday (30 December).

"There's nothing anyone can say outside of Russia that has any effect on the Russians. They just laugh as we condemn their actions," Bill Browder, the CEO of US venture capitalist firm Hermitage Capital, whose lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, died in suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison last year, told this website shortly after the Khodorkovsky sentence.

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"The only action that has any affect on their behavior is targeted sanctions taken outside Russia against specific Russian officials. When they see that they could be personally punished for violating human rights or abusing their own people, they get scared," he added. "If they behave like cannibals at home, we shouldn't invite them to our dinner tables in Europe."

Andrew Wilson, a UK-based Russia expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank, noted: "Definitely, there is no rule of law in Russia. There is the opposite: the trial shows that everyone is fundamentally prosecutable."

"What one expects [from the EU] is a ritualistic condemnation, but I don't think there's any appetite to tear up formal EU policy because it's a policy that so far exists only on paper anyway," he said, referring to draft EU-Russia agreements on economic modernisation and strategic partnership.

Russian judge Viktor Danilkin dished out a 14-year sentence to Mr Khodorkovsky at the Khamovnichesky court in Moscow on Thursday in the climax of a 20-month-long embezzlement trial widely seen as a political attack by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin against one of his enemies.

Based on time already served, Mr Khodorkovsky will stay in prison until 2017, removing him as a potential irritant in Russia's presidential race in 2012.

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton had earlier in the week warned Moscow that a heavy jail term could impact relations. The move drew a rebuke from the Kremlin over outside meddling in Russia's affairs.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out as the first EU leader to hit back on Thursday. "I am disappointed with the verdict against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the harsh sentence. The impression remains that political motives played a role in this process. This contradicts Russia's repeatedly expressed intention to follow the road to full rule of law," she said in a statement.

EU parliament President Jerzy Buzek also voiced criticism: "The trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were the litmus test of how the rule of law and human rights are treated in today's Russia. In effect it has become the emblematic symbol of all the systemic problems within the judiciary."

Ms Ashton said the sentence is "a matter of serious concern" and that she "will raise this issue with Russia."

Despite its bleak view of the Kremlin, the EU is currently finalising its approval of Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organisation. EU member France this week clinched a €1.4 billion arms deal with Moscow, while Germany is the lead EU investor in a new Russian gas pipeline. Beyond the Union, the International Olympic Committee aims to hold the 2014 winter games in Russia and the international football authority, Fifa, recently awarded it the 2018 world cup.

Meanwhile, opinions vary on how the Khodorkovsky sentence will be seen by international investors.

Kaj Hober, a partner in the Swedish law firm Mannheimer Swartling, which handles large-scale international arbitrations, predicted that Western firms will continue to take a gamble on Russia despite the risks for private property rights.

"It doesn't mean every foreign investor runs the risk of being exposed to what Khodorkovsky was exposed to. You can't extrapolate, it's a very special case ... [and] normal commercial claims can still be handled in a proper way in Russian courts," he said.

Mr Wilson and Mr Browder were less sanguine, however.

"Russia will be less able to attract the big ticket foreign direct investment that it needs to unlock energy supply capacities, never mind the kind of wider modernisation they have envisaged," the ECFR analyst told EUobserver.

Mr Browder added: "My advice to the big companies in the West is to avoid Russia entirely because investing there is like a game of Russian roulette and you should be prepared to literally have your head blown off if things go wrong. There are people who do business in Russia without getting into any trouble, but if you do have problems, as my company did, you don't just risk losing money, people get killed."

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